Labor's Civil War

By harold meyerson

On Tuesday, May 3, 167 of the AFL-CIO's 426 employees reported to work to find that their positions had been eliminated. Whole divisions were being scrapped, publications abolished, programs terminated. Some departments were being consolidated, and 61 new positions being created within them, but the house that Federation President John Sweeney had built was, by Sweeney's own decree, being partially torn down.

The Field Mobilization Department -- a nebulous division that employed 67 field reps for disparate assignments across the nation -- was being merged into the political program, with 30 positions eliminated outright. The federation's monthly magazine, America@Work, was being discontinued. The policy office was being reduced in size and merged into a joint operation with the legislative office. The International Affairs Department, which director Barbara Shailor had transformed from the planet's last bastion of Cold War vigilance into its most effective proponent of global social democracy (and brought 20,000 unionists from around the world to the Seattle demonstrations of 1999), was to be abolished and merged into the Solidarity Center, with a greater focus on union-building endeavors.

Two days later, much of the staff gathered in the President's Room at AFL-CIO headquarters to meet with Sweeney and his chief of staff, Bob Welsh. Amid understandable wailing and gnashing of teeth, Welsh was emphatic about one point: Staffers who'd lost their jobs should direct at least some of their anger at a coalition of insurgent unions. As quoted by labor blogger Jonathan Tasini, Welsh told the crowd that “unions representing 40 percent of the federation put forth proposals to cut the staff of the federation in half. It's against this background we've made tough choices.”

The “background” Welsh alluded to was a sustained and unprecedented barrage of demands from some of the largest unions that the AFL-CIO all but dismantle its existing structure in order to devote half its resources to organizing. The federation, they said, should rebate half the dues of those member unions with credible organizing programs of their own (about $35 million a year, they estimated) and devote an additional

$25 million in royalties from the AFL-CIO's credit card to organizing as well. Sweeney and his supporters had rejected those moves, but now, facing the possibility that some of those unions might leave the federation altogether, they were instituting a smaller ($15 million) organizing rebate program of their own, which was one reason why the ax was falling.

Many today fear that the cuts at the AFL-CIO presage a bloody succession of self-inflicted wounds within the movement. With a sometimes startling ferocity, union leaders are accusing one another of indifference to the erosion of labor's strength and a chronic incapacity to do anything about it. While the first accusation is largely bogus, the second is sadly true -- save for a handful of unions that have transformed themselves into successful organizing machines. Today, the leaders of some of those unions have embarked on a campaign -- which may take the form of a rancorous challenge to Sweeney's re-election -- to reshape the movement along the lines of their own organizing-oriented unions. At the same time, some of them are threatening to leave the AFL-CIO if Sweeney prevails -- a parting likely to weaken labor's vaunted political operation and possibly set union against union in a scramble for members. It's a moment of both peril and opportunity for labor, though peril looms as much the larger of the two.

* * *

It's nearly a year since Andy Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), first threw down the challenge to Sweeney and the AFL-CIO, telling wildly cheering delegates gathered in San Francisco last June for the union's quadrennial convention that it was time either to “change the AFL-CIO or build something stronger.” Of all the attacks Sweeney had weathered, this might have been the unkindest cut: The SEIU was his old union, and Stern had been the young firebrand whom Sweeney had plucked out of a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, local 25 years earlier and promoted to organizing director. Stern had done his job too well: While the rest of the labor movement was shrinking, the SEIU doubled its membership during Sweeney's tenure to 1.2 million, adding an additional 600,000 new members since Stern succeeded him in 1996. It was now the federation's largest affiliate, home to 11 percent of the federation's members and source of 11 percent of the federation's budget. And now Stern was hurling ultimatums: The federation had to put vastly more money into organizing and compel the merger of smaller unions unable to organize into larger ones. Either the AFL-CIO would shape up or the SEIU would ship out.

