AFL-CIO Leaders Move Forward




A

re
you worried about the future of the labor movement? Are you working
longer hours for less money than workers like you have for decades?
Have you noticed the rapid decline of union power in your workplace
and our society? 


If
you’re a union member in the U.S., the answer to these questions
is likely “yes, yes, and yes.” What you should also know
is that, in the past year or so, some union presidents have come
to the conclusion that labor’s crisis is now so severe that
drastic, immediate action is necessary. 


To
some officials, the leaders of SEIU and UNITE HERE in particular,
this crisis is largely a function of the labor movement’s size
and structure. These unions argue that the labor movement’s
decline in power is a result of its declining membership and that
unions are not able to organize effectively because the AFL-CIO’s
structure doesn’t make sense. 


Certainly,
it would be hard to argue that the AFL-CIO’s structure is good
for workers. In 1988,

Labor Notes

co-founder Kim Moody wrote
about the “decline of industrial unionism” in his book

An Injury to All

. Moody noted that unions such as the Teamsters,
SEIU, CWA, UFCW, and the UAW had largely abandoned the model of
one union representing one industry and were picking up new members
wherever they could. This was not, Moody made clear, strengthening
workers’ bargaining power. 


But
size and structure don’t equal power, though they are important
factors. The Teamsters and UAW were both massive unions that had
the auto and trucking industries densely organized as recently as
the 1970s, yet both suffered severe declines in their core industries
over the past three decades. This decline was partly due to actions
taken by employers and the government and partly due to the unions’
own failures. 


The
Teamsters and UAW were, and are, business unions. Starting with
Chrysler in 1979, the UAW has led the way in accepting concessions
on wages and benefits for its members and also took the lead in
working with employers to implement lean production and labor-management
cooperation programs (which ultimately had a devastating effect
on union power) in the workplace.  


The
Teamsters did little to fight trucking deregulation in the early
1980s and supported the employers’ demands for a two-tier wage
scale and other concessions in the second National Master Freight
Agreement in 1983. 


Neither
union has displayed a willingness to use creative, militant tactics
to fight the employers. Neither union has tried to organize the
non-union workers in its own traditional industry through a widespread,
member-based, strategic campaign. 


Both
unions are antidemocratic, with leaders preferring to keep their
members uninformed, disengaged, and far removed from decision making. 


Other
forces, political and economic, were at play in these unions’
declines, but complacent, incompetent leadership combined with disempowered,
disengaged membership were certainly critical factors. We can argue
about different models, but if we can’t effectively use the
power we have now, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to do much
better after we’ve shuffled a bunch of members into different
unions with the same policies. 


Moreover,
the very idea of shuffling members from union to union illustrates
that union leaders are oblivious to one key point, which is that
unions’ internal culture and functioning differ greatly from
each other. 


Shifting
members from SEIU into AFSCME, for example, doesn’t just mean
that an activist who wore purple now wears green—it means shifting
workers who had participated in SEIU’s internal political life
and learned how to navigate through its constitution, bylaws, and
political landscape into a new environment where they don’t
know the ropes and, at least initially, will find it harder to exert
member control. 


Though
they have a lot to say about structure, the unions pushing restructuring
have not yet come to agreement on how to achieve their model. SEIU’s
plan, as laid out in their Unite to Win proposal, is to give the
AFL-CIO Executive Council the authority to force union mergers,
revoke union charters, and shuffle members around however they see
fit. UNITE HERE and the Teamsters have a softer approach—the
Teamsters have proposed encouraging unions to merge by providing
financial incentives. 


Yet
Teamsters President James Hoffa clearly agrees with SEIU that the
AFL-CIO executive council needs to have more authority over its
affiliates. Hoffa even takes it a step further, proposing that the
size of the executive council be reduced to representatives of the
10 or 15 largest U.S. unions. 


SEIU
President Andy Stern immediately stepped forward to praise Hoffa,
signaling the appearance of an unlikely alliance between a union
with a reputation for innovative and progressive practices (SEIU)
and a union notorious for internal corruption (the Teamsters). 


Teamster
corruption under the Hoffa administration is more than just rumor.
Former federal prosecutor Ed Stier—who had directed the Teamsters’
internal anti-corruption program, Project RISE—resigned from
his post in April 2004, saying that “organized crime”
threatened the Teamsters and that “Jim Hoffa is no longer committed
to an aggressive effort to clean up the union.” 


More
recently, in January 2005 Hoffa’s chief of staff Carlow Scalf
was caught embezzling $69,500 in union funds—and given no more
punishment than a two month suspension, with the possibility of
returning to his job, which remained open. These types of embezzling
scandals have been a recurring theme under Hoffa’s regime. 


Corrupt
leaders like Hoffa have long been one the labor movement’s
biggest problems. Any serious proposal for reforming the AFL-CIO
should include strengthening rank-and-file reform networks so that
union members could take power and give leaders like Hoffa the boot. 


These
union leaders’ brainstorms have prompted responses from other
union leaders, but, as Bill Lucy—head of the Coalition of Black
Trade Unionists—has noted, these leaders have done little to
encourage participation from the folks who have the most at stake:
rank-and-file members. 


Lucy
also notes that while black workers make up 30 percent of organized
labor’s ranks, the unions pushing restructuring have not made
any concerted effort to have people of color’s interests represented
in these debates.  


SEIU
recently launched a website (www.unitetowin.org) “as a tool
for open debate” about the future of the labor movement, but
emails and weblog postings are no substitute for real conversation. 


Local
union meetings, conventions, and other mechanisms for face-to-face
discussion about labor’s future are already in place. Members
should use these mechanisms to debate these proposals, which may
have a great deal of impact on how much power they will have in
their unions and workplaces in the years to come. 


This
article was written before the March 2005 meeting of the AFL-CIO
Executive Council. Coming out of this meeting, an alliance has formed
that appears poised to challenge AFL-CIO President John Sweeney
at this summer’s AFL-CIO Convention. The alliance—led
by SEIU, the Teamsters, UNITE HERE, and UFCW —was most aggressive
at the meeting in pushing for a massive dues cut from the AFL-CIO,
rather than forced restructuring of the federation. As Herman Benson
of the Association of Union Democracy wrote in January 2005, SEIU
and the other unions who began these debates by calling “for
a crusade to reorganize the world of labor” look like they’d
be ready to settle for a tax cut.





William Johnson
is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.