The AFL-CIO Split
events of particular import occurred the last week of July: the
AFL-CIO split and CAFTA (the Central American Free Trade Agreement)
was passed by Congress. The consequences of the former are yet to
be determined. The impact of the latter are much less uncertain.
coalition of unions departing from the AFL-CIO, known as the Change
To Win (CTW) group, consists of 7 major unions representing 7 million
union workers, 40 percent of the AFL-CIO’s membership base,
and more than a fifth of the federation’s budget. They include
the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Teamsters, United
Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), United Farm- workers of America,
UNITE HERE (the union of hotel, hospitality and clothing workers),
and two construction unions—the Laborers International Union
and Carpenters Union.
one level the split and the crisis of the AFL-CIO is about the precipitous
decline of union membership, which has fallen steadily since its
peak in the mid-1950s at around 35 percent of the workforce. The
decline began to occur more rapidly in the early 1980s during the
Reagan period as the corporate assault on workers and unions intensified.
It has been accelerating even more since George W. Bush took office
in 2001. Today only 12.5 percent of the total U.S. workforce, including
all public employees, is unionized. Only 7.8 percent of the private
sector has unions, the lowest since 1931.
decline in union membership is due to various causes. But at the
center lies the “free trade” policies implemented over
the past 25 years and the failure of the AFL-CIO to develop any
effective strategy to check the corporate trade offensive.
million quality jobs have been lost in the U.S. between 1980-2005.
Eight million of those jobs have been lost due to corporate free
trade policies alone and the massive exportation of the U.S. manufacturing
base and jobs offshore, which has been the direct result of those
policies. Over a million jobs were lost due to NAFTA (the North
American Free Trade Agreement) originated under George Bush senior
in 1988 and passed under Clinton in 1993. Another two million jobs
were lost to China trade—originated under Clinton and implemented
under George W. Bush—in just the last decade and this is rising
rapidly. Meanwhile, the recently passed CAFTA, the successor to
NAFTA, is poised to set off yet a third wave of high paid, mostly
union job losses. Of the 12 million quality jobs lost since 1980,
more than 7 million have been union jobs.
the vacuum created by such massive job and union membership loss
have flowed corporate plant closures and relocations, runaway shops,
the breakup of industry-wide bargaining, the decline of union bargaining
density, and the institutionalization of concession bargaining.
As a direct consequence, in the wake of concession bargaining have
come the narrowing of union-nonunion wage differentials, stagnation
and decline of real wages for 80 million workers, 45 million workers
without health insurance, employers en masse shifting health care
costs to their employees, the unprecedented dismantling of 97,000
private pension plans, a plummeting real minimum wage, new restrictions
cutting overtime pay, and dramatic reductions in paid vacation and
sick leave for both union and non-union workers alike.
the radar of all this has been the corresponding radical restructuring
of jobs and job markets by corporations. Today there are no less
than 60 million workers in the U.S. who are either unemployed or
who lack full time, regular, permanent employment. That’s about
40 percent of the total employed workforce.
wage terms, de-unionization since 1980 has meant a massive transfer
of income from the 100 million or so working class Americans and
their families to corporations and the wealthy who live primarily
off the proceeds of those corporations (i.e., stock sales, dividends,
interest and rent, forms of executive compensation, etc.). For example,
assuming the unionization rate today in 2005 were the 22 percent
in 1980, an historical union-nonunion wage differential of about
27 percent, and an average hourly wage of $15.89 at the end of 2004
(in 2003 adjusted dollars), such conservative assumptions yield
a total savings to corporations due to de-unionization alone of
$99.3 billion. That’s just for 2004.
addition, the $99.3 billion doesn’t account for additional
corporate savings due to reductions in health benefits, pensions,
paid leave, and other costs also due to de-unionization that easily
add another 25- 40 percent to the total. Nor does it account for
similar corporate savings over the preceding 24 years since 1980.
The cumulative net result for the corporate U.S. since 1980 runs
easily in the trillions of dollars.
