union membership and density down, current wisdom among the major
U.S. unions seems to boil down to one mantra: organize, organize,
organize. Increasingly, unions are focusing their resources on bringing
in new members and to facilitate this, the leaders of five major
U.S. unions are planning an unprecedented restructuring of the AFL-CIO.
model these five people—Andy Stern, president of the Service
Employees Union (SEIU); John Wilhelm, Hotel and Restaurant Employees
(HERE); Bruce Raynor, Garment and Textile Workers (UNITE); Doug
Mc- Carron, Carpenters Union (not an AFLCIO union); and Terrence
O’Sullivan, Laborers Union—have devised is called the
New Unity Partnership.
its major elements, the NUP would consolidate many smaller unions
into a few larger ones and redraw some jurisdictional lines (UNITE
would organize non-food retail workers, traditionally represented
by the United Food and Commercial Workers union). Additionally,
many AFL-CIO departments (including Health & Safety, Education,
and Civil & Human Rights) would be reduced or eliminated, while
the Organizing department would be replaced with a “strategic
it was first unveiled in a
article last fall,
the NUP has been hotly debated within the labor movement. Though
some of its architects have insisted that the NUP is only a brainstorm,
it is a remarkably detailed brainstorm that has been defended by
high- ranking union officials, particularly within SEIU.
debate surrounding the New Unity Partnership has often come down
to an argument about union density vs. union democracy. NUP proponents,
like SEIU Vice President Tom Woodruff, argue that democracy within
unions is meaningless until those unions represent the majority
of workers in a given industry, achieving real union density.
critics, like Communication Workers Union (CWA) executive vice president
Larry Cohen, argue that without member involvement in democratic
unions, density might be achieved, but the members would be disengaged
from the union and thus unlikely to use the leverage that density
reality, density vs. democracy is a false dichotomy as the two could
potentially serve to reinforce each other. As Cohen points out,
democratic unions foster member engagement and engaged members are
essential to a revitalized labor movement. Nonunion workers are
more likely to join a union if they see it as member-driven, since
they will not want to pay dues to an organization in which they
have no agency. One reason that many workers are skeptical about
unions is that they perceive unions as bureacratic and corrupt.
Democratic unions are, in one sense, an organizing tool, as they
offer an effective counter to this perception.
are many local examples to support this, one being the CWA’s
effective use of member-organizers. In a recent article for
magazine, CWA member-organizer Dave Coker described how
workers—rather than staffers or bureaucrats—succesfully
organized an InteliCoat paper and component plant in Mathews, North
Carolina. One CWA official told Coker, “Members have more of
a vested interest than someone who has never been a card-carrying
rank and filer.”
other words, nonunion nurses are more likely to be receptive to
an organizing drive led by nurses—who understand the workplace
problems and conditions they face—than one led by organizers
who have never worked in their field. In a democratic union, workers
would be doing the work of organizing and strategizing and would
likely do a better job of it than most staffers and bureaucrats
are currently able to do.
a way, internal democracy is part of the path to union density.
Perhaps more importantly, a narrow focus on either democracy or
density is dangerous for the labor movement, as it limits the movement’s
ability to address the complex challenges, internal and external,
it currently faces.
increased union density is essential for a revitalized labor movement,
so is a more militant union leadership. For the last decade, strikes
and other union-led actions aimed at taking power in the workplace
have been in decline (according to numbers from the Bureau of Labor
Statistics). Among those strikes, major victories have been few
and far between.
in the case of a protracted strike, union leaders are careful to
let the press and the public know that they want not just what’s
good for their workers, but what’s good for business as well.
“We don’t want to hurt the company,” is a standard
line from union leaders, even as companies go out of their way to
hurt the workers.
with increased density, if union leaders are not willing to go after
exploitative employers aggressively, adopting the tactics and rhetoric
of direct confrontation, it seems unlikely that the labor movement
will reverse its fortunes. In a democratic union, where decisions
are made by workers who have first-hand experience of being screwed
by their boss, union leadership is more likely to be militant.
the unions behind the NUP seem solely focused on union density and
this has led them to make some troubling political maneuvers. Two
examples: last summer, Stern, O’Sullivan, and Wilhelm sent
a letter to union officials urging them to “follow their example
by giving $1,000 or more to the re-election campaign of Dennis Hastert”;
last autumn, leaked documents from NUP planning sessions cited the
NUP’s intention to “meet with Karl Rove,” presumably
to discuss how the NUP might be able to work with Rove and the Bush
unions’ willingness to work with or support virulently anti-union
Republicans is indicative of what might accurately be characterized
as their “density at all costs” attitude. It often appears
that if a politician or employer is willing to give the NUP unions
what they want in terms of organizing, the unions will support that
politician or employer, no matter what effect that support has on
their members or the labor movement as a whole.
the local level, this attitude has manifested itself most obviously
in SEIU/1199 President Dennis Rivera’s endorsement of New York
Governor George Pataki and in HERE Local 26 President Janice Loux’s
willingness to cross the picket lines of other city unions to show
her support for Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. If these unions were
truly democratic, so that leaders like Loux and Rivera were accountable
to their members, such actions would not be possible—which
is perhaps why these unions’ leaders often respond negatively
to calls for increased democracy.
“density at all costs” attitude is also reflected in how
NUP unions often approach contract negotiations. Even with some
of the most abusive employers, these unions have shown a willingness
to negotiate deals with employers that include major concessions
on workplace conditions or pay and benefits, if the employer will
grant the union increased organizing rights. Since these unions
are not internally democratic, their members have little to no say
about these concessions.
1997 negotiations with the Kaiser Permanente healthcare company
serve as an excellent example. At Kaiser, in exchange for organizing
rights (and wage and benefit gains), SEIU agreed to go along with
management’s push to replace registered nurses with lesser-licensed
or unlicensed hospital staff, and a variety of other cost-cutting
measures. So, in order to secure organizing access, SEIU was willing
to participate in the de-skilling of the nursing profession, which
in the long-term will have a disastrous effect on all nurses, including
those represented by SEIU.
unions’ willingness to “go it alone” (as evidenced
by their secretive NUP planning, as well as their political activities)
is ultimately very dangerous for the labor movement. Keep in mind,
Carpenters President McCarron yanked the Carpenters from the AFL-CIO
rather than be subject to rules that forbid raiding of other construction
unions. There’s no way to gauge what type of influence McCarron
is having on Stern, Wilhelm, Raynor, and O’Sullivan, but it’s
safe to say that McCarron’s involvement in the NUP (given his
support for Bush, contempt for union democracy, and lack of interest
in cross-union solidarity) is troubling.
as long-time labor journalist Harry Kelber pointed out in an article
e Labor Educator
, four of the five union
leaders behind the NUP have been involved in high-level strategizing
within the AFL-CIO for years, as members of its executive council,
so they are at least partly responsible for its stagnancy. “If
these unions haven’t been able to organize millions of workers
until now,” asked Kelber, “why should we believe they’ll
succeed under their New Partnership?”
it is commendable that these union presidents are willing to rethink
past practices, they need to acknowledge that five men sitting around
a table will not be capable of revitalizing the labor movement.
If they plan on moving forward with their model without first opening
up the debate, the future of U.S. labor could be filled with infighting
and fragmentation. Bush and his buddies could not dream of a better
Johnson is the assistant editor of
He lives and works in Detroit.