Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

It's inches from official -- we're almost certainly going to have a Labor split.


There are two ways to look at this. The first is from the Labor movement's perspective. Is splitting going to reverse the decline of unions or hasten it? The answer, truthfully, is that we don't know, but we're quite sure that the AFL-CIO's methods weren't helping matters any, so changing them up is crucial. But it goes beyond that too.

You have to think of the Labor movement as having two parts: the old style, manufacturing and public sector unions, which have historic employee power and are primarily focused on retaining their gains, and the new movements, which are trying to unionize the low-wage service sectors. The strategies needed to retain old gains are very different from those necessary to make new ones, and the fundamental conflict is whether the AFL-CIO will be organized to support the latter aim or the former. Neither group really feels it can do both. But the SEIU, Teamsters, and all their allies in Change to Win don't feel that it can be at all split. Unionizing new industries and taking on the new breed of anti-union companies (Wal-Mart) is simply too big a job to do with anything but full resources and full attention, so having a hundred small unions competing with each other while most of the cash flows to political pressure is simply mad.

The second analysis, contra Singer, is political. Will this be good for the Democratic party? One of the primary conflicts in the AFL-CIO, which again goes back to the old v. new union issue, is whether their cash should be spent trying to elect Democrats who can pass legislation more favorable to unions or be funneled directly to organizing, political environment be damned. This would, of course, be a more convincing argument if the Labor movement were actually able to elect Democrats. Not so. Despite it's best effort, it's still too small to do anything save slow our slide.

But now, with the rise of the net, the Phoenix Group, and small donors, Democrats have the money to fund their own resurgence, and the success of that project is up to us. It'll be much better, long run, if we have a revitalized Labor movement to draw on. So even from a political lens, it's better for the party if the Labor movement concentrates on its own growth rather than ours. As things stand, they're not large enough to save us, but they may still be able to save themselves. And doing the latter may achieve the former anyway.