Organized labor: RIP

The SEIU and Teamsters will be announcing today they are leaving the AFL-CIO.

These are two of the three largest unions in the AFL-CIO, and it definitely will have an impact. The question is will this new coalition of labor (Change to Win) be positive or negative for working Americans?

Personally, I can’t see any good coming out of this. It’s hard enough organizing workers with the labor laws and labor boards stacked in favor of employers, and it’s hard enough getting worker-friendly politicians elected, with labor relatively united for the cause.

Seeing one of their largest foes so viciously divided must be a wet dream come true for the Republicans.

Basically, this is how I sum up what’s happening: A number of leaders (arrogant from power) from large AFL-CIO unions laid down what they want to happen within Labor, attempt to organize other labor leaders to go along with them, can’t gain majority of support within the AFL, decide they don’t want to be a part of the process anymore (like running an alternative choice to current AFL pres John Sweeney), boycott the AFL convention, and pull out of the federation altogether.

Doesn’t this go against the very idea of solidarity? You might not always agree with your brothers and sisters, you might be in a minority, but don’t you compromise for the greater good of the whole?

I agree that something needs to change for labor unions to regain the strength of yesteryear, but how is picking up your marbles and leaving the game when you don’t get your way a productive move on the part of the SEIU, Teamsters, Food Workers, and textile and restaurant/hotel workers leadership?

(Link to a OpEd piece from the president of SEIU, Andy Stern

And a link to an OpEd piece from a Stern rival in the AFL-CIO, Jerry McEntee, of AFSCME )

Today is a baaaad day for labor in America.


Alternatively, the course that the Teamsters, et al, wish to pursue may turn out to be the correct course. This could be the best day for organized labor in many years. The concept of unions needs a severe kick in the ass anyway. Ways of doing things that worked well for manufactering workers don’t seem to work as well for service economy workers. Maybe a period of turmoil and trying new things will result in a resurgence of vital, useful labor unions. I hope.

I was discussing some of these issues in the last few posts of this recent GD thread, “Have unions outlived their usefulness?”, and I was going to go back there and follow them up after the convention. But we can move the discussion into this thread instead.

I don’t know yet how the split in the AFL-CIO is going to pan out, but I wouldn’t be so quick to assume that it will be uniformly negative. AFAICT, the seceding unions in the “Change to Win” coalition have been some of the most active and effective in actually organizing new members. They’re pushing for more organizing activity, smaller union bureaucracies, and reaching out to immigrant workforces and international unions. Whatever happens, I don’t think they’re just going to sit around and watch labor disintegrate without a fight.

I’m not sure. The anti-labor deck-stacking has already happened and the “unity” of the AFL-CIO up to this point hasn’t been able to do anything about it. Maybe the thing to do now is to focus on organizing on the ground and build a larger base, so “getting worker-friendly politicians elected” will become a little easier.

Don’t be so sure about this one.

The Teamsters have spent considerable time and money lobbying Republican lawmakers. If they come around with an issue that needs to be looked at, they won’t be quickly dismissed, like some other unions that foolishly have their foot planted firmly in only one camp.

A lossing camp, too, in recent years, it must be pointed out.

Union rank-and-file votes for Republican and Democratic candidates in the voting booth, and Republican and Democratic lawmakers represent union shops in legislatures around the country. Pragmatism and justice demands that a union have a dialogue with both major parties, IMHO.

It seems to me that one of the things that has hurt the AFL-CIO is a too-close affiliation with the Democratic Party. Perhaps this move will spread out the labor political affiliation and make things a little healthier in this area.

But at what cost? I know for a fact that in recent months, the SEIU has gone after workers, who were deemed by the AFL-CIO, to belong to another union. Meaning under Articles XX & XXI of the AFL constitution, the SEIU has no business trying to organize workers already working with another organization to form a union, or who are already certified as a union. And yet the SEIU remains (in California, in Iowa, in Michigan, in Ohio).

If this is already happening while they’re still in the AFL, what’s going to happen when no one’s bound by Articles XX & XXI? Instead of putting resources into fighting management, unions will be wasting millions of dollars fighting each other to organize workers.

And I applaud the break-away unions’ (Change to Win) committment to organizing, but what about servicing and negotiations?

I agree, somewhat, that unions should organize and represent by sector. But not at the expense of the members. I suspect the direction SEIU and Teamster leadership is heading is toward the establishment (through organizing, but also mergers-- which are not always approved of by the general membership) of a small number of mega unions. Mergers have already happened with UNITE-HERE and the Teamsters.

Mega unions might look good on paper, but it just puts more power into the hands of less people (Stern, Hoffa, Wilhelm). The most vulnerable unions in this whole rift are the smaller ones. If they get swallowed up (and they very likely will) by larger ones, how is this a step in the right direction? These people were already organized; what labor should be doing is devoting its resources to assisting these unions, through resources from the AFL, and organizing new workers that want to be in a union.

