It's a cool, smogless noontime at the Los Angeles-long Beach harbor, and the guys who could be the future of American labor have lined up for lunch. Three weeks earlier, on May 1, the day that immigrants had stayed away from work, these truck drivers had shut down the port -- America's busiest, through which 43 percent of all containerized U.S. imports flow. Fully 90 percent of the drivers had kept their rigs at home that day, as impressive a display of worker power as this nation has seen in a very long time.

Not that you'd know it when you talk to them, however. The truckers tell tales not of power but exploitation. Leonadez, a Salvadoran immigrant, has driven at the port for seven years -- six days a week, 12 hours a day, moving two or three loads a day. He gets paid $175 for each load, but $100 of that is deducted by the guy to whom he's paying off his truck, who also makes him pay for his gas, tires, cell phone, and insurance, while providing Leonadez no benefits at all.

The drivers at the lunch wagon all have similar stories. They are not paid for the hours they spend in line in the terminals waiting for their loads. In a year, they clear roughly $25,000. Nonetheless, they impressed themselves by their show of solidarity on May 1. “The more we are together,” says Carlos, another Salvadoran immigrant, “the stronger we become.”

But in this instance, solidarity may be its own reward and nothing else. For there are no real trucking companies that the drivers can claim as their employer. As a consequence of the deregulation of trucking, and the pressure from shipping lines and retailers to keep transportation costs down, the drivers are classified as independent contractors, even though they depend on the shipping companies for their loads, for which they all collect the same crummy $70 to $75 per trip. Miguel Lopez, a Teamster organizer at the port, estimates that there are more than 350 companies for which the port's drivers work -- all on contract. Many of those “companies” consist of a driver who's paid off his truck, has bought a couple more, and contracted with newer drivers who have to pay him for the privilege of driving their (actually, his) truck. It's capitalism in its rawest form -- the exploited exploiting the super-exploited.

So forming a truckers' union at America's harbors is a good deal like squaring a circle: Nobody claims to be the drivers' employer. (FedEx, now the object of a Teamsters organizing drive, plays exactly the same game. Its drivers are considered independent contractors.)

In the mid-1990s, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) signed up 5,000 drivers at the L.A. harbor and found somebody who was willing to buy their trucks, but the plan collapsed because the union was unable to get the real economic powers -- the shipping lines and the retailers -- to accede to the drivers' demands, pseudo-employer or no. Now, it's the Teamsters' turn to figure out how to unionize drivers whom corporations classify as contractors, not employees.

Enter Change to Win.

The federation of the seven unions that recently left the AFL-CIO -- the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Teamsters, which both left a year ago this July; the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW); the Carpenters (which left years ago); UNITE HERE; the United Farm Workers (UFW); and the Laborers -- came to Change to Win's founding convention last September in St. Louis pledging to organize the port truckers and 44 million American workers like them. Tom Woodruff, an SEIU vice president who's become the director of Change to Win's strategic organizing center, explained to the delegates that the unions gathered there represented the transportation, tourism, construction, retail, and health-care workers whose jobs couldn't be offshored or digitized. “Our success or failure will determine whether there's a middle class in America,” Woodruff said. Like legendary architect Daniel Burnham, Change to Win was making no little plans. “We can't run small campaigns any more,” Woodruff continued. “We have to figure out how to organize whole nationwide companies, whole sectors and whole markets.” Visions of organizing Target or Home Depot -- stepping stones on the way to Wal-Mart -- danced in the delegates' heads.

These noble goals were also politically necessary. For the Change to Win unions had not left the AFL-CIO because they had political differences with the federation or some other conception of organizing. The raison d'être for Change to Win was behavioral: It would simply devote more attention to organizing. It would leave lobbying and politics and policy and international affairs to the AFL-CIO, electing to spend fully 75 percent of its resources ($16 million in its first year) on Woodruff's strategic organizing operation.

