Saturday, October 22, 2005

A fine feud with no fighting!

Seven unions, united in the Change to Win coalition, have finally formed their new federation to rival the AFL-CIO. The Carpenters had left the AFL-CIO long before; it is now a model of bureaucratic, non-democratic centralism. The Teamsters, Laborers, Service Employees, UNITE/HERE, and the Food Workers have just seceded. The United Farm Workers remains affiliated to both rival federations. Even before any battle has been engaged, the two camps already seem to have arrived at an unspoken armistice. Many on both sides, forced by their international affiliations to become partisans, seem shaken and dismayed by the split. Their reaction suggests what is the probable reality: that the new federation is on a fast track to nowhere.

Bob Proto, president of UNITE Local 35 and head of the New Haven, CT. Central Labor Council, told the New Haven Register, "What does the AFL-CIO split mean for New Haven? It means that the Central Labor Council and the Connecticut State Federation of Labor will form the glue to keep everyone together. We cannot allow national divisions to infect our local and state federations."

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers remains loyal to the AFL-CIO. Frank Halloran, president of its Connecticut Local 90 told the Meriden Record Journal that the split would not lead to dissension in the state. "Collectively in Connecticut," he said, "all affiliated unions of the building trades will continue to work together."

AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) seems saddened but not angry at the split. Gerald McEntee, AFSCME national president: "We are sorry to see SEIU and the Teamsters leave." Lillian Roberts, head of AFSCME's District Council 37 in New York: "There is always the possibility that we will eventually get back together." True, of course, but not quite a stirring call to a defensive battle.

The New York Times reported on September 20 that Stern’s Service Employees and AFSCME (hot for the AFL-CIO) signed a two-year no-raiding pact and agreed to a joint campaign to organize 25,000 homecare workers in California.

Edgar Romney, who is executive vice president of UNITE (another hot anti-AFL-CIO union) and who is also on the board of the NYC and NYS AFL-CIO federations, told the Times, “We hope that we will continue to find ways to work together." Brian McLaughlin, president of the NYC Central Labor Council, said that he met with the Teamsters, SEIU, UNITE, and Food Workers to discuss continued cooperation. Mike Fishman, president of SEIU Local 32BJ, told the Times, “We want to continue our relationship with everyone who wants to cooperate with us."

Brian Sabourin, conflicted as a member of the SEIU and president of the AFL-CIO Central Labor Council in Worcester MA, told the Wall Street Journal, "I wish I didn't have to leave, because most of the work is done at the local level." Sal Rosselli, president of SEIU's United Healthcare Workers, which the Journal says represents 140,000 in California, said, "We fully intend to continue working together with unions both in and outside of the AFL-CIO."

John Sweeney, AFL-CIO president, the very man who Change to Win tried to drive from office, proposes to issue special "solidarity charters" to locals of the seceding unions to allow them to remain in AFL-CIO state and city federations. The move was promptly endorsed by Dennis Hughes, president of the NYS Federation of Labor, as a means of preserving a "united front" of labor.

Compared to the bitter battles between the AFL and the CIO in the raucous thirties, this is a fine feud with no fighting.

On organizing

Change to Win zealots argue that they had to leave the AFL-CIO to organize those masses of poor underpaid workers. But the American Federation of Teachers, still in the AFL-CIO, is deep into a campaign to organize 52,000 family providers in New York State. No need to secede or to dump Sweeney!

The SEIU, free of Sweeney, announces a "new" approach in organizing Wal-Mart workers. It has formed a Wal-Mart Workers Association to campaign for employee rights even before seeking collective bargaining status. As a method of battling against a resolutely anti-union employer, it is a great idea. But it is not new. The Communications Workers of America instituted precisely such a campaign many months ago in non-union shops. No need to secede or dump Sweeney. The CWA has been outspoken in its rejection of the Change to Win line.

(Both the Teachers union in its drive to organize family care workers and the SEIU in organizing Wal-Mart workers have joined with ACORN, the national community organizing group.)

On political action

The Change to Win people insist on a change in political action policy. They argue that the AFL-CIO policy of clinging to the Democratic Party has won nothing for labor, that the Democrats simply take labor for granted and give nothing in return. And they intend to change all that. It is a criticism that might make sense if the critics were threatening a genuinely new independent policy, like supporting the Working Families Party of New York, or a New Party nationally, or Naderite Greens, or a Labor Party, or even a massive shift to liberal pro-labor Republicans. But so far, nothing like that. Quite the opposite.

In 2004, Stern's SEIU donated $500,000 to the Republican Governor’s' Association, not a hotbed of pro-union sentiment. Three Republican governors, by executive decree, illegalized collective bargaining for public employees in their states: Indiana, Kentucky, and Missouri. A fourth, in Maryland, voided a pay increase that the union had won under his predecessor. The donation obviously went to the Republican Party's right wing. If that $500,000 political investment is a harbinger of what is to come from the Change Coalition, it indicates that they may hope to make union organizing more palatable to the Republican right by buying it off with contributions. No question. That, at least, would be a change, but not necessarily a change to win.


It is hard to know where the new federation is going and why it had to split off from the AFL-CIO to get there.

However, the course of at least one of the participants, James Hoffa, makes sense. Hoffa was propelled into the presidency of the Teamsters union mainly by the support of those who had tolerated the heavy infiltration of the union by organized crime figures who would not rest until they got rid of the reformer, Ron Carey. In recent month's, Ed Stier, who had been retained by the union, presumably to help keep it clean, accused Hoffa of blocking efforts to get rid of racketeers where they may still be ensconced in the union. By coming forward as a man who calls for the reform of the labor movement, Hoffa may succeed in shucking off the image of a man who could not or would not reform his own union.