And not just the SEIU. For several years, it had allied itself -- for a time in a now-disbanded coalition called the New Unity Partnership (NUP) -- with a number of other unions with ambitious and successful organizing programs (there weren't many). The unions included the Laborers, headed by Terry O'Sullivan; the Union of Needletrades, Textiles and Industrial Employees (UNITE), headed by Bruce Raynor; and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE), headed by John Wilhelm (the latter two merging in 2004 as UNITE-HERE). Alarmed by labor's decline -- unions represented 35 percent of the U.S. workforce when the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) merged back in 1955; today, they represent a scant 12.5 percent, and a sickly 7.9 percent of the private sector -- these leaders had long been calling on the AFL-CIO to do more to address the crisis.

As early as 2002, Wilhelm asked the federation to consider a huge campaign, beyond the capacity of any one affiliate, to unionize Wal-Mart, America's largest employer, whose policies and practices reduced the living standards not only of its own 1.2 million employees but of countless others at its thousands of suppliers and subcontractors. With labor under assault, Wilhelm said, unions had to make tough choices (for which his own union staff, which he had pared down largely to organizers and corporate researchers, could serve as a model). The federation, he argued, should be spending 75 percent of its budget on politics and organizing. This was war; sacrifices would have to be made. “We have to blow up the AFL-CIO bureaucracy,” he told a Los Angeles labor forum in February. “The staff should be cut by at least 50 percent.”

Along the way, the NUPsters picked up some allies -- chiefly, the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) -- to form a bloc constituting roughly 40 percent of the federation's 12.5 million members. At the AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in Vegas in early March, the insurgents presented their proposal that the federation rebate half the dues payments of those unions with substantial organizing campaigns in their core industries. If unions were to grow, every dollar not spent directly or indirectly on organizing was a dollar wasted.

Vegas proved to be a bloody ground. A coalition of unions representing 60 percent of the federation's membership beat back the insurgents' resolution. Led by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the majority grouping argued that serious organizing was impossible given the erosions in labor laws once intended to protect unions' rights to organize. The proper goal of the AFL-CIO, this faction argued, should be to elect a Democratic Congress and president who'd pass new laws permitting workers to organize again. To that end, the executive council, in a meeting marked by rancorous exchanges between Stern and AFSCME President Gerald McEntee, passed a resolution doubling the size of its political budget.

The differences between the two camps were in part experiential. AFSCME is entirely a public-sector union that lives and dies by political elections, and when Republicans captured the governor's offices in Indiana and Missouri last November, their first move was to rescind collective-bargaining rights for the state's public employees. Most manufacturing unions, the United Steelworkers most prominently, lined up with AFSCME, too; unions that had seen their core industries exported to other, cheaper-labor countries found little to like in the NUPsters' call to bolster organizing only in unions' core sectors. Directing more funds to organizing the dying manufacturing sector didn't impress such unions as a good use of money at all.

* * *

Stern, whose union has organized 49,000 child-care workers in Illinois and 41,000 home-came workers in Michigan this spring, emphatically disagrees. “Other than when jobs are going overseas,” he says, “there's not an employer where -- with enough time, money, and strategy -- you don't have a legitimate shot at building a union. Others think you have to legislate ourselves out of the problem -- elect friendly officials, pass labor-law reform. We think you have to grow your way out of the problem.” Stern is all but contemptuous of those leaders who despair of organizing, calling them “a group of leaders who are defeated, who believe they can't grow.”

By the end of the Vegas meeting, the movement's cracks had widened to chasms. UNITE-HERE considered disaffiliation; Teamster officials talked secession, too.

Sweeney returned from Vegas, then, facing a double threat: Some unions were threatening to pull out, and Wilhelm was sounding out support for a challenge to Sweeney (whose current term will be up at the AFL-CIO's convention, July 25–28, in Chicago). The threats were interconnected: If Sweeney couldn't keep the unions from leaving, perhaps Wilhelm could. “The longer [this fight] goes on without being resolved,” one union president said in April, “the more problems John Sweeney has. He can't assure his colleagues he can manage this.”

In late April, Sweeney's problems were compounded when four of the insurgent unions -- the SEIU, UNITE-HERE, the Teamsters, and the Laborers -- abruptly moved to dismantle the crown jewel of the federation's operation, its political program. They informed the federation that they were withdrawing the names of their members from the AFL-CIO's political files, the computerized list with which labor wages its national, state, and local campaigns. The action threatens to undermine the foremost voter-mobilization campaign in the Democratic Party's universe.

