Friday, August 19, 2005

AFL-CIO split poses the question: Must labor bureaucratize to organize?

A discussion piece by Herman Benson from Union Democracy Review #157

Five unions may be on their way out of the AFL-CIO. Led by Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees, they promise —-or threaten—- to form a new federation that will seek to reorganize the labor movement and revive its dwindling strength. At this writing, the SEIU and the Teamsters, after boycotting the July AFL-CIO convention, have already announced their departure.

When John Sweeney took over as AFL-CIO president in 1995, he proposed to arrest labor’s decline by a massive program to organize the unorganized. He failed. Now, ten years later, Stern promises to arrest labor’s decline by a massive program to organize the unorganized, but under the aegis of his new federation.

What has Stern got that Sweeney lacked?

Sweeney hoped to inspire the labor movement to come forward as a force for social justice in America. Stern, in a kind of corporate spirit of mergers and consolidation in quest of a labor “market density,” would abolish unions he feels are too small and force them all into a few big unions, each guaranteed against competition by being assigned a monopoly grant in its “core” industry. Other unions might have to give way; but Stern’s SEIU and those that now support him would, apparently, be among the exempt lucky few to survive the major surgery. These remaining Leviathans would confront the corporate enemy in a mighty campaign to rebuild the labor movement. Stern calls for the drastic reorganization of the whole labor movement because without it, he insists, the labor movement is doomed to oblivion.

On the face of it, something is wrong here. The acute symptom of labor’s ailment is that only 8% of workers in private industry are organized. How can the fate of that 92% without unions depend upon rearranging the tiny band of 8% with unions? Doesn’t ring true! Actually, the kind of reorganization that the Stern forces demand suffers from two fatal flaws: For one thing, it will never take place. For another, it is irrelevant to the main difficulties that face the labor movement, difficulties that will not respond to technical rearrangement.

The partners in Stern’s Change to Win coalition don’t take their own professed principle of “core” reorganization seriously. Take the Laborers Union [LIUNA],which enjoys the affiliation of 50,000 (non-core!) postal workers. Because these are federal employees, some kind of crazy arrangement allows LIUNA to enroll some 400,000 other federal employees as “associates” in a federal health insurance plan. The LIUNA postal affiliate gets fees of some $16,000,000 a year of which $3,000,000 goes to the international. No sign of reorganizing that $16,000,000 out of LIUNA.

IBT organizes everything

Take the biggest Stern partner, the Teamsters union [IBT]. (The very notion that its president, James Hoffa, will be leading the charge for a brave new world of labor is mind-boggling. While admonishing other unions to stay at their core, he has just absorbed two railroad unions into the IBT (rails compete with trucking!) He has just taken in the Graphic Communications International Union, a printing union. Meanwhile, he holds on to the 20,000-member Local 237, the union of NYC housing authority workers, lawyers, and other public employees and to assorted factory and miscellaneous workers. Hoffa makes no bones about it: the Teamsters union is already a general union of disparate sectors; and he has no intention of changing it. In an interview with the Nation he was asked, “You organize in every industry. Are you going to stop doing that?” No equivocation in his blunt reply: “Absolutely not. We would not give up members….We have from A to Z in our union, airline pilots to zookeepers….We will always be a general union, and we are not giving up our right.”

HERE/UNITE, an enthusiastic Stern ally, is an amalgam of hotel-restaurant workers with remnants of a clothing union. Its merger has nothing to do with core organizational values and market shares; it is a marriage of convenience between actual members and the ample treasury of a sick union.

And finally the SEIU, the banner bearer of the move to strip, consolidate, and eliminate others, is itself a minor miscellaneous federation of labor with a self-selected range of jurisdiction that stretches from anywhere to everywhere. A good part of its growth consists of absorbing workers already organized, like Hospital Local 1199.

Physician, heal thyself! The notion that this motley collection could ever convince other unions to do precisely what they themselves will not and cannot do is ludicrous. It will never happen.

But in any event, even hypothetically, the Stern scheme is mostly irrelevant to the big, sometimes intractable, problems facing unions in today’s climate. An important and growing sector of American unionism is among federal and local government employees. President Bush by a stroke of the presidential pen wipes out unionism for tens of thousands of Homeland Security workers. By executive order, the governors of Indiana, Kentucky, and Missouri eliminate collective bargaining for thousand of public employees. The NLRB destroys unions of graduate students. The labor movement can reorganize, organize, and reorganize again, dizzyingly enough to mollify even Stern, without noticeable dent on government unionism. Irrelevant! The issue here is obviously political.

Unionism is under intense pressure everywhere in mass manufacturing: auto, aircraft, steel, rubber, etc. weighed down by awesome international forces. Can anyone seriously suggest that their solution lies in internal union reorganization? For this sector of unionism the Stern camp is irrelevant.

Competing unions among the airlines? The Stern group seems to think they can remedy that divergence by fiat. It won’t work as long as workers still retain some freedom of choice. A more effective remedy might be to find out why workers are so dissatisfied with one union that they seek another. But in any event, that too is irrelevant to the issue at hand. Can anyone seriously contend that the solution to union problems in the airlines lies in re-organizational manipulation?

Stern and company keep hammering away at the need to organize that unorganized 92% outside union ranks; and in this, of course, they receive credit for focusing attention on what everyone knows. But how? All their talk about reorganizing is not simply irrelevant; it clouds over something at the heart of this one-sided discussion. (One-sided, because the Sweeney folks have had nothing consequential to say.) In the guise of a case for technical reorganization, the Stern forces are popularizing the concept of a super centralized, bureaucratized labor movement in which leaders at the top wield new authoritarian powers. They would bureaucratize to organize.