Back at the L.A. harbor, though, reality intrudes. Lopez is a tough and seasoned union operative, but he is the sole organizer for a work force of 11,000. The real action is in Washington, at Change to Win headquarters. When I paid a call in late May, the federation's new digs inside a downtown office building were still under construction, and they had taken up temporary residence in SEIU's new Dupont Circle headquarters. There, three accomplished strategists whom UNITE HERE had given to Change to Win were, in conjunction with Teamster officials, figuring how to get around the independent-contractor conundrum. With port security now a heightened concern, the answer could be to persuade the various port authorities and harbor commissions to establish employment standards of their own. “A political solution is the key to it,” one Teamster commented -- a somewhat ironic assessment, given that the Change to Win unions had criticized the AFL-CIO for stressing politics over organizing.

In its aspirations, the work going on at Change to Win is reminiscent of the earliest days of the CIO, when John L. Lewis, president of the Mine Workers, and Sidney Hillman, president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers (a predecessor organization of UNITE HERE), sent their own strategists to the fledgling CIO to figure out how to organize the auto and steel industries. But there the similarities end. CIO President Lewis directly hired thousands of organizers to recruit the autoworkers of Michigan, the steel workers of Pennsylvania, and the textile workers of the Carolinas. Change to Win has 10 strategists and a couple of organizers. It's up to individual unions to provide the on-the-ground organizing.

Many of the Change to Win staffers, such as capital strategist Bill Patterson, are brilliant union operatives. They probe the vulnerabilities of companies and industries and sectors. But they also have to assess the capabilities and vulnerabilities of their own unions. And there, at the very point of conception, virtually every Change to Win project has been put on hold -- if not altogether aborted.

* * *

Dreams Deferred

The organization's own Web site tells the tale. It references six Change to Win campaigns: the Hotel Workers Rising campaign of UNITE HERE, an effort the union has been planning for five years to organize the entire Hilton chain; Uniform Justice, a three-year-old, largely stymied joint effort of the Teamsters and UNITE HERE to unionize the Cintas laundry company; Justice at Smithfield, a nearly 12-year-long campaign by the UFCW to unionize the world's largest hog slaughterhouse; a joint effort of SEIU and the Teamsters to organize bus drivers who are employees of a British conglomerate; the Teamsters port campaign; and a public awareness campaign directed at Wal-Mart.

Every one of these campaigns antedates Change to Win. Every one of them would be proceeding whether or not Change to Win had come into existence. In one way or another, the Change to Win unions are helping these campaigns out, but to date, that help consists chiefly of having smart people design a blueprint.

What the smart people haven't done is figure out how to initiate the kind of large-scale endeavor Woodruff spoke of, that would justify the establishment of a whole new federation and the sundering of the old one. In the months leading up to Change to Win's formation, leaders of SEIU, UNITE HERE and the Teamsters spoke of Change to Win undertaking massive campaigns of its own. Teamster President Jim Hoffa pledged his union to back such action on the day he announced it was leaving the AFL-CIO. But no such campaigns have been launched, because two fundamental impediments stand in their way.

The first is that none of the legal, political, and economic obstacles to organizing have diminished just because seven unions have left the AFL-CIO. The hijacking of labor law, the resistance of almost all employers to unionization, the mobility of capital and immobility of labor -- every factor that tilts the playing field against workers remains firmly in place.

The second is that the organizing capabilities of the seven Change to Win unions have not been altered by their move to a new federation. SEIU and UNITE HERE remain the state-of-the-art unions when it comes to organizing, with ample treasuries, smart corporate researchers, hundreds of organizers, and perhaps a dozen senior lead organizers who know how to run major campaigns. But two of Change to Win's three million–member unions -- the Teamsters and UFCW (SEIU is the third of the mega-unions) -- haven't done large-scale organizing in decades. The inability of these unions to organize, the UFCW in particular, has doomed the mega-campaigns that Woodruff rightly said were necessary. For as General Motors and Ford were to the CIO, so Target and Home Depot, and ultimately Wal-Mart, are to Change to Win -- the commanding heights of the service economy.