Campaigning, lobbying, training, staff recruitment: these are the things the AFL needs to stepping up for its member unions. But the kind of dues refund (50%) the Change to Win coalition is asking from the AFL will effectively castrate it. It’s irresponsible of CtW to ask for that much money to be returned to the member unions without any kind of accountability (which is what they’re doing). If a union gets a refund in its AFL dues to be used toward organizing, but doesn’t have an effective organizing program, that’s wasted money. The AFL should refund money to unions for organizing, but not $45 million. Some of that money should be used by the AFL to step up training and recruitment.

There’s strength in numbers, and that was the beauty of the AFL-CIO. It was members acting together (ideally) within their unions, and unions acting together (ideally) within the umbrella of the AFL. The leadership of Change to Win is effectively pitting workers against each other, as their dues money will now be spent to fight other unions. That’s disgusting.

I know my union (AFSCME) does talk to legislators of both parties. Probably more than other unions, since we represent public sector workers, and we know first hand who our friends are. And we’ve (Locals, Councils and the National union) endorsed a number of Republican candidates in every election season.

But I agree with you that there needs to be a change in party associations, as large numbers of both parties don’t necessarily support organized labor through their actions in the legislatures.

I think this change needs to start with grassroots politics, not by cozying up to, and establishing “relationships” with any party, especially one that has in recent years f*cked us up the @ss. Look at what Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition did in the early 90s: they ran an effective grassroots political campaign, establishing their agenda in the minds of people at the local level. They built a nice base throughout the country, and in time, the Pubs ran with that agenda, and succeeded with it. This is what labor has to do, and down the road, I don’t care if this gets picked up by the Pubs or the Dems, as long as people’s economic issues (wages, pensions, health insurance, out-sourcing, the right to organize a union) get recognized by law makers.

Happy, what do you think of the recommendations in the Barbara Ehrenreich article I linked to in the last post of the above-linked thread? I’ll repost my quoted excerpt here:

While overall union membership among workers was sinking like a rock, and illegal suppression of organizing activity, evasion of labor regulation, and flight to non-unionized workforces were ballooning like, well, balloons.

I sympathize with the concern about lack of solidarity, but it’s very clear that something in the AFL-CIO umbrella model was seriously not working. Maybe it was just a confluence of political, economic, and technological factors that no other union structure could have withstood either. But you can’t blame the rebels for feeling frustrated and desperate. Most people wouldn’t be willing to stand solidly united on the deck of the Titanic rather than waste energy and destroy solidarity by fighting over the lifeboats.

Well, there’s always the Labor Party – From

For what that’s worth. I doubt Change to Win will unite behind the Labor Party (or any other) – because its principal complaint seems to be that the AFL-CIO leadership has spent too much of its time and money on political organizing and lobbying, too little on organizing workers into unions. Their pre-disaffiliation “Restoring the American Dream Proposal” (from the Change to Win Coalition website –{E6AF9F22-F1A2-4609-A447-50073D1BF928}) reads as follows:

The CTWC claims the following members:

International Brotherhood of Teamsters
Laborers’ International Union of North America
Service Employees International Union
United Food and Commercial Workers International Union
United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America
United Farm Workers of America

I don’t know all of these, but it sounds like the beginnings of a pretty serious new movement! Just having the Teamsters and SEIU is a big base to start with. And I think some of these unions, such as the Carpenters, were not in the AFL-CIO to begin with; so if AFL-CIO and CTW do reunite sometime down the road, the resulting national union would be bigger than ever.

One other plus: At least, for a moment, the media are paying attention to organized labor in general. This story isn’t about one union going on strike, this is about the whole labor movement.

I’m a union organizer, so I spend better than 60 hours a week some weeks talking to workers, holding meetings, planning actions, etc. So on one hand I agree with this. We need to organize, or we’ll have nothing. But even with all the work my co-workers and I do, I still feel like we’re pounding our heads against a brick wall most of the time. Increased funding for organizing is good, but until we can remove the brick wall we call labor laws in this country, our headaches are gonna continue.

We need to spend resources getting union-friendly officials elected right now. But I think our approach has been too top-down historically. We focus on the top races, but don’t push our own members and friends to run for local offices. That’s where a lion’s share of our political resources should be going, not on the presidential election every four years. The national unions need to kick out more political money to their locals, councils and regions to get councilmen, county commissioners, school board trustees, mayors and state legislators eleted. Locally held offices don’t have anything to do with the big-ticket issues that are in vogue right now (gay marriage, guns, abortion), so being worker-friendly doesn’t have to conflict with any other party or religious affiliation at this level.

My union did this in several counties in Ohio last election with county commissions, and as a result, in eight short months, several groups of county-funded workers have been able to organize unions.

