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Labor: Changing To Win?


 

The U.S. labor movement, split into sometimes hostile factions two years ago, is coming back together to wage campaigns aimed at recruiting thousands of new union members and greatly strengthening labor’s growing political clout. Although the seven unions that left the AFL-CIO in 2005 to form their own federation – Change to Win –  remain outside the larger federation,  they are pursuing the same goals as AFL-CIO  affiliates, in some cases jointly with them.

 

The AFL-CIO and the seven seceding affiliates – some of the country’s most militant, influential and successful unions – had argued heatedly over whether to put their major emphasis on organizing new members or on political activities.

 

"Politics!" said the AFL-CIO, noting that unions could not grow in strength and numbers until labor-friendly politicians reformed the labor laws and saw to it that they were strictly enforced.

 

"Organizing!" countered the seven unions. If unions put their primary efforts into organizing, that would be enough to reverse their steady decline.  The numbers alone would cause politicians to side with labor.

 

But the two factions are now in effect putting equal emphasis on organizing and politics – and beginning to put much more money and much more effort into both.

 

That’s essential if they are to reach the primary political goal they share – helping elect a pro-labor president next year to replace the virulently anti-labor George Bush, while also helping elect pro-labor majorities in the House and Senate. 

 

That in turn would very likely lead to realizing the federations’ primary organizing goal. That’s enactment of the long-proposed Employee Free Choice Act which unions, whatever their differences, unanimously see as absolutely necessary if they are to significantly increase their ranks. It would plug gaping holes in the National Labor Relations Act that have allowed employers to block millions of workers from unionizing.

 

The lack of firm legal rights is the main reason only about 12 percent of American workers are in unions. Studies by government, academic and union researchers show fear of employer reprisal keeps at least 40 million workers who want to unionize from even trying. Every year, more than 60,000 of those who do try are punished, half of them fired.

 

Change to Win and the AFL-CIO share other important political goals. They include creation of a government-financed universal health care system, a guarantee of decent pensions for all workers and truly equal pay for women, tightened and stepped up enforcement of job safety regulations in mines and other workplaces and another increase in the minimum wage.

 

They also want an immigration system that fully protects the rights of foreign and domestic workers alike and fair trade laws that penalize countries that violate workers’ union rights and other human rights and endanger the environment.

 

The federations are planning to put  millions of dollars into campaigns to elect pro-labor Democrats, and spend millions as well on new organizing campaigns and on training thousands of organizers. They’re hoping to sign up more than a quarter-million new members in the next few years.

 

The biggest push is coming from the Change to Win members: the Teamsters, Service Employees, Farm Workers, Carpenters, Laborers, Food and Commercial Workers and Unite Here, which represents mainly hotel, restaurant and textile workers. They have already launched drives seeking union rights for some 200,000 truck and bus drivers, supermarket clerks, construction workers. and others.

 

 AFL-CIO affiliates have meanwhile been signing up significant numbers of new members. Newly released figures show that 10 affiliates grew by more than 10 percent between 2004 and 2006. That added nearly 300,000 union members to the AFL-CIO’s ranks, the largest increase in several decades.

 

The emergence of a rival labor federation obviously has helped reinvigorate the labor movement generally, just as the emergence of the Congress of Industrial Organizations as a rival to the American Federation of Labor in the 1930s led to a resurgence. That helped spur union growth to the point that by the 1950s one of every three U.S. workers belonged to a union and organized labor became a major political force.

 

It could happen again.

 

 

Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based columnist who has covered labor and political issues for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.

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