New Labor?

For a life-and-death debate about the future of the labor movement, the current conflict over the structure and role of America's unions got off to a singularly inauspicious start. A week and a day after John Kerry's -- and the unions' -- defeat at the hands of George W. Bush, the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO convened in Washington for a postmortem. The day had been filled with staff reports -- federation operatives briefing the assembled union presidents on the details of the election-day program, by far the most extensive in labor's history. (“You'd have thought we won,” one union president commented when the meeting was done.)

Only at the end of the day did AFL-CIO President John Sweeney turn to the president of the federation's largest affiliate -- Andy Stern, of the 1.6 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU) -- for new business. In his allotted 10 minutes, Stern laid out a series of radical proposals. Like everyone in the room, Stern knew that labor's effort for Kerry had come up short not due to deficiencies in its political program, but in good part because there simply aren't enough union members anymore to turn an election. And so Stern called for rebating half of the affiliates' dues payments to the AFL-CIO back to the member unions so they could increase their organizing -- a move that would greatly reduce, of course, the size of the federation's staff and the scope of its work.

Labor's plight was so dire, Stern argued, that it no longer had the luxury of funding many projects outside organizing and politics. Nor could the movement afford to have multiple unions fighting over the few relatively organizable employers while vast sectors of the economy were never approached by unions at all. To that end, he called for consolidating the federation's 58 member unions -- most of them too small to embark on serious organizing -- down to roughly 20, each with a clear responsibility for a defined sector of the economy.

It was a huge proposal, but for a time it almost got lost in the surrounding hubbub. The SEIU was already aligned with UNITE-HERE (the clothing and hotel workers union), the Laborers, and the Carpenters. These four unions had shifted resources into organizing and had expressed frustration that the AFL-CIO had been unable to get other unions to follow suit. But Stern's proposal came as a surprise to his allies, as did his announcement to the press at the meeting's conclusion that the SEIU was establishing a committee to look at the implications of leaving the federation if it didn't embrace these changes.

If Stern's fellow presidents were steamed at him for springing his proposals upon them, though, a number were equally steamed at Sweeney for allotting Stern just 10 minutes to present them -- and no time at all to discuss them. “Even though Andy has a lot of enemies, the avoidance of any discussion pissed people off,” said one leading unionist who has not been allied with Stern.

The absence of discussion fed a concern that had been growing among union presidents of all tendencies: that the AFL-CIO had taken on a bureaucratic life of its own that its “board of directors” -- the presidents of the unions whose dues sustained it -- was increasingly unable to control. Rather than afford the presidents the opportunity to discuss labor's myriad challenges, wrote Firefighter President Harold Schaitberger in a recent critique of AFL-CIO practices, “council meetings effectively became a reporting mechanism for AFL-CIO Officers and staff to inform and overwhelm affiliate unions with paper.” And so, between union leaders' frustrations with both the impulsive Stern and the overscripted Sweeney, the debate over labor's future was off to a rocky start.

* * *

In contrast to labor's last upheaval, the revolt against longtime AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland that erupted in the wake of the Republicans' 1994 takeover of Congress, the challenge to Sweeney is far more complex. His successes during his decade as federation president are considerable. On his watch, labor's get-out-the-vote program became the model for other political institutions, the Republican Party included. Labor's share of the electorate rose from an anemic 14 percent in 1994 to 26 percent in 2000. Under Sweeney's guidance, labor became the linchpin of liberal coalition politics (a role to which Kirkland had been singularly indifferent). Unions also rose in public esteem; college students went to work for them as they had not since the 1930s. In everything but its membership numbers, the movement had turned things around.

But it's the membership numbers that matter. By 2004, unions had dwindled to less than 13 percent of the workforce, and just 8 percent in the private sector. In southern California, supermarket clerks were forced to accept lower pay and fewer health benefits for new hires. Nationally, airline employees lost pensions and paychecks. Seven or eight unions persisted in serious organizing campaigns, but the majority of the federation's unions had in essence given up. Sweeney had tried to bolster organizing by inviting smaller unions to merge, and through educational campaigns. But his efforts had been largely rebuffed.

Then came November's election. For all the AFL-CIO's efforts, the labor share of the overall electorate declined from 26 percent in 2000 to 24 percent. And despite the tensions between Stern and many of his peers, his fellow union leaders have over the past month come around to his fundamental point: that labor has to radically increase its organizing or it will no longer be able to deliver for working-class Americans.

In early December, the Teamsters put forth their own agenda for change -- in essence, a version of Stern's reforms more likely to appeal to the union presidents whose votes would be needed to enact them. That plan called for a 50-percent reduction in dues for those unions doing a significant level of organizing in their core industries -- and, by withholding rebates from unions too small to undertake serious organizing, they intended to foster mergers by means less coercive than the federation fiat, which the SEIU at times had seemed to advocate. They called for altering the federation's rules to prohibit unions from straying into other unions' core jurisdictions, and they called for reducing the size and increasing the power of the AFL-CIO's Executive Council and its other governing bodies.

In the past few weeks, a number of the federation's larger unions have embraced versions of these changes. The AFL-CIO's second largest union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, has discussed proposals for re-allocating the movement's resources into organizing. Two other major unions -- the American Federation of Teachers and the Communications Workers of America -- have put forth papers that distinctly refrain from calling for any cuts in the AFL-CIO's budget and operations. But at a January 10 Executive Committee meeting, it became apparent that presidents of unions whose members comprise at least half of the AFL-CIO's total membership (and federation policy is determined by unions' voting their numerical strength) favored this kind of shift of resources (though many want to increase the federation's political budget, too). The level of support for encouraging -- but not mandating -- strategic mergers was considerable as well.

Who, exactly, would implement such changes remains a mystery. Sweeney's term as president is over at the upcoming AFL-CIO convention this July, and he has announced his intention to run again. A number of presidents are concerned that the 70-year-old Sweeney and his senior staff cannot plausibly lead the kind of federation shake-up they support, even if Sweeney embraces its tenets. “Sweeney is a master of absorbing proposals from his left,” says one union leader. But if the leaders are looking for a more plausible change agent, there are other unionists whose names continually come up. UNITE-HERE Co-President John Wilhelm's is the most commonly mentioned, though Wilhelm has not been campaigning for the job. Linked with his UNITE-HERE Co-President Bruce Raynor and with Stern as among the most progressive and intellectual of union chiefs, though, Wilhelm may not be the figure with whom some union leaders feel most comfortable. “There's a resentment that's cultural as much as anything else,” says one union veteran. Two other leaders who don't face that problem are Laborers President Terry O'Sullivan and AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Rich Trumka.

The federation's Executive Council convenes in Las Vegas at the beginning of March, where it should become clearer whether the movement will direct more resources into organizing, whether Sweeney will face challenges, and whether the SEIU will decide to stay or go off to build its own federation. (The SEIU has already embarked on an ambitious program overseas to help organize global corporations.) Like Walter Reuther's United Auto Workers, which in 1968 withdrew from the AFL-CIO for more than a decade, the SEIU has the strength and élan to go it alone -- which it might have to, because even its closest allies could encounter a sea of troubles if they disaffiliated. Like Reuther, Stern is increasingly a preeminent figure in liberal America who inspires both admiration and unease within the house of labor. What it will mean if the SEIU sets up shop outside that house is, for now, anybody's guess.

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

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