The convention was supposed to have been a celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the umbrella group that overarches most major North American labor unions.
But on the eve of this week’s AFL-CIO convention in Chicago, long-building pressures began to tear the labor organization to shreds.
Two unions of the newly-formed dissident group of seven unions called the Change To Win Coalition announced that they were leaving the AFL-CIO. One was the leftwing Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the largest union in the AFL-CIO, whose radical President Andrew Stern was behind the founding of Change to Win and two years earlier of its predecessor group the New Unity Partnership.
“Our goal is not to divide the labor movement,” said Stern, “but to rebuild it.”
The other disaffiliating union was the Teamsters. The departure of these two unions, whose combined membership is approximately 3.2 million, instantly shrank total AFL-CIO membership from 13 million to less than 10 million and reduced its annual union revenue by at least $20 million.
On that same day, two other Change to Win member unions announced that they were boycotting the AFL-CIO convention. One was the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), which represents 1.4 million members. The other was UNITE HERE, with 450,000 members, which was created in a 2004 merger of two unions, one representing needletrade textile workers and the other hotel-hospitality workers.
These two plus two other Change to Win unions remain members of the AFL-CIO. (The Change to Win member United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, now with 520,000 members, broke away from the AFL-CIO in 2001.) If these four also depart, Change to Win would be taking at least 5.8 million workers – approximately 45 percent of its total June 2005 membership – away from the AFL-CIO.
In October 2005 the Change to Win Coalition, according to The Nation Magazine, “will formalize a new organization that seems destined to be a rival to the AFL-CIO.” This would open the largest schism within organized labor since the CIO broke with the AFL in 1938. (These two labor organizations reunited in 1955 to form today’s AFL-CIO.)
Who are these Change to Win unions and leaders, and their dissatisfaction with the AFL-CIO?
The six member unions of the Change to Win Coalition are:
1. The SEIU describes itself as “North America’s largest health care and largest building services union.” More than half its members are direct or indirect government employees. Its President Stern broke with most of the rest of organized labor and supported maverick left presidential candidate Howard Dean in the 2003 Iowa caucuses. [A former Vermont Governor, Dean is currently chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), a position gained in part through Stern’s support.]
2. The Teamsters Union has organized not only truck drivers but a wide variety of others, from Hollywood movie workers to farm laborers. “We are frustrated with the AFL-CIO,” says Teamsters President James Hoffa, Jr., son of the controversial Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa. “Their idea is to simply throw money at politics and that’s going to take care of everything. We reject that idea. We believe in organizing.”
Hoffa remains angry that a member of the AFL-CIO President John Sweeney’s ruling troika, Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka, opposed Hoffa becoming Teamsters president and in 1996 was involved in transferring $100,000 of AFL-CIO money to help re-elect Hoffa rival for the Teamsters presidency, the corrupt ally of President Bill Clinton incumbent Ron Carey. Like the rest of the Change to Win leaders, Hoffa opposed 71-year-old Sweeney’s reelection to a fourth term as AFL-CIO President at this week’s convention – and wants to prevent Sweeney’s left-hand man Trumka from succeeding Sweeney as AFL-CIO head in 2007.
3. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) is led by President Joseph Hansen. It is closely allied with the Teamsters, and these two unions often support each other’s bargaining efforts to put pressure on the many companies where both have contracts. Despite such Teamster help, UFCW badly lost a prolonged 2004 strike against supermarkets in Southern and Central California.
4. UNITE HERE, with 450,000 members, was created in a 2004 merger of two unions, one representing needletrade textile workers and the other hotel-hospitality workers, both with histories of corruption scandals. “The labor movement needs new direction and new leadership,” said the new union’s co-president Bruce Raynor in April 2005. Raynor put himself forward as a potential challenger to Sweeney’s likely reelection in July 2005, but few rallied to Raynor’s now-re-furled banner. UNITE HERE has been successful in recruiting new members for its Las Vegas Culinary Union Local 226, which the coalition uses as an example of the need and potential for organizing workers at the low end of the income scale.
5. The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America President Doug McCarron said in June 2005 that his union “is proud to join with the most dynamic unions in the country.”
6. The Laborers’ International Union, with 800,000 mostly construction-worker Members, is the coalition member least likely to secede from the AFL-CIO, but its president Terence O’Sullivan, a close friend of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, backs Change to Win Coalition ideas such as melding competing smaller unions into single large unions in each industry to increase bargaining power.
