Organize or Die

It was one of those awkward meetings that nobody looked forward to, and it produced an outcome nobody really liked. On Tuesday, Aug. 5, the executive council of the AFL-CIO turned its attention to the vexing question of what to do with the Carpenters. The union had withdrawn from the labor federation in 2001, with its maverick president, Doug McCarron, complaining that the AFL-CIO was frittering away his members' money on projects other than helping unions organize. The rift had widened in recent years as McCarron kept showing up alongside George W. Bush, finding virtues in the president that eluded his fellow union leaders.

But despite all that, the Carpenters were still a functioning member of the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Council, working harmoniously with other building-trades unions at construction sites and on matters of jurisdiction and organizing. Problem was, this was a clear violation of the AFL-CIO's constitution, which banned unions that didn't pay federation dues from belonging to a federation-sponsored council. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney had been telling executive council members he'd be compelled to ask them to sever the Carpenters' ties to the Building Trades. He'd announced that he planned to call the question at the August meeting.

On the very eve of the meeting, however, the Building Trades union presidents unceremoniously presented Sweeney with a unanimous resolution demanding that the date he'd proposed for the Carpenters to pay up or leave, Sept. 15, be pushed back a bit -- to 2005. Sweeney was understandably stunned; this was the most direct affront to his authority since he'd become president in 1995. In the end, the matter was deferred indefinitely.

But the unkindest cut came from a couple of union presidents who at first glance were close Sweeney allies, seemingly with no reason to indulge McCarron's defiance, much less his playing footsie with Bush. Yet John Wilhelm, president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE), and Andrew Stern, Sweeney's protégé and successor as president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), spoke forcefully for the Building Trades' position during the meeting.

Stern, Wilhelm and their colleague Bruce Raynor, president of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), were the executive council's left wing. Each had come out of the '60s left and brought its values into the labor movement. Each had made his reputation in the hardest job -- organizer -- the movement can offer. And each had revived a tradition of militant direct action in organizing campaigns. Together, they had persuaded their council colleagues to reverse the federation's longstanding opposition to immigrant workers and, in fact, had turned the house of labor into the immigrants' foremost advocate.

And now they were defying John Sweeney -- a man who, as president of the SEIU before Stern, had been the pre-eminent union leader of the generation before them to successfully organize new members; who'd preached the gospel of organizing, their gospel; who'd painstakingly rebuilt the AFL-CIO's ties to other progressive social movements. All on behalf of Doug McCarron, who'd spent the last two Labor Days with George W. Bush. What the hell was going on?

As it turns out, plenty.

In fact, Stern, Wilhelm and Raynor have embarked on an urgent campaign to transform the American labor movement. Convinced that the movement cannot survive without greatly increasing the number of workers it organizes, they have made common cause with union leaders across the political spectrum who believe as they do in organizing -- most particularly McCarron and Laborers International President Terence O'Sullivan. They hope to change the way labor organizes and the way the AFL-CIO assists its member unions to that end. The five presidents routinely speak to one anothers' conventions and meet together frequently. (The Prospect, a nonprofit publication, receives contributions from a wide range of sources, including some of the labor unions mentioned in this article.)

The three progressive presidents are exotic creatures within America's union leadership. For one thing, all are Ivy Leaguers (Wilhelm graduated from Yale, Raynor from Cornell, Stern from Penn). "They were middle-class college kids who are still driven by their ideology and their politics," says longtime associate Henry Bayer, who heads up the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in Illinois. Each was active in and partly shaped by the civil-rights and anti-war movements. What makes the Ivy Three truly exotic, however, is that they rose to power on the strength of their records as organizers, a background that has not been a path to union presidency since the 1930s and '40s.

