Saturday, March 07, 2009

Change to Win is losing it

Andy Stern's dream house is collapsing; but he hopes to pick up the pieces. Such is the implication of reports in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

UNITE/HERE, one of the pillars of Change to Win, the coalition that Stern led out of the AFL-CIO, is being chopped to bits by blows of mutual recriminations between its two warring top leaders. The union had been formed as a marriage, now clearly one of inconvenience, between UNITE, the needle trades union which had loads of money but not enough members, and HERE, the hotel union which had lots of members but not enough money. Bruce Raynor, who invested the needle trades cash into the merger, was awarded the presidency of the new union. John Wilhelm, who invested those hotel workers and is president of the united union's hospitality division, apparently emerged with a majority on the international executive board.

Raynor accuses the Wilhelm forces of too exclusive a concern for the wages and benefits of union members and too little for organizing the unorganized. They, in turn, accuse Raynor of acting like a dictator, one who is willing to trade away union standards to induce employers to accept unionization. On the face of it, this dispute seems like a mirror image of the battle inside the Service Employees between Andy Stern and Sal Rosselli which is now tearing apart the SEIU in California.

Raynor wants to pull UNITE out of the tie with HERE. Fifteen of his supporters on the international executive board are in federal court trying to undo the merger and get their money back. He is chairman of Amalgamated Bank, owned by UNITE, which seems somehow mixed up in this tangle. According to the Wall Street Journal, some believe that Raynor wants to safeguard his control of the bank in case Wilhelm wins out. And so he proposes to amend bank rules to make it difficult to oust its directors in one fell swoop and to require a 75% vote of all outstanding shares to approve any "significant transaction" not initiated by the directors.

Wilhelm apparently insists that unity is still possible, a position he elaborates in an unusual letter distributed to UNITE/HERE members on February 8. What is extraordinary about his statement is its affirmation that the merger can be saved, but only by a thoroughgoing democratization of the union constitution. ”Our constitution,” he writes, “is not a governing document that can withstand the test of time.”

Wilhelm opposes "President Raynor’s insistence on greater centralization of power” and he wants “reasonable checks and balances.” The General Executive Board should “become more active.” He wants to end the practice of electing GEB members at large and make possible a greater distribution of power by substituting election by industry and region “in a way that …the voice of the minority is always heard.” Trusteeships should be established and local elected leaders removed “only where absolutely necessary.” Local per capita taxes should be reduced so that “affiliates can keep the resources they need to operate and remain financially independent.” Most important perhaps, “The constitution should protect rank and file members, affiliate officers, and IU officers from retaliation for expressing their opinions, voting, or running for office.”

Realizing that the UNITE-HERE merger has failed, Stern proposes that the fractured union (or perhaps the fragments) simply solve the problem by affiliating with his huge Service Employees International Union. For Wilhelm and HERE it could be an offer they can't refuse. But it is difficult to see how either of the warring factions could find peace in the SEIU. If the charges against Raynor have merit, his entry into the SEIU could pit Raynor, one accused authoritarian, against another: Andy Stern. If Wilhelm is serious about the need to democratize, he would find the regime in the SEIU at least as distasteful as what he wants to change. Some of the issues that have erupted in the battle between Raynor and Wilhelm have been raging inside the SEIU itself, with disastrous consequences. Stern has used his authoritarian powers as SEIU international president to trustee the 150,000-member United Healthcare Workers and to destroy the influence of its leader, Sal Rosselli, Stern's most outspoken critic.

Even before the explosion of these new events, it was obvious that the Change to Win coalition, led out of the AFL-CIO in 2005 by Stern, was on the edge of extinction. Now, in unexpected fashion, Stern’s overture to UNITE/HERE calls into question the whole rationale for creating a new separate labor federation. Change to Win zealots justified their split from the AFL-CIO by two basic arguments: 1. By freeing themselves from limits presumably imposed on them by AFL-affiliation, they could embark upon a unified campaign to organize the unorganized, and 2. to fulfill that objective, it was imperative to get rid of the general type of union that tried to organize anyone anywhere and to direct each union to concentrate upon its “core” industry.

Now, less than five years later, the validity of both these principles has been exploded. Neither the AFL nor C to W can report any massive gains in membership. (Raynor charges that the two unions organized more workers when they were independent than after the merger.)