7. The United Farmworkers Union (UFW), with 27,000 members who harvest crops, was founded by Cesar Chavez, a graduate of radical tactician Saul Alinsky’s Community Service Organization (CSO). The late union boss Chavez has had a California state holiday named in his honor. He has been lionized as an advocate of non-violent activism by the left (which never mentions that farm workers who questioned Chavez’s dictatorial behavior learned to fear that their legs or arms would be broken by UFW goons).
The Change to Win Coalition has described declining union membership as the most important issue facing organized labor. Half a century ago approximately 35 percent of American workers were union members. By 2005 only 12 percent of all workers, and only 7.9 percent of private sector workers, belonged to unions. This decline continued despite the 1995 election of John Sweeney’s “New Voice” troika of hard line reformist political leaders to head the AFL-CIO.
Coalition members have sought to have up to half the union money now sent to the AFL-CIO (as much as $47.5 million) returned to individual unions for organizing efforts to increase their membership.
According to the Coalition, the AFL-CIO under John Sweeney’s leadership has relied not on organizing and recruitment of new members but on politics and the Democratic Party to retain organized labor’s power. [Sweeney is a card-carrying member of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the principal American affiliate of the Socialist International, and as such he favors the elimination of capitalism itself.]
But with the Democrats unlikely to regain majority power in the foreseeable future, the old Labor-Democrat alliance has declining value and appears to be a foolish investment of millions of dollars coerced from worker union dues. To continue Sweeney’s automatic support of Democratic politicians is both to waste scarce money on losers and to alienate organized labor from the winning Republican politicians who currently hold power.
“We just can’t rely on elected officials to change workers’ lives,” said Stern. “We can’t just elect Democratic politicians and try to take back the House and take back the Senate and think that’s going to change lives.”
Stern’s SEIU has continued to contribute union dues money to politicians, including a pledge of $65 million during the 2003-2004 presidential election cycle to defeat incumbent Republican President George W. Bush. But SEIU plans no longer to donate solely to Democrats. This union has become the biggest donor to the Republican Governor’s Association. In July 2005 the British news magazine The Economist reported that Stern “put $570,000 of SEIU money into the campaign of Patrick Ballantine, the (unsuccessful) Republican candidate for governor of North Carolina, who promised to increase state workers’ pay.”
The oddity of this is that Stern is a former 1960s college radical and anti-Vietnam War activist like his Change to Win ally John Wilhelm, co-president of UNITE HERE. The irony is that Stern and Wilhelm are so far left that, from their perspective, both Republicans and Democrats come from political parties of the American establishment and are more alike than different. Compromises can be reached and deals made as easily with Republicans as with Democrats. What matters is who has the power to make changes the Change to Win Coalition wants for its workers, and for the foreseeable future it’s the Republicans who have such power.
Stern and Wilhelm come from a new generation of labor leaders. They are college, not factory, educated. They are radical, technocratic, white collar instead of blue, and attuned to post-industrial economics. They largely come from unions based more on service and information technology than industrial manufacturing. They recognize that corporations have adopted 21st Century ideas to deal with global competition, but that the AFL-CIO under John Sweeney retains a primitive and obsolete 19th Century socialist view of the relationships among business, labor and governments.
Industrial union leaders of today’s AFL-CIO find the Change to Win Coalition path horrifying. The dissidents, for example, call for the merger of more than half a hundred AFL-CIO unions into single giant unions in each industry. If this happens, most of today’s fatcat union bosses would lose their jobs, their big incomes, their (dare we say?) corporate jets and annual meetings in plush Florida luxury resorts to smoke cigars and gorge on caviar. No wonder they oppose the Change to Win Coalition.
The schism the Change to Win Coalition is causing within the AFL-CIO is also bad news for the Democratic Party, which with less of the mother’s milk of coerced union dues money must rely even more on the handouts of “Shadow Party” ideological extremists such as radical billionaire financier George Soros. This inevitably will leave Democratic candidates poorer and force them even farther to the left of the political center where most elections are won. This week’s events in Chicago are more nails in the Democratic Party’s coffin.
The AFL-CIO schism, however, might rescue organized labor from its current embrace of the sinking Democratic Party, a death spiral into oblivion that would also have doomed unions in America. If the AFL-CIO is replaced by a new, less partisan Change to Win Coalition umbrella organization for unions and their workers, historians could mark this past week as the rebirth of a growing and vital labor movement in North America.