Wilhelm, upon graduating Yale, responded to an ad for an organizing job that promised endless hours and no material rewards. He was hooked, and in short order was organizing clerical workers at his alma mater. HERE then sent him to Las Vegas, where, over a 15-year period, he organized virtually every hotel on the Strip, increasing the size of the local union from 10,000 members to 60,000. Part of his formula was forging a militant local -- during a nearly seven-year strike at the Frontier Hotel, not a single one of the several hundred striking union members crossed the picket line. But he also persuaded union members at hotels already under contract to make concessions on things like work rules in return for winning the right to organize workers at new hotels under the same ownership. In other words, he taught his members the meaning of market share -- if all the hotels were unionized, they could win much better contracts. And they did: Much of the huge housing boom in Las Vegas is the direct result of the fact that Vegas is the only American city where such service-sector workers as hotel chambermaids can afford to buy homes.

Raynor came out of Cornell and into what was then the Textile Workers Union. "[Union President] Sol Stettin told me that if I wanted to change things in America, I should go south and organize," Raynor recalls. Organizing biracial plants in the rural South was one of harder jobs on the planet, but Raynor persevered. He started leafleting at Cannon Mills in 1974, and it wasn't until 1999 that the union won recognition there. Organizing American clothing and textile workers during the age of globalization, however, has been a bit like building sandcastles at the beach; this July, Cannon Mills announced it was closing its plants and going out of business.

Raynor became president of UNITE in 2001, and since that time UNITE has been one of a handful of private-sector unions that has managed to keep organizing in its sector. Over the past couple of years, UNITE has waged an ambitious campaign to organize the industrial laundries that provide and clean uniforms. To date, it's organized about a quarter of the industry and is currently attempting to unionize Cintas, the industry's largest company.

Stern started out at a welfare workers' union in Pennsylvania, which subsequently affiliated with the SEIU. In the early '80s, then-SEIU President John Sweeney made him the union's organizing director, in which capacity he ran one of the most remarkable organizing drives in recent decades, the Justice for Janitors campaign. The SEIU's growth only accelerated when Stern became president in 1996. While virtually every other union has either lost members or barely held its own, the SEIU under Stern has grown by a stunning 535,000 new members so that it is now, at 1.5 million members, the largest union in the federation. The SEIU has had notable successes organizing home-care, nursing-home and hospital workers, and has continued to organize the janitors who clean America's office buildings.

Just as notable as the SEIU's success is the way it's been achieved. At Stern's prodding, the union now devotes about half its budget to organizing. The SEIU has hired hundreds of young people off college campuses or from community organizing groups to staff its campaigns. As existing staffers have been reassigned to organizing, locals have often had to train members to do the work of servicing their fellow members that the paid staff had previously performed.

The redirection of resources and the concomitant restructuring of the union and redefinition of a staffer's job have become commonplace among the unions -- UNITE and HERE among them -- devoted intensely to organizing. But of the 66 unions that belong to the AFL-CIO, only a relative handful -- surely no more than 10 -- are really organizing at all. From its 1953 high of 35 percent, the rate of unionization of American workers has fallen in every year but one, currently to 13 percent overall and to just 9 percent in the private sector.

In 1995, Sweeney campaigned for the AFL-CIO presidency on a two-plank platform: He would revitalize American labor's political clout and he'd turn around the four-decade decline in the rate of union membership. He succeeded at the first task admirably: Voters from union households, who represented just 14 percent of the electorate in 1994, constituted 26 percent in 2002. The figure is all the more striking because the share of the workforce that's unionized has continued to drop during his tenure.

Sweeney can't be accused of failing to exhort the federation's unions to organize. He established the Union Summer program to introduce college students to the joys of organizing, and thousands responded. He also boosted the size of the Organizing Institute, which trains union members and staffers in the organizer's art.

But the structure of the American labor movement is largely feudal, with the dukes and counts -- the presidents of the various international unions -- controlling the resources while the nominal king relies chiefly on the power of persuasion. And many of the dukes and counts have been unwilling or unable to do the excruciating work of retooling their unions for organizing.