One longtime union official who has worked with unions now in Change to Win sees the fundamental problem as structural. “They went and recreated the federation structure,” he says. “And the UFCW and the Teamsters still can't organize. So they're paralyzed. If you're gonna bust up the labor movement, you better do something!”

While Change to Win leaders may cringe at the harshness of that characterization, the work they've embarked upon amounts to a tacit acknowledgement that it's true. Much of the real work of the new federation is devoted to helping both major unions transform themselves so that they will at some point be able to wage major campaigns.

“We're trying to restructure the entire UFCW,” says Joe Hansen, who became the union's president in the wake of the disastrous strike and lockout of its Southern California locals in 2004. Hansen took over a union that was a loose assemblage of autonomous locals, largely uninterested in organizing, and a national office with little research capacity and not much in the way of an organizing program. Problem is, it took both SEIU and UNITE HERE more than two decades to evolve from similar collections of locals with little strategic direction and minimal national capacity to the organizing machines they are today. If it takes the UFCW and the Teamsters (not to mention most other unions) an equivalent length of time to develop that capacity, they'll go out of business before they can save themselves.

“We have to do what SEIU did, but faster,” Hansen says. “When it comes to having the union develop the will to change, we're more than halfway there. Actually making the changes -- we're not there yet. I'd like to do what SEIU did in changing its dues structure, set up a dedicated source of funding for organizing. I don't know if we can do that, but locals will probably ratify an increase if we go about it the right way.”

“Change to Win,” he concludes, “has made some of us look at our own internationals more closely.”

The primary venue in which such introspection takes place is the monthly meetings of the presidents of the seven Change to Win unions, which are also attended by Change to Win Chair Anna Burger (who is also SEIU's secretary-treasurer), Secretary-Treasurer Edgar Romney (from UNITE HERE) and Executive Director Greg Tarpinian. The meetings, say Burger, are marked by “the best dialogue in the labor movement in my lifetime. The presidents challenge each other.” In these meetings, says Hanson, “We've created a dynamic to support each other. I don't want to say it forces us to change, but we end up doing it.”

The unions' chiefs of staff also attend the meetings, but only the presidents, Romney, Burger, and Tarpinian speak. And it's not just the presidents who meet together. The organizing directors of the seven unions meet together weekly.

As one AFL-CIO staffer caustically notes, “They may be the only people in the country who are better at holding meetings than the AFL-CIO.” (Some Change to Win critics have taken to calling it, “Meet to Win.”)

* * *

From the Ashes of the Old

By some measures, these interventions are helping. Teamsters Organizing Director Jeff Farmer notes that his union has now established a strategic research department and a global affairs department for the first time, and that the international's organizing department has grown from a dozen organizers to 100 over the past three years. But a veteran organizer at another union says that the Teamsters and the UFCW both still lack any senior organizers capable of running big campaigns, that it takes years of involvement in smaller campaigns to develop such staffers -- and that these unions haven't really even waged the smaller campaigns yet.

Surprisingly, the man who was the moving spirit behind the secessions from the AFL-CIO and the formation of Change to Win, SEIU President Andy Stern, concurs with much of this assessment. Though Stern characteristically speaks in bold pronouncements about the need to alter the American labor movement, and pledged that Change to Win would do just that, his assessment of the organization's actual work is distinctly modest.

“The groundwork is being laid to do good things,” Stern says. “There is capacity-building going on. We watch unions reallocating resources from the smaller campaigns to the bigger -- not the bigger to the biggest yet. The trends are in the right direction, but clearly, it's a lot of work [for a union like the Teamsters or the UFCW] to go from local organizing or regional organizing to large-scale strategic organizing. When will we get there? Slower than I had originally hoped for -- I originally thought we could do it quickly -- but faster than I had feared. We were overly ambitious at the start about what we could do.”