The reorganized carpenters union

The process is already completed and on full display in the Carpenters union which has already reorganized itself in the new spirit. The Carpenters union, which had left the AFL-CIO, is an important force in the new Stern coalition.

That vision of a highly centralized labor movement which restrains membership initiative in an authoritarian straightjacket is no mere bad dream, no reverse utopia. Carpenter locals have been reduced to impotent units. Merged into sprawling regional councils, locals are not permitted to pay any officers or staff members; their main source of income, the work tax, is taken over by the councils. Locals have lost all control over collective bargaining. Business agents are appointed from above. No member can hold any paid staff position in the council or any local without the permission of an all-powerful executive secretary treasurer. Local delegates, who elect the EST, cannot hold a paid union job without his or her endorsement. If that system were to be applied to public government no member of Congress or staff employee could be paid out of government funds, without permission of the President. It is reorganization carried out to the point of parody. The Stern camp validates that trend and encourages it. What the labor movement needs today is, not a further intensification of its bureaucratic tendencies, but democratization.

Any comparison, or identification, of the position of labor in 2005 with the state of the CIO in 1935 is completely off the mark. The CIO arose in a period of hope, of rising expectations, under the impulse of the New Deal coalition. Some workers flocked to the CIO in a spontaneous wave of strikes and sit-ins. Today in a defensive period of gloom and doom, the balance of political power in America is anti-union, blocking the way to a more just society.

With some 16,000,000 members, most in the AFL-CIO, who with their families make up perhaps 25% of America, the labor movement still constitutes a formidable social and political force capable of changing that balance of power. The trouble is that the AFL-CIO cannot convince almost half of its own membership, above all its white working class membership, to follow its political lead. They couldn’t get them to follow their lead in the 2004 Democratic primaries, or to defeat Schwarzenegger in California, or Bush in 2004. And it was not for lack of trying. The AFL-CIO campaign in the 2004 elections was one of the greatest outpourings of electoral activity ever, that’s the problem. How can you solve this problem by recruiting more members, when you can’t convince half of those you already have?

The stalemate in America

Despite the potential people power still at their disposal and despite the apparent attractiveness of their formal stance on issues, the leaders of our labor movement have not been able to break the stalemate in America. One reason, one very important reason, the decisive reason, is that they have been unable to bring to bear the power of that army of 16,000,000. They can activate their staff cadres; they can sometimes bring an impressive portion of their already-convinced membership to the polls. But they have been unable to inspire the overwhelming bulk of their membership and mobilize them as a force for social justice, because they have failed to imbue them with a deep conviction that this movement belongs to them.

Too many leaders on top run the works with contempt for the members below. As a citizen of the United States, you can freely, and without fear, criticize the president all you want. But in wide sections of the labor movement, especially in the building trades, if you criticize your business manager, your family suffers because you can’t work.

It is time to give union democracy a chance. Defend a member’s right to work in dignity and self-respect, not only at the job site, but in the union hall. Encourage them to run for office. The labor movement has no poll tax but it does impose niggling restrictions on the right to run. Let them know their legal rights. Guarantee fair elections, the right to elect stewards and vote on contracts in honest referendums. Democratize the labor movement and it can win the respect of its membership and the moral right to lead them in politics. As Walter Reuther put it: It is not enough to organize the unorganized; we must unionize the organized. Convince members of the justice of the cause, and they will convince the nation.

Despite their professions of good intentions, their apparent determination to devote time and money to organize the unorganized, the Stern followers, by bureaucratizing the labor movement, lead it precisely in the wrong directions and undercut their own efforts.

The unions in Stern’s Change to Win are an odd coupling. Of the four unions identified over the years as most heavily infiltrated by organized crime, three found their way into the new movement: Teamsters, Laborers, and Hotel. (The fourth, the International Longshoremen’s Association, not involved these events, faces a federal RICO suit.)

Total collapse of self-reform

The Teamsters union can report the total collapse of its touted self-reform program. Ed Stier, who IBT President Hoffa retained to devise an anti-corruption program, now charges that Hoffa is part of the problem, and that the union is unwilling or unable to investigate suspicions of organized crime infiltration in Chicago. The IBT, a museum of swollen multiple salaries, supported Stern’s demand that the AFL-CIO give massive per capita tax relief to its affiliates. Will the IBT use the windfall for organizing? To ask is to wonder.

Terrence O’Sullivan, who took over as Laborers president; and John Wilhelm who became Hotel union president, both have personal reputations as clean progressive union leaders. But their rise to power was not the outcome of any organized reform movement in their unions. They came out of the old union regimes; their accession to power was made possible only by the action of law enforcement authorities and by federal monitorship over their affairs. Cleansing at the top does not automatically bring change below. (The Laborers, although part of the Stern coalition, says it will not split off from the AFL-CIO. After years of government oversight, it still faces organized crime problems in New York-New Jersey.) Before its partners deserved credence as a “Change to Win” coalition, they would have to change themselves; some simply to reorganize; others would have to reorganize and reform.

One legitimate difference separates what the two camps say. (What they actually will do remains to be seen.) Stern says that labor must organize in order to strengthen its political power. Sweeney says that labor must strengthen its political power in order to organize. Which comes first the chicken or the egg? The answer can hardly justify splitting the federation.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Talk at AFSCME Local 1930

Herman Benson spoke at a book party hosted by AFSCME Local 1930. Ken Nash, of Building Bridges, the community-labor report on WBAI radio in NYC, recorded the talk and aired these excerpts. (

(The interview with Huck and Konopacki that follows is a welcome break from somber musings on the AFL-CIO split.)