Facing mounting threats, Sweeney responded. The May 3 layoffs he announced were part of a massive restructuring of the federation along the lines that his critics had suggested. In addition to the $15 million set aside for organizing, he called for the establishment of Industry Coordinating Committees to plan organizing campaigns, like the Wal-Mart effort, that no one union could take on.

“If this had happened two years ago, the NUPsters would have applauded,” one federation insider noted. But the dissident leaders quickly made clear that Sweeney's reforms were too little and too late -- and that Sweeney himself had become the issue. “John Sweeney and the people around him are not capable of carrying through the reforms,” UNITE-HERE's Raynor told me.

Indeed, in speeches to a Teamster conference in Las Vegas on May 9, Stern, Wilhelm, Raynor, O'Sullivan, and Teamsters President James P. Hoffa made cumulatively clear the growing intensity of the split in labor. “The American labor movement at the level of the AFL-CIO has lost its way,” Wilhelm told the Teamsters. “It's lost its energy. It's lost its hope. And that's a crime … . We aren't going to accept it … . And we're going to teach the AFL-CIO that they shouldn't accept it, either!”

Ever since the merger of UNITE and HERE one year previous, Wilhelm had been the logical candidate to challenge Sweeney. His credentials as an organizer and strategist were beyond dispute -- and nowhere more so than in Vegas, where he built the hotel local from 17,000 members to more than 50,000 through a program of member mobilization that other unions could only dream about. His bona fides as a social visionary were in good order, too: It was Wilhelm who'd persuaded the AFL-CIO to reverse its historic opposition to undocumented immigrants and to become, in fact, the nation's leading advocate of immigrant rights. Unlike Stern, he'd taken care to maintain good relations with most of his fellow union presidents. As AFL-CIO presidents are elected by the presidents of the federation's affiliated unions, and not the rank and file (which means just 15 men determine the outcome of the election), this was no small virtue.

Wilhelm's was hardly the most fiery speech the Teamsters heard, however. That came from Stern, who documented the decline in labor numbers and declared, “That's what John Sweeney doesn't get. That's what those other unions don't get … . If unions think that the labor movement can allow this to happen, they can kiss my ass!”

* * *

For American labor, the season of blood and knives has arrived. Longtime allies have turned on one another; personal relationships have frayed. Sweeney himself, endeavoring to hold things together, ascribes some of the tension to the times. “We have to understand,” he told me, “that the political climate of the past four and a half years is the worst in modern labor history. It's made us angry and frustrated.”

Indeed, whole sectors of organized labor look to be on the brink of crumbling. Airline unions are powerless to stop the shredding of their members' contracts. The once-mighty United Automobile Workers (UAW) is stuck in an industry whose two largest employers, General Motors and Ford, seem poised for huge cutbacks. Seventy thousand supermarket workers in southern California last year waged a long and bitter strike only, in the end, to accept pay cuts and reduced health benefits for new hires. The Bush administration is gunning for unions as well, with a distinct possibility that the three Bush appointees to the five-member National Labor Relations Board may wholly or partially invalidate the “card check” method of unionization -- under which employers agree to forgo an election once a majority of workers have signed affiliation cards with the union -- that has been the main way that unions have organized workers over the past decade.

Time was when workers seeking to organize could hold fair elections under the terms of the National Labor Relations Act -- but that was a long time ago. The steady and sickening decline in membership since the AFL and CIO merged 50 years ago has resulted in large part from the realization of employers that they could violate the terms of the act with impunity. According to research from Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Cornell University's Center on Labor Education Research, employers threaten to close their work site in 21 percent of organizing drives, and one worker in 20 on such campaigns is fired -- both tactics proscribed by the act, but for which the penalties are negligible.

Even at the time of the merger, a small number of labor leaders -- most particularly, the UAW's legendary Walter Reuther -- saw that unions had to do radically more to boost their membership, which had not grown as a percentage of the workforce for a decade. But Reuther's sense of urgency was not widely shared, as Solomon Barkin, the in-house intellectual for the old Textile Workers Union, noted in a brilliant paper, prefiguring today's debate, that he wrote in 1961. Unions were resting their great organizing drives of the '30s and '40s at their own peril, Barkin argued. The economy was growing in those sectors where unions were missing.