To date, Change to Win's other activities have had a similarly modest scope. In April, the federation staged a week of sparsely attended “Make Work Pay” rallies that focused on the sins of Wal-Mart. The campaign bore a clear resemblance to the “America Needs a Raise” campaign waged by the AFL-CIO 10 years previous, though the earlier effort was part of an ongoing, and ultimately successful, endeavor to raise the federal minimum wage.

The other activity that Change to Win leaders point to is the coordinated leafleting in the downtowns and airports of roughly 90 cities alerting consumers to UNITE HERE's Hotel Rising campaign -- and the possible strike against Hilton hotels this summer. Organizers from all seven affiliates took part in the three-day campaign, which was coordinated by former AFL-CIO organizing director Richard Bensinger.

Change to Win's critics were unimpressed. “That's what [the AFL-CIO's] Central Labor Councils are for,” says one. “You cannot convince me that having Bensinger, brilliant though he is, coordinate a leaflet distribution justifies the split. That's pitiful!”

On the other hand, a number of key unionists who remain within the AFL-CIO express relief that the consequences of the split have not led to the disasters they anticipated a year ago. Paul Booth, a senior staffer and chief strategist at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), observes that, “it's not the end of the world.” The inter-union raiding he feared, Booth says, has died down after an initial flurry following the split. Politically, the federations are working together, with 1,200 Change to Win local unions paying dues to retain their membership in the AFL-CIO's local Central Labor Councils, the chief vehicles through which unions do their election work. Unions from both sides of the split worked together on elections in California and New Jersey last year, demonstrating, says Booth, that successful political campaigns were possible “as long as we tried to function as if the split hadn't happened.”

In two states, Michigan and Minnesota, Change to Win unions have chosen not to work within the existing AFL-CIO state bodies and have set up councils of their own. (In Michigan, many of those unions have long chafed at the domination of the United Auto Workers.) But more commonly, locals from the two federations are working together, and the national Change to Win plans to invest heavily in political operations alongside those of the national AFL-CIO this fall in three key states -- Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. At the same time, leaders of AFL-CIO unions bemoan the time and energy spent having to rebuild the unions' political operation in a year when unions are scrambling to establish election operations in the ever-expanding number of swing districts. And some note with bitterness that the split forced the AFL-CIO to scrap its International Affairs Department, which was probably the single most effective proponent of global social democracy in an ever more Dickensian world.

But Change to Win's critics all circle back to its failure to live up to its initial promise to organize more workers. “Where are the millions of new members?” a critic wonders. “Being in the AFL-CIO didn't stop them from organizing; leaving didn't help them.”

“Change to Win hasn't developed a single campaign of its own,” says another. “I just don't think they can last.”

That's an assessment that Stern disputes. “I think Change to Win is a permanent organization,” he says, “but the form and structure for its campaigns require constant rethinking.”

The UFCW's Hansen isn't so sure. “Overall, I feel positively toward Change to Win,” he says, “though at times it's been bumpy. We'll still be here a year from now. I can't see past one or two or three years, though. At some point, there will be one federation again -- but not the AFL-CIO as it currently is.”

One official of a Change to Win union thinks that Hansen speaks for more of the seven presidents than Stern does. “Many of these guys tried to keep the split from happening,” he says, “but they cast their lot with Andy. Now they want the Federation put back together, but they don't have a roadmap of how to get there. It's hard to see how they can come back now and still save face.”

AFSCME's Booth concurs. His first union job, he recalls, was at the American Labor Alliance (ALA) -- a mini-federation of the United Auto Workers and the Teamsters that UAW President Walter Reuther set up in 1968 after his union left the AFL-CIO out of frustration with George Meany's foreign policy and Meany himself. The ALA collapsed within a couple of years, Booth points out, but “look how long it took the UAW to come back into the AFL-CIO: 13 years. It took a long time even after the original rationale for the split was long forgotten.”

Organizations can take on a life of their own. Organizing, meanwhile, has grown no easier.

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