"In a lot of the trades," says Laborers President O'Sullivan, who has shifted his own union into organizing mode, "there's this mind-set: 'I've got all my members working, so I'm happy.' Once the last guy was off the bench, we thought our job was done. But we may have 5 percent market share. Now we realize that we can get all our members off the bench and still be insignificant when we go to negotiate wages and benefits."

The root of both Sweeney's success and his failure, says Wilhelm, is structural. "There's no consensus within labor on the role of the AFL-CIO in organizing," Wilhelm explains, "while there is a consensus on its role in national politics." Into this void the troika of Stern, Wilhelm and Raynor have galloped with their own strategic vision. All three believe that the labor movement should be restructured sectorally, which runs against the grain of what has become a common practice for many unions. Because public employees don't run the same risk of being fired for joining unions that private-sector workers do, many unions have concluded that they should shift their organizing efforts to the public sector. A number of private-sector unions have largely abandoned organizing efforts in their core industries to go after employees at public universities and hospitals.

A few years ago, Stern argued to his colleagues that sectoral distinctions made more sense -- that, for instance, the SEIU and a few other unions would organize in health care, where they had experience and expertise, while others would concentrate on other industries. This met with a cool reception from, among others, presidents unenthusiastic about the prospects of organizing in anemic manufacturing industries. But Wilhelm and Raynor embraced the notion, and, indeed, the three unions, with their members' consent, have swapped a few locals that were outside their jurisdictions.

The gang of three, and allies such as O'Sullivan, believe unions will be unable to deliver for their members in collective bargaining, or ultimately recruit new ones, unless they achieve high levels of union membership within their sector. SEIU strategist Stephen Lerner points to the gains in health coverage that janitors won this spring, while many American workers were seeing their employers cut back on their coverage. "Union density trumped a bad economy," he says.

Thus the odd-couple alliance between labor's leftmost leaders and the Laborers -- and the Carpenters. Indeed, no two presidents have more radically restructured their unions than Stern and McCarron. Both have reduced the percentage of resources spent on servicing existing members to free more resources for organizing new ones. Both have reshaped locals -- over considerable opposition, in McCarron's case -- into larger units more capable of organizing. Both are apostles of organizing to drive up market shares, and disdainful of organizing that doesn't accomplish that end.

Beyond that, Stern, Wilhelm, Raynor, O'Sullivan and McCarron share a common vision of how the AFL-CIO should tackle the organizing challenge. At a 2001 executive council meeting, federation staffers presented a devastating report on the decline of union membership in industry after industry. At its conclusion, Wilhelm suggested reallocating federation resources to address the problem: 75 percent of the AFL-CIO's budget should be split equally between politics and organizing, with the remaining 25 percent allocated to other programs that contributed to those goals.

The suggestion went nowhere, but it was indicative of the strategic approach of Wilhelm's group. "Many of us feel that the AFL-CIO provides too many services that international unions should provide themselves and doesn't have enough focus to help unions with their strategic growth and politics," Stern says.

He notes, for example, that real-estate investment trusts (REITs) own many office buildings and hotels, and that many union pension funds are invested in REITs. Why not expand the federation's "capital strategies" program? Stern asks. "Look at REITs and find a way [to bring pension fund pressure] to organize markets, construction sites, office buildings and hotels," he says. "Right now, John [Wilhelm] is looking at hotels, Doug [McCarron] is looking at building sites and I'm looking at janitors." Often, the same companies own the hotels and office buildings, but says Stern, "our thinking is compartmentalized."

But there's no consensus among union presidents to expand the AFL-CIO's capital strategies department. And this bottleneck is indicative of a larger fragmentation rooted both in personal rivalries and principled differences that sometimes disables the broader project of energizing the labor movement.

The three presidents share what AFSCME strategist Paul Booth terms, somewhat critically, "a powerful impatience." Their attitude, he says, is, "'It's our turn to see if we can have an impact on this big problem, and please don't slow us down because we may not have too much longer on our watch to make the impact that needs to be made.' The impatience is fed by decline, but I'm not prepared to credit it as the right way to do things."