The Density Debate
density is a measure of the percent of total workers organized.
At one level the debate between the CTW and AFL-CIO unions is about
how to increase the union density rate from its current historic
lows of 12.5 percent and 7.8 percent. But numbers of union members
are only part of the story. The equally important issue is how those
numbers of union members are distributed across industries and how
much bargaining power they can wield. Bargaining density is thus
about the concentration of membership in an industry. It is about
whether workers are scattered across countless unions and contracts,
or concentrated in fewer unions and within larger regional or national
contracts. The related concept of political density is similarly
split in the AFL-CIO is thus not just about organizing new members
and how much money and resources to commit to that task, as it has
at times been reported in the press. It is about how to concentrate
unions and union bargaining power once again. The split is also
about what is the best path for restoring political density. Does
it makes sense to continue to throw hundreds of millions of union
members’ dollars at politicians in elections as union membership
freefalls? Or is it better to rebuild the union membership base
before doing so.
density debate is largely a surrogate for the even more fundamental
set of differences over the way the AFL-CIO is currently structured.
The CTW camp maintains the current structure is a major obstacle
to implementing changes that are necessary to restore union and
bargaining density, which in turn are the prerequisite for later
restoring political density. The remaining AFL-CIO unions reject
that position, argue the AFL-CIO is basically sound, requiring only
minor reforms, and that the way to grow union membership is to reform
labor laws that prevent union organizing. Thus, politics is the
way to grow membership, which in essence means electing Democratic
candidates to office. The question is, What comes first: the commitment
of resources and action at the point of production (e.g., organizing,
bargaining, strikes, etc.) or political action (electing Democrats
to reform labor law)?
no time in the past nine months of debate between the two camps,
however, has it been clear what structural or organizational changes
are necessary. There have been some proposals from some of the unions
in the CTW camp, most notably from SEIU, about merging smaller unions
into larger ones; some discussion about reducing the size of the
executive council of the AFL-CIO, where a host of small, weak unions
have virtual collective veto power. But the CTW camp has yet to
fully clarify a comprehensive set of organizational reforms. Meanwhile,
the unions remaining in the AFL-CIO fall back on their perennial
proposal to commit more resources to politics to elect Democrats
who will save labor by enacting labor law reform—a proposal
that has been unable to get to the floor of Congress for a vote
in more than 25 years and shows less likelihood of doing so with
unions most heavily devastated by the corporate offensive—both
in terms of membership and concession bargaining—have been
the manufacturing unions: the steelworkers, autoworkers, paper,
rubber, oil, and other such unions. Yet these unions have not led
the exodus from the AFL-CIO. They have remained loyal to the status
quo and to the leadership team of John Sweeney, president of the
AFL-CIO, elected in 1995 and re-elected at the recent AFL-CIO convention
this past July. It is appropriate to ask: why?
might conclude that the unions suffering the greatest loss in membership
would have been the most disgruntled and led the way out of the
AFL-CIO—in a repeat of what occurred during the mid-1930s when
the industrial unions were those that broke from the old AFL, complaining
about an AFL organizational structure that inhibited organizing
the unorganized in the new mass production industries. But not this
it has been largely those unions in the services and related industries
who have driven the CTW coalition. Many of the CTW unions are the
same unions that a decade ago started a mini-revolution in the AFL-CIO
and began to orient toward immigrant, even undocumented workers,
and forge a new kind of approach to organizing.
unions suffering large membership losses in their historical jurisdictions
(i.e., autoworkers in auto, steelworkers in steel, etc.) have tried
to recoup membership (and dues) losses by organizing outside their
traditional jurisdiction. Articles 20 and 21 of the AFL-CIO constitution
theoretically prevent one union from raiding the members of another
under contract with a company. But the AFL-CIO constitution provides
no obstacle to another union launching organizing drives where workers
are not under a collective bargaining agreement, regardless of the
issue of jurisdiction. Thus the Steelworkers organized bus drivers
and hospital workers; the Autoworkers have organized freelance writers;
Communications Workers have organized city employees. Even AFT,
the teachers union, has gone after hospital workers. This has often
resulted in a patchwork of balkanized bargaining agreements in a
particular industry. Adding to the balkanization have been corporate
strategies since 1980 resulting in the break up of once industry-wide
and region-wide union bargaining agreements.