As Barkin saw it, labor could not effectively move into growing sectors of the economy because the CIO, in the 1955 merger, had lost the debate with the AFL over the crucial question of how the new federation would be structured. In the '30s, when the CIO itself hired the organizers and planned and executed the organization of such hitherto unorganized industries as auto and steel, “The regional offices of the CIO, unlike the AFL, became the headquarters for many union campaigns,” Barkin wrote. CIO President Reuther wanted the AFL-CIO organizing department to retain that capacity, but AFL President George Meany, who became AFL-CIO president at the 1955 merger and served in that position until shortly before his death in 1979, insisted on a more federated structure.

“The dominant belief in the central body,” Barkin wrote caustically, “is still basically that of the old AFL -- that the responsibility for new organization rests with the individual internationals.” Such a system could never adequately organize new industries. The AFL-CIO, he argued, should “have the authority to initiate campaigns in those areas and among those groups where it feels no adequate efforts are being made … . Vested rights of national unions must not be allowed to stand in the way of the transcendent interests of the movement as a whole.”

Barkin's fears proved as prophetic as his suggestions were unheeded. For 40 years after the merger, the AFL-CIO, and most of the union movement it headed, was indifferent to organizing. In the '60s, led by AFSCME's Jerry Wurf and the American Federation of Teachers' Albert Shanker, huge breakthroughs were made in organizing public-sector workers, but the decline of private-sector unionism continued unchecked. Not until 1995, after two decades of decline, when Sweeney ousted longtime AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland on a platform of boosting labor's organizing and political clout, did the federation even turn its full attention to the challenge of rebuilding the movement.

For a time, all was bright. Hiring Steve Rosenthal as the AFL-CIO's political director, Sweeney poured resources and talent into the federation's election work. Labor's political program became the model for all voter-mobilization efforts, and by 2000, labor's share of the electorate had risen to 26 percent (from 14 percent in the last Kirkland-era election of 1994). Sweeney created an organizing department within the federation, and he raised the organizing budget -- for a while, at least -- to 30 percent of its total expenditures, and set that goal for member unions. He told the affiliated unions that labor needed to grow by a million members a year for the next 20 years to regain its strength at the time of the merger, and for a time, the federation's weekly news bulletin, Work in Progress, kept a running total of the number of new workers organized that year.

Midway through 2004, however, Work in Progress quietly dropped its running total of new members; the figures were so low they could only constitute an admission of failure. Only a handful of unions have reached the 30-percent target, and many unions have abandoned organizing altogether. The unions that have made the change to organizing mode come from both the pro- and anti-Sweeney camps: the SEIU, UNITE-HERE, and the Laborers among the oppositionists; AFSCME and the CWA among supporters; and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), whose presidential preference remains murky. But changing to organize entails persuading members to increase their dues heavily to fund such a transformation, the hiring and/or training of hundreds of organizers, and the development of crack corporate research teams. Though the AFL-CIO Organizing Department has offered excellent training programs, most unions haven't been willing to make that leap. One survey of California unions in 2002 found that just five internationals employed 48.9 percent of all the organizers in the state; the SEIU alone employed 22 percent of them.

Two departures from AFL-CIO staff signaled the limitations of Sweeney's success. In 1997, Richard Bensinger, the federation's first organizing director, was asked to leave; his constant exhortations to organize had begun to rankle the internationals' presidents. And after the 2002 elections, Rosenthal, a close friend of Stern's, left to form a massive “527” voter-mobilization organization, America Coming Together. Midway through George W. Bush's first term as president, it was clear that the Sweeney revolution had stalled. “With Rosenthal's departure,” said one union staffer, “it became acceptable for those behind the Sweeney revolution to trash it.”

In the eyes of his critics, Sweeney did not push his colleagues hard enough for change. Raynor calls him “a consensus builder -- that's his hallmark.” This was not, in the parlance of the dissidents, a term of praise. But when Stern began arguing that the AFL-CIO should abandon a search for consensus, a debate erupted over the how-tos of union organizing. CWA Executive Vice President Larry Cohen and a number of other CWA leaders criticized the SEIU for top-down organizing, arguing that educating and mobilizing the rank and file, through a system of hyperactive shop stewards, is the only way to ensure union democracy and growth. In the CWA's view, the SEIU moves more like an army than a democratic union.

