Wednesday, June 08, 2005

A glimpse at labor’s projected future

(from the May June edition of Union Democracy Review)

Shall the Hotel union get a guaranteed monopoly over organizing workers at Indian tribe casinos in California? A dispute over that question is a recent spin-off from the Great Debate over labor’s future.

To lift that fog of enforced false unanimity that regularly settles over the labor movement like morning mist in the valley, almost any kind of a controversy over policy would be welcome. In 1995, John Sweeney initiated a debate by campaigning against Lane Kirkland and Tom Donahue; now, poetic justice, it’s Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, against Sweeney. He wants to rearrange the AFL-CIO into a few giant unions, each with a closely defined jurisdiction protected from competition from all others. Ironically, he is deploying all the tools of democracy to advance an authoritarian, super-centralized, conception of the labor movement. From the top, the AFL-CIO would issue patents to the big union monopolies, and members would be lined up wherever they were assigned. No room for small nations here; imperialist powers take over the world.

We are granted an advance glimpse into the Stern world of tomorrow by a seemingly minor jurisdictional dispute over who has the right to organize workers at Indian tribes’ gambling casinos in California. The UNITE-HERE Employees union, a close Stern ally, has gone to court to cut out the Communications Workers of America.

According to the New York Times, UNITE-HERE argues that it was granted exclusive jurisdiction by the AFL-CIO over the California casinos. It is willing to overlook the two casinos already organized by the CWA. It claims, however, that the CWA had agreed to respect the UNITE-HERE license to control all the others. When the CWA campaigned to organize a third casino, UNITE-HERE sued in court for breach of contract. The issues will be settled, most likely after tedious proceedings in court and at the AFL-CIO. What is most significant, however, is the Stern ally’s claim that their AFL-CIO certificate of exclusive jurisdiction gives them rights over workers whom they may not yet have even approached. No one has consulted casino workers on the subject.

The reliance on parceling out exclusive jurisdiction takes us back 70 years before the rise of the CIO. It was the CIO that made the principle obsolete when it successfully resisted the AFL-backed claims of the craft unions to ownership of all skilled workers. And once the CIO won its battle, the claim to sanctified jurisdiction collapsed. Under pressure from an expanding CIO, the AFL was transformed into an assemblage of industrial-type unions as they all fought to organize everyone. The great days of labor’s advance came when they all competed freely everywhere to win over the allegiance of dues-payers. The Stern family would reassert a principle that frustrates workers’ choice and turns them into a traded commodity. If labor leaders are compelled to compete for the hearts of workers, it makes unions more responsive to the membership and strengthens the labor movement.

(Here, we’re reminded of how zealous fans of jurisdictional property rights defend the AFL-CIO no-raiding pact. “Why should we compete for the same workers?” they ask, “When we take 50,000 from you, and then you take 50,000 from us, there is lots of trouble but a net gain of zero for the labor movement.” It is a perfect argument from the standpoint of officials who want a simpler life for themselves. But not from the standpoint of union members. When those 100,000 move from one union to another, they are liberated from a leadership they do not want and are free to seek another.)

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