like SEIU, UNITE-HERE, and others in the CTW coalition complain
of the inability of the AFL-CIO to regulate this growing fragmentation
of bargaining. SEIU has by far the largest proportion of hospital
workers organized. When other unions come along and organize a patchwork
of small bargaining units in healthcare and then negotiate from
a position of weakness, standards are lowered. Often unions with
a weak position in the industry settle for far less just to hold
on to the membership.
situation has been the source of why Andy Stern, president of the
SEIU, has called for “forced mergers” of smaller unions
in an industry with larger, dominant unions. This idea has evoked
a visceral response by other unions trying to organize in new industries
out of their jurisdictions. They point to the fact that SEIU at
one point had no hospital workers either. They were a janitors union.
So why can’t they also organize hospital workers? Sweeney and
the AFL-CIO, with Articles 20 and 21, theoretically are supposed
to mediate these disputes. But the constitution and the AFL-CIO
as structured today has failed to do so, leaving the larger unions
in the only growing sector of the economy, the services sector,
organizational failure goes one step further, however. SEIU and
AFSCME have been raiding each other for years. But raiding has become
more aggressive, in particular during the past year. The practice
has also threatened to spread among other unions as well. Once again,
the AFL-CIO has not been able to check this deteriorating internal
fundamental difference between the two camps is the related question
of coordinating bargaining between unions. Across many industries
today, corporate management has gotten the upper hand in terms of
concession bargaining and has increasingly succeeded in playing
off one union against the other in situations where multiple unions
negotiate with the same employer. A typical case in point is the
newspaper industry where aggressive management typically picks off
the weakest (or most terrorized) union in a coordinated bargaining
situation, then moves on demanding even more concessions from the
remaining unions. The message is clear: agree early and abandon
coordinated bargaining and your union might get a little more than
the others this time (or we’ll lay them off and not your members).
A mini-race to the bottom occurs.
CTW coalition unions demand that weaker unions be prevented from
undermining other contracts in such situations. The CTW camp would
argue the answer is to merge smaller, weaker unions—those that
are willing to accept concessions more quickly and easily—into
one or just a couple unions to face the same employer. However,
other unions agreeing to less point to the right of union members
to accept whatever contract they want. That’s basic union democracy,
they argue. The AFL-CIO lacks the structure or authority to enforce
such CTW demands or even the right to mediate such internal disputes.
CTW unions have publicly expressed frustration with the current
political process and the hundreds of millions of dollars in union
dues money given to politicians, largely Democrats, with little
or nothing to show for it the past two decades. In contrast, the
remaining AFL-CIO unions point with pride to the increasingly efficient
get-out-the-vote apparatus of the AFL-CIO, especially since 1995.
They note, accurately so, that organized labor has increased the
turnout of union voters in the last several campaigns and point
out, without that effort, the vote for Democratic candidates would
have been much less and the party would have suffered even greater
losses. The CTW unions counter that it means little to turn out
a greater percentage of union members to vote when the total membership
available to vote is falling so rapidly. Turning out 80 percent
today is less than turning out 40 percent 20 years ago. That money
could be better spent elsewhere.
of this will argue that SEIU and other CTW unions have been spending
extraordinarily large sums on Democrats in recent elections so they
are not increasingly disenchanted with the political process as
is. But one might counter in turn they could not have been expected
to do otherwise while still within the AFL-CIO structure. The true
test of their attitude on this question is yet to be seen, and must
await the outcome of the upcoming CTW convention on September 27
and how it formulates its own new political action strategy.
another factor underlying the split has been the differences in
cultural outlook and even personality conflicts between the leadership
of the CTW and AFL-CIO camps. It is not a question of Andy Stern
vs. John Sweeney and who will be the powerbroker appointing the
new head of the AFL-CIO. Behind John Sweeney lie the AFL-CIO “hardliners”
who have contributed their part to the split. They are Gerald McEntee
of AFSCME, the AFT, and the CWA —and perhaps USWA’s Gerard.