Neither is Larry Cohen, the executive vice president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and another of American labor's leading organizers. Like Booth, Cohen goes back a long way with the troika. (He met Stern at Penn in 1970.) "I don't like conversations about market share or union density," he says. "In the early days, people started their own unions. Do we really think that unions need to hire more organizers, and that their background doesn't matter so long as they're smart? Unions are about work and workplaces." Indeed, the CWA uses members as organizers more heavily than unions like the SEIU. "I applaud SEIU," Cohen adds, "but they end up focusing more on competence than on workers' ownership" of the union.

There is, to be sure, a price to be paid in the conversion of a union to the kind of organizing machine that a Stern or McCarron builds. Smaller locals may make it harder to organize workers, but they develop more rank-and-file leaders, another important tool in building a strong union. Still, at a time of long-term decline in membership, it's hard to argue with the 535,000 new members that the SEIU has added on Stern's watch.

Cohen also criticizes the odd political alliance that has arisen between Stern, Wilhelm and Raynor on the left and O'Sullivan, McCarron and the Teamsters' James P. Hoffa -- whose unions have many Republican members -- on the right. At a recent Republican Congressional Campaign Committee dinner, five of those unions -- all but UNITE -- bought tables.

"Stern and those guys have had an instrumentalist view of politics," says one associate of the progressive presidents. "They ask, 'Will this [candidate] back our organizing campaign?' They had little or no sense of the importance of party until the effect of the 2002 election sunk in on them. Before 2002, Andy [Stern] was speaking of having permanent interests, not permanent allies. Now they all say the most important thing is to defeat Bush."

It's not that the unions get nothing from their GOP endorsements. HERE extracted from Gov. George Pataki (R-N.Y.) legislation that requires tribal casinos not to oppose HERE's unionization efforts. If the foremost obligation of unions in this era is to grow, HERE's deal is certainly defensible. If their foremost obligation is to safeguard the interests of the whole working class (whose minimum-wage increase Pataki opposed), it's attackable, too.

"Because of their ideology," says a union official, the progressive presidents "don't make the mistake of thinking they could build the union by relying on politicians. Sweeney and [AFSCME President Gerald] McEntee," he adds, are from an earlier generation that placed "a heavier reliance on politics and didn't pay as much attention to building a strong, independent membership base." Of course, when Sweeney and McEntee were young, politics was more union-friendly.

Will this left-right alliance of organizing unions attempt to remold the AFL-CIO by having one of its members run for the federation presidency in 2005, should Sweeney, whose term is up that year, elect to step down? It's certainly possible. Wilhelm's and O'Sullivan's are two names that people raise. (Stern, like Walter Reuther 50 years ago, is thought to be both too successful and not enough of a back slapper to win the votes of his fellow presidents.) The alliance could conceivably also back AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka if he seeks the job.

But 2005 is a long way off. For now, Stern says, "There's a way for people who have common ideas to work together to make those ideas more effective than any one union can do on its own. The goal of this group would be to approach organizing wholesale, not retail." In the near future, then, HERE, UNITE, the SEIU, the Laborers and the Carpenters can be expected to announce some pooling of resources, possibly to create a joint capital strategies and research operation that would help them all undertake major new campaigns. If the experiment meets some quick successes, it could then fuel an attempt in 2005 to reconfigure the AFL-CIO.

As the presidents in the organizing alliance see it, the changes they're proposing are a matter of life and death for American unions. "The labor movement has been embattled every day since I joined it," says Raynor, "and that's true for John [Wilhelm] and Andy [Stern] as well." The janitors union, he adds, was nearly destroyed early on during Stern's tenure as organizing director. "That kind of thing certainly colors our outlook."

"If things keep up the way they've been going," adds O'Sullivan, "we're going to be engaged in collective begging, not bargaining. What happens in the next five years defines the next 50."

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