Split in the American unions?

Submitted by Anon on 20 April, 2005 - 2:18

Jim Byagua reports on debates in the US trade union movement about the role to be played by restructuring in their revival. The article will have a resonance for trade unionists concerned about the proposed “super union” in the UK.

Union membership [in the US] has fallen to 12.5% nationally, and to 7.9% in the private sector, leading to proposals to restructure and revitalise the US labour movement. This is in the run-up to the convention of the US union federation AFL-CIO in July, and to the vote for President of the AFL-CIO. This debate — a debate about the future of unions in the US — is unprecedented, and much needed.

Since the merger of the AFL and CIO, labour has seen 50 years of almost uninterrupted decline in union density and working-class power. The 1995 election of current AFL-CIO President John Sweeney’s “New Voices” slate, in the AFL-CIO’s first ever contested election, reflected a partial recognition that labour was in crisis. However, promises to reverse further decline by massive new organising “on an unprecedented scale” and to “restore” labour’s political muscle remain woefully unfulfilled.

Today, the leaders of the labour bureaucratic caste, fearful of the continued reduction in the number of dues-paying members — the basis of their very existence — are grappling with abandoning the status quo. As the Teamster proposal states: “Continuing on our present course is not an option because it simply ensures further decline.”

What new course they will chart for the US labour movement is still subject to the outcome of behind-closed-door deals, and the political manoeuvrings and jostling for the position of AFL-CIO “pope”. Proposals and counter-proposals have been made, alliances have been forged and dissolved, and there is the threat of a split in the AFL-CIO itself.

The initial proposals entitled “Unite to Win” were made by Andy Stern, head of the SEIU (the Service Employees International Union, the largest AFL-CIO affiliated union — see table below), and an alliance for change was formed with some smaller unions, calling itself the New Unity Partnership.

The proposals include many healthy and encouraging statements of principle, such as the need to redirect resources to challenge Wal-Mart; to build a “national strategy to win access to quality health care for all”; and to “reestablish the right of workers to freely choose to form a union without employer interference”. These points, however, are not fleshed out much further, and the main meat of the proposal relates to the issue of restructuring.

To build “new strength”, Stern proposes that “the AFL-CIO should have the authority to require co-ordinated bargaining and to merge or revoke union charters, transfer responsibilities to unions for whom that industry or craft is their primary area of strength, and prevent any merger that would further divide workers’ strength.”

The increased power of the national federation over affiliated organisations would be used, the proposal plans, to build “density” by enforcing an agreement similar to the TUC’s 1939 Bridlington Agreement, and to force mergers of small affiliates that “do not have the size, strength, resources, and focus to win for workers against today’s ever larger employers”.

The logic behind this is that merged unions provide more resources that can be used for organising; they unite workers, and hence build strength.

There is a slight echo with a century-old idea of the International Workers of the World [IWW aka the Wobblies], the “One Big Union”, in this logic, but the crucial missing concept in the SEIU proposal (a concept that the Wobblies had in abundance) is active member participation and working-class independence. The proposal has the flavour of the boardrooms in which it was drawn up.

There is also little criticism of the unions’ own organisational models. Indeed the SEIU’s proposal looks like an extension of its own policy of merging locals (branches) into large, state-sized, staff-run bodies.

One of the consequences of this is the eradication of elected positions. In her recent book SEIU: Big Brother? Big Business? Big Rip Off?, Harriet Jackson describes the situation in her janitors’ Local 29 before being merged:

“The original structure of Local 29 was pretty unique. We were very much member-oriented. We had to inform the members about everything, and that is the way it is supposed to be… When a president was not up to what the members thought in the way of honoring the contract, he was voted out.”

SEIU’s internal restructuring has led to the widespread use of receiverships and considerable resistance from members.

Without maintaining and emphasising active member involvement and democracy, the restructuring that is planned will likely demobilise members and contribute further to the conception of unions as being bureaucratic and corrupt.

Another danger was raised by Bill Lucy, head of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU): “They want bigger unions. They want power players, big unions in charge. The end result is diminution of community power.”

Central Labor Councils, important to urban organising and community outreach, would likely be included in the “restructuring”.

Many other unions and organisations are part of the SEIU initiated debate. A Communications Workers of America (CWA) counter-proposal for change within the AFL-CIO incorporates some of the criticisms above. In particular, the CWA advocates increasing strike benefits, as well as fostering membership participation, while (as a general union itself) rejecting SEIU’s proposals for restructuring. “The ability of workers to self-organise and build their own unions — either through our organisations or by creating new ones — must be the cornerstone of any labour reform effort,” their proposal states.

The Teamsters’ contribution, seconded by the UFCW, proposes a system of financial incentives set up by the AFL-CIO to encourage rather than force the mergers and the reorganisation. Here, however, the questions posed by SEIU on how to increase labour’s bargaining power become replaced by a less than visionary debate, driven by narrow organisational self-interest, about how much to cut dues to the national AFL-CIO

The importance of a plan that starts from workers’ experiences and develops and encourages the efforts and energies of their struggles is crucially absent. This is not surprising. The Hoffa leadership lacks the capacity and strategic vision to help workers in its core jurisdictions successfully organise or even defend its existing members, as the recent decertification battle with Tyson Foods shows. And the UFCW failure in the recent Southern California supermarket dispute to organise solidarity action within their own union brings the supposed restructuring logic of “bigger unions equals united workers” into question.

The current debate among labour tops is falsely polarised over whether to prioritise organising or politics. Critically missing here is a focus on how to foster working-class politics independent of the two-party system.

Yet, labour’s crisis has generated a timely discussion among activists about what US unions need to do, and it could create new space for campaigns for the political transformation of US labour, an essential component of labour’s revival. The unofficial rank-and-file network around the newsletter Labor Notes, the growth of US Labor Against the War, and just the continued existence of the (very small) Labor Party organisation, hold some promise.

What is needed most of all is a cultural transformation of labour so that everything we do is geared toward the development of leaders from among the members. And yet the AFL-CIO’s Education Department, as well as the education programmes of most affiliates, have been eliminated in the wake of financial cutbacks.

Will the AFL-CIO split? The creation of coordinated bargaining and coordinated organising are the most likely positive outcomes of this discussion, assuming that there is still one federation after this summer’s convention. If the federation splits, all bets are off. Although all vital elements of the labour movement are not indifferent to the outcome, our tasks, regardless, will remain those of rebuilding the working-class movement largely from the ground up.

A list of links to important contributions to this debate can be found on the Labor Notes website.

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