Nor can it be ignored that differences in culture and personality
have exacerbated the internal conflicts. With nearly every critique
of Stern or John Wilhelm (president of HERE) by the remaining AFL-CIO
hardliners, there is an accompanying sneering reference to their
college backgrounds and education. Their origins in the student
and civil rights movements of the 1960s are viewed derisively in
some quarters of the AFL-CIO. In terms of cultural orientation,
a number of the leaders of the remaining AFL-CIO also still feel
quite uneasy about the corporate campaign/community alliance approaches
of unions like SEIU and HERE, and in particular the unequivocal
support of the latter for organizing undocumented workers. For the
CTW’s part, it is also no secret that Teamster President James
Hoffa has no love lost for AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka.
The Run-Up to the Split
the weeks and days leading up to the split, Sweeney and the AFL-CIO
attempted to bridge the gap between the two camps with concessions.
Significant cuts in AFL-CIO personnel were implemented during the
spring, a proposal for rebating 30 percent of unions’ per capita
dues for organizing, modest changes were proposed in Articles 20
and 21 to strengthen jurisdictions and in coordinated bargaining
to prevent the undermining of contracts by smaller and weaker unions,
an executive committee would be added to the unwieldy AFL-CIO executive
council, and so on. The CTW response, however, was “too little
tactical moves by Sweeney and others earlier in 2005, at the executive
council’s meeting last winter and during the spring, exacerbated
the internal conflicts and contributed to the inevitability of the
split. Sweeney and others effectively cut off debate on the CTW
unions at the council meeting, aggravating the opposition. Sweeney
then unceremoniously declared himself the future winner of a new
term as head of the AFL-CIO well before any voting at the convention,
several weeks before it even convened. Under pressure from his hardliners,
he then sent out letters to all the central labor councils and state
federation bodies indicating that any union that might leave the
AFL-CIO would no longer be allowed to participate in any local central
labor council or state body of the AFL-CIO. For its part, the CTW
unions began withholding their per capita payments to the AFL-CIO
in anticipation of a split months prior as well. Both camps thus
began digging in their heels well before the convention. Intensive
negotiations by the few unions trying to mediate a solution at the
last moment, during the weekend prior to the start of the AFL-CIO
convention on July 25, produced little movement of positions by
either side. On Sunday, July 24, the process began with SEIU, then
Teamsters, and then other unions leaving the convention and disaffiliating
from the AFL-CIO. (Although part of the CTW coalition, the Laborers
International Union, remains within the AFL-CIO.)
In the Wake of the Split
the close of the AFL-CIO convention several important developments
have emerged. Within days hardliners appear to have stepped up pressure
on UNITE-HERE, one of the major unions in the CTW coalition that
left the convention, but had not as yet disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO.
The CWA, for example, withdrew $50 million in deposits from UNITE-HERE’s
labor amalgamated bank in a warning sign that other remaining AFL-CIO
unions would soon follow with similar action as well.
CTW declared a date of September 27 for its founding convention
in Cincinnati. Rumors abound of possible mergers between the CTW
unions, as it puts into practice its declaration of the need to
consolidate unions to enhance bargaining density and power. Most
likely candidates for such will be the Teamsters with one or more
of the other unions.
AFL-CIO, for its part, has begun to consider further cuts in its
operations in addition to those announced this past spring, as more
than 20 percent of its budget has disappeared. Meanwhile, Democratic
Party leaders are scurrying around meeting with both camps, seeking
assurances of future financial support.
of the more significant developments, however, is the apparent growing
resistance at the grass- roots level of the AFL-CIO central labor
councils to Sweeney’s directive to prohibit CTW unions
from participating in the local central labor councils and AFL-CIO
state federation of labor bodies. The pressure from below has been
significant enough to force Sweeney to undertake a “review”
of the prior hardliners’ decision to kick out the CTW unions.