Coming from the SEIU, the stricture for other unions to limit themselves to their "core" was a classic example of "do what I say, not what I do." The SEIU is a typical conglomerate of three disparate main divisions: building service, healthcare, and public employees. If Stern succeeds in harvesting UNITE/HERE, he will add many more unrelated sectors to his Austria-Hungary type empire: the entertainment industry via HERE and another conglomerate in its own right, UINTE, with its needle trades, laundry and what not workers.

Even before the UNITE/HERE debacle and Stern's latest ploy, the demise of Change to Win was already in sight. Immediately after the split, locals in Change to Win internationals remained affiliated with AFL-CIO city and state federations. In July last year, Change to Win negotiated joint political action with the AFL-CIO and began tentative discussions on reuniting. In January, this year, twelve international unions, including the major C to W unions, called for an end to the split. It is obviously only a matter of time, a short time, before Change to Win goes down as an abortive footnote in labor history.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Hybrid Unionism: Dead End or Fertile Future?

Excerpt from a recent article by Herman Benson published in Dissent Magazine


SOME YEARS ago, when it became obvious that the labor movement was in trouble, when membership figures were dropping, academics came up with novel ideas to provide some measure of protection for unorganized workers. Only one suggestion was rooted in unionism as we know it. That was the idea first advanced by Clyde Summers, popularized by Alan Hyde and others, and most recently revived at book length by Charles Morris in The Blue Eagle at Work.

They urged that, where workers had chosen no exclusive bargaining agent, unions demand that employers recognize them as the bargaining agent for their own members. They argued persuasively that the National Labor Relations Act makes such a demand legal and binding upon employers. This so-called “minority unionism” was viewed as the entering wedge toward full union recognition. Nine international unions have petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to promulgate a new regulation that would require employers to bargain with minority unions where no union has won exclusive bargaining rights.

Others also supplied imaginative alternatives to halt the decline. Perhaps ethnic identity could somehow replace class solidarity. Or, why shouldn’t workers be permitted to choose other institutions—law firms, for example—to represent them? Another idea was that if unions can’t overcome employer hostility to outside unions, why not relax the restrictions on management-supported forms of company union representation? Still another: if, in the face of employer hostility, unions are unable to enroll masses of workers at their workplace, why not serve workers directly, not only with problems on their job but with their whole range of individual miseries—legal, compensation, unemployment insurance, housing, and so on. These proposals sought to bestow upon workers the blessings of collective bargaining or other services that they were too weak to win on their own. What they had in common was the notion that, because traditional unionism was obsolete it had to be replaced by some other form of representation or be transformed into a social service or settlement house type of operation. For more than two hundred years, the basic principle that distinguished unionism from all philanthropic means of lifting the downtrodden has been that workers must act for themselves in their own interest and not rely on forms of charity. That principle would erode under the new systems.

Then John Sweeney rose to the top of the AFL-CIO in 1995, promising a return to the days of honor and glory. Years passed, nothing much changed, labor’s decline continued. Promising another new beginning, Andy Stern led his own Service Employees International Union and a consortium of fellow-traveling unions out of the AFL-CIO into a rival federation, Change to Win. He sounded a trumpet call to organize the unorganized, especially the oppressed minorities, the low-paid unskilled, and the super-exploited immigrants. Then, he shook up the labor establishment with running ideas of the month: Organize new millions; abandon old-style confrontational unionism; look to hedge fund managers; cooperate with responsible employers to rebuild the American economy; don’t annoy them with individual grievances; denounce Wal-Mart as a greedy exploiter; stand with it and other big employers for health care for all Americans; merge locals into massive entities and draft their officers and staff into a disciplined cadre to increase union “density”; denounce employers who will not cooperate but treat gently those who do; seek common ground with China and its state-controlled labor organizations to assist workers of the world. Stern won credit for instigating a debate on fundamental issues, even though those issues have never been clearly defined. It was an ideological mishmash, but a challenging and provocative one, and it made him into a media celebrity as the labor leader of the future.

We no longer need academic theorists to create substitutes for unionism. Stern has preempted the field with his own idea of a new kind of unionism. He looks not toward the old-fashioned method of organizing and inspiring workers in a battle for union recognition, but to employers’ cooperation, even their active assistance, in fashioning the modern, and bigger, labor movement. The bigger the employer, the better.

Stern’s twenty-first-century model is not exactly a variety of company unionism, because a real union, not an employer, is the initiating force. But neither is it unionism as we have known it, because it is constructed jointly with employers. Stern is right in one crucial respect. It is a new approach. He is convinced that it is the key to labor’s bright future. Will it, like many hybrids, prove sterile?