But it moves. Cohen's arguments aren't entirely wrong, but they are prescriptions for disengagement with the bulk of the American workforce until such time as the law changes or American workers revolt en masse. “Look, if CWA shop stewards all go on leave to work in nonunion workplaces, I'd agree with CWA,” says one SEIU official. “People with a radical past are focusing on the 8 percent that's unionized. They don't see that the movement is on its deathbed.”

* * *

But how does a movement devoted to servicing that 8 percent organize the other 92 percent? How does a movement rooted in the Northeast, the Midwest, and on the West Coast organize in red-state America, where it needs to boost its numbers if the Democrats are to become a competitive party at the national level? How does it organize Wal-Mart, which is rooted in the red states?

Labor -- all wings of labor -- has been moving slowly toward a collective Wal-Mart strategy for some time now, particularly since the UFCW, which would have jurisdiction, plainly stated that organizing the behemoth is beyond its capacity. The one union leader who has been calling for such a campaign for years is Wilhelm. “There are clearly some seminal campaigns, important to society as a whole, that no one union can do on its own,” he recently told me. “Wal-Mart cries out for an AFL-CIO approach.” For starters, Wilhelm and his fellow dissident presidents suggest that the federation devote its $25 million a year in credit-card royalties to a long-term Wal-Mart organizing campaign -- a proposal that Sweeney has not embraced.

Which doesn't make Wilhelm a “top-down” guy. From the history department at Yale (his alma mater, whose clerical workers he organized in the mid-'80s) to the cocktail waitresses at the Luxor (one of the Strip hotels represented by the Vegas local whose size he tripled), Wilhelm has been uncommonly adept at building rank-and-file organizing committees, mobilizing thousands of workers, and winning groundbreaking contracts.

As president of HERE since 1998, Wilhelm built what is surely the leanest union staff of any major international, hiring organizers and corporate researchers in part through savings achieved by killing off other departments (health and safety among them). Wilhelm taking over the AFL-CIO might be a little like a guerrilla leader who's fought in the hills for many years finally occupying the capital.

Wilhelm's critics complain that his union is not merely lean but understaffed and disorganized, that Wilhelm's record as a manager leaves much to be desired. They also note that HERE has endorsed Republicans -- among them, New York Governor George Pataki, who assisted HERE in winning collective bargaining at tribal casinos. Wilhelm's record of strategically endorsing Republicans may commend his candidacy to such centrist union leaders as the International Association of Fire Fighters' Harold Schaitberger, another occasional GOP endorser who has not been aligned with the dissidents but who recently sent a blistering letter to Sweeney excoriating the AFL-CIO president's management of federation affairs.

In many ways, a Wilhelm presidency would be less the negation of Sweeney's than its logical successor. An articulate speaker as well as a skilled negotiator, Wilhelm would provide the kind of public presence labor needs if it is to become more of a movement and less of a rickety federation incapable of the kind of death-defying organizing campaigns it needs to survive.

But Wilhelm has yet to declare his candidacy. With most federation presidents still supporting Sweeney, the dissidents' campaign plan -- other than to threaten the dissolution of the federation should Sweeney be re-elected -- remains unclear. “SEIU fouled up this campaign from the beginning,” says one union leader, when Stern raised the specter of disaffiliation back at the SEIU convention in July of 2004. “In the year leading up to the most important [U.S. presidential] election in decades,” said Steelworkers President Leo Gerard late last year, “we didn't need any damned distraction.”

While the 71-year-old Sweeney is well liked personally by labor leaders across the spectrum, it was by no means a given that he could have engendered support for another term as AFL-CIO president before the current controversy began. When he took office in 1995, he pledged he'd serve for 10 years, and it was widely expected he'd step down this July. “Sweeney wasn't thinking of running again,” says one of the AFL-CIO president's associates. “But Andy didn't just anger him; he infuriated a number of [presidents of] affiliates, who asked John to run again.”