That decision has momentous implications for the AFL-CIO in places
like California and, in particular, the Southern California/LA area
where by far the dominant, most active unions are those of the CTW.
A split at this juncture would have serious consequences for many
workers there, given the upcoming special elections initiated by
Governor Schwarzenegger targeting them. Perhaps in places like Detroit
or Pittsburgh, expelling the CTW unions might find some support.
But not so in many other places.
the other hand, the AFL-CIO’s Building & Construction
Trades Department (BCTD) has gone in the opposite direction, recently
ordering all non- AFL-CIO unions to leave the Department and the
local building trades councils under it. This hardline move will
no doubt force the Laborers International Union, part of the CTW
coalition, out of the AFL-CIO and it might cause it to abandon its
approach of trying to maintain a presence in both groups. There
is some talk of local construction unions forming separate parallel
building trades councils on the local level outside the BCTD, in
order to continue to cooperate with Teamsters, Laborers, and Carpenters
in the CTW.
remains to be seen whether more stable heads in the local central
labor councils and state bodies can check the hardliner union heads
among AFSCME, AFT, and CWA at the national level who appear intent
on widening the chasm between the CTW and the AFL-CIO. A better
position by the remaining AFL- CIO unions would have been to assume
a higher ground during the events leading up to and immediately
following the CTW unions’ departure from the convention and
their disaffiliation. Instead of driving unions further apart, strategically
leaving the “door open” in various ways for one or more
of the CTW unions’ eventual return would have been a far smarter
approach. But that has not occurred.
departure of the CTW unions has already produced some modest reforms
by the AFL-CIO that the latter had discussed over the preceding
ten years and never came close to acting on. The split has also
caused a fluid situation which, at a minimum, opens the possibility
for further significant reforms.
the CTW unions create a new form of organization and clearly chart
a new course and strategy for labor at their convention—a course
that will excite, energize, and mobilize the union membership base?
How differently will the CTW be structured? Will they advocate fundamental
organizational change while still employing old strategies and tactics?
Will the process “begun at the top” expand to the membership
“below” to add further impetus to the historic process
now set in motion? Or will they attempt to keep the reins
in hand? If the latter, the process of change and reform will
slow, causing further tensions. The corporate offensive that fundamentally
underlies this historic split in U.S. labor is not going away. On
the contrary, it shows indications of intensifying further, producing
an even greater negative impact on workers’ incomes and welfare
and on union membership and effectiveness in the years ahead.
more fundamental change to occur new levels of union membership
will have to be brought into the process, new organizational forms
will have to be developed to mobilize from below, and new kinds
of union membership should be created that more closely integrate
community allies. Initiatives recently begun to establish international
bargaining with multinational companies will have to expand and
deepen. A massive organizing campaign to bring in a million members
each year will need to be launched—not just Wal- Mart, but
a “Wal-Mart-like” campaign will be needed every year for
the next ten years. Industry-wide bargaining agreements must be
restored. A restructured and revitalized grass- roots approach to
point of production activities will need to be launched. A new approach
to political action undertaken—one that runs independent candidates
against targeted politicians outside the Democratic Party, while
supporting progressive candidates within it—and simultaneously
targeting those in the Democratic Party that “cross the line,”
such as those 15 who recently voted for CAFTA. This would not be
a party at first, but an independent “united political
coalition” of labor and its natural community allies—a
coalition that no longer writes blank checks for any party
or any candidate.
Jack Rasmus is
a playwright, author, labor educator, and former union organizer for
SEIU, United Steelworkers, and CWA.
This article is
adapted from his just released book,
The War At Home: The Corporate
Offensive From Reagan To Bush (