Should Wilhelm run, this cross will be his, not Stern's, to bear. A few union presidents fairly bristle with cultural resentment at Stern, and, to a lesser degree, Raynor and Wilhelm, whom they see as having set themselves up as hip leaders in an otherwise square movement. “Why did they do the NUP thing at all?” one leader wonders. “It came off as a clique, as guys who thought they were better than everybody else.”

On Monday, May 16, a wholly different group of union leaders -- including the presidents of the AFT, the UFCW, the Fire Fighters, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers -- convened to discuss their own ideas for alternatives to Sweeney. It's by no means a given that these unions would support a Wilhelm candidacy, but the meeting raised the prospect of yet another insurgency and even deeper problems for the AFL-CIO's current administration.

* * *

If Wilhelm and unity do not prevail, what then? The SEIU will surely secede; whether by itself or with others is as yet unclear. “Under the right circumstances, everyone would be ready to go with SEIU,” says one dissident leader. But those circumstances would involve a mass secession, and it's not clear how many unions are willing to initiate that game of chicken. “My organization has never threatened to pull out of the AFL-CIO,” Laborers President Terry O'Sullivan told me at the March executive-council meeting, “and has no intention of doing so.” McEntee, for one, believes that all the unions but the SEIU are bluffing, in order to gain leverage for Wilhelm's candidacy. The Amalgamated Bank of UNITE-HERE, for instance, is vulnerable to huge withdrawals of union deposits should UNITE-HERE opt out of the AFL-CIO. (The CWA has already withdrawn $50 million.)

Blogging two days after the dissident presidents' speeches to the Teamsters, Stern wrote glowingly of “the combined strength and proud histories of the 5 million union members represented by our unions [the dissident coalition].” But if all were to leave and set up a rival federation, the new group would lack the clear definition of, say, the CIO, which was united around the principles of industrial unionism and activist liberal politics. The dissident unions may all argue for the imperative of organizing, but while the SEIU, UNITE-HERE, and the Laborers have transformed themselves into kick-ass organizing machines, the Teamsters and the UFCW have made no such transition. Similarly, the five unions occupy a fairly broad political spectrum: In 2004, the Teamsters were Dick Gephardt's biggest supporters, while the SEIU was a gaggle of Deaniacs.

Even if the SEIU goes off all by itself, many union officials believe that, in the words of one, “a Hobbesian world [will be] created.” Some fear that the SEIU's vaunted organizing machine will fight other unions for new, and maybe current, members -- fears Stern takes pains to allay. “Our intention is not to start a war,” he says. “We'd work with the AFL-CIO on everything that makes sense. We have no intention to start any campaign where an AFL-CIO union is already organized. But if somebody goes against us? God help the union that picks that fight.”

Whatever the case, the act of disaffiliation is sure to complicate the life of the AFL-CIO's state federations and central labor councils that wage their political and lobbying campaigns with money and activists provided by the SEIU. In Los Angeles -- home to the most politically potent labor council in the land, and one in which the SEIU is the dominant union -- council leader Miguel Contreras (who died, suddenly and prematurely, on May 6) was already building a series of parallel organizations to preserve a de facto, if no longer de jure, unified political operation.

But the biggest question is whether secession would help labor grow. The resources that the SEIU would gain from not paying AFL-CIO dues come to a little more than $10 million a year -- real money, but a small fraction of the SEIU's total organizing budget. Labor needs to pool its resources, not divide them, to have even a chance to grow. It needs to redirect resources from unions and sectors and states where unions have maintained a presence to those sectors and states where they do not yet exist. It cannot wait until labor law is reformed to begin this project. Labor's present business, if it does not organize, is the business of dying.

These changes require something more than a federated structure to direct unions' affairs; they require the recreation of a movement. That's why the thrust of Wilhelm's as-yet-undeclared candidacy is so crucial to labor's survival. At the same time, that's also why the prospect of the crumbling of labor's central body, and the internecine warfare that may break out in its wake, is so perilous.

“Where the hell is Moses when you need him?” O'Sullivan said in his talk to the Teamsters in Vegas. “I mean, parting the Red Sea is nothing compared to the challenges we face as a movement.” With no Moses on the horizon, and with the future of America's working and middle class very much at stake, labor now needs to make its own miracles.

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect.

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