Another example, though not as local a race as county commission, is in Missouri, Indiana and Kentucky. The new Reublican governors in those states, upon taking office, rescinded the executive orders giving state employees the right to collectively bargain. If labor had been more dilligent about getting labor-friendly legislators in power, those collective bargaining rights wouldn’t have hung on the string of an executive order.

To succesfully organize, we need political strength. To gain political strength, we need to start at the bottom and work our way up.

This is a great idea. And actually, I believe AFSCME is in the process of starting an associate membership program. I would be surprised if other unions weren’t planing on doing the same thing.

I agree with this too. In fact, I believe improving health care coverage in this country could be the rallying cry that the 40-hour work week was a century ago. Why? It affects everybody. We’re all paying more. What would happen, though, if every worker stood up to their employer and demanded better (or even 100%-paid) coverage? This would force every employer to lobby to Congress to do something about this. Right now, employers face paying higher costs of health care, so they pass those higher costs on to their employees. So everyone just sits back and accepts this as the “way things are.” But this ain’t going to get any better until something is done about it. Enter Labor.

And I disagree with her statement “Advance the class, not just the membership.” Or at least don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive. We advance the class by advancing the membership. If unions didn’t have members, they wouldn’t have power. And that’s the only way unions can advance anything.

Sure. I thought that’s what we were doing, though.

Nice as that idea is, when you’re out talking to low-paid workers with no benefits or employer respect, big-picture idealism is the last thing on many of their minds. But I agree this is something that needs to be done to get more people involved in the movement.

I think this is best done through a massive PR/media campaign. Wal-Mart and GE spend millions running ads telling us what great neighbors and environmental stewards they are, labor needs to let people know that unions are much more than strikes and dues.

Huh, never thought much about this before. My gut reaction is: yes and no (my gut isn’t very decisive). Yes, this would be a great way to cut costs, put some of that capitol back into important programs, and decentralize the power. On the other hand, there does need to be a center, close to the political heads of the nation. Also, and this is just the opinion of an often-times over worked union staffer (and former member): labor needs to create as comfortable an environment for its staff, or they really will have a hard time retaining people. I’m not saying we need silk toilet paper and gold-plated desks, but if we get too earthy and basic in our set-up, people will not be happy.

Yes, this is not about us as union staff, it is about the workers we represent and organize. But look at it this way: most big corporations spend a lot more on employee comforts than any big union does. And fringe benefits go a long way in staff retention. Maybe I’m way off on this one, but I don’t think so. I’ve worked in some tiny store-front union offices in small towns, and long-term, it becomes very hard to work there. Most union employees work long hard hours (contrary to some people’s belief), and aren’t rolling in the lap of luxury, so every nicety we get goes a long way with us.

I see this as a means of creating a broad specrum of new tactics.
Many groups = many tactics.
A good, if slightly risky, move.

Um… that’s a rather emotional description. I can see “ineffective.” But is worker solidarity such an article of Holy Writ that this development is “disgusting?”

I don’t know how all this will shake out, but there was a certain appeal in having one gigantic monolithic union bloc. Size does matter. Size brings power, money, influence. Those are the things that get attention in Washington. Big money and big voting blocs. I’m a pessimist. I see smaller unions spending their time and money fighting legal battles against each other, instead of putting the pressure on politicians to get what they want.

It’s the basis of organized labor.

As such, yes. Different things disgust different people; blood disgusts some, wasting members’ dues money disgusts me, as a former dues-payer myself. If my services as an organizer are being used to fight over unorganized workers with another union, then the decision of leadership to waste members’ dues in that fashion does in fact bother me a lot.

Unions shouldn’t see each other as the enemy. But that’s what it’s come to. And it’ll only get worse with the secession of SEIU and the Teamsters. It might not make the papers or nightly news, but organizing wars are happening right now and it’s gonna getting worse. This rift in labor isn’t so much about unreconsilible differences, as it is a personality conflict between certain union leaders, a stroking of over-inflated egos, and one giant pissing contest.

Being amonst the largest three unions in the AFL, SEIU and the Teamsters have gained the most from being a part of this federation, and have the least to lose by walking away. It’s the smaller unions that’ll be getting screwed in the process. Why do you think UNITE-HERE, UFW, UFCW and the other Change to Win member unions haven’t jumped at seceding? Because they still need the federation, as do the remaining 40+ unions.

Personalities. Ego. Pissing.

Overall, yes, more groups and more tactics is better, but if we’re not all working on the same page, that’s not good either. And the direction Stern, Hoffa, et al are aiming this new ship, if successful, there’ll be less groups than we have right now and only a handful of mega unions.

Where do you feel the most power to affect the outcome of things: in your house, in your city, or in Washington? I would wager you feel most empowered the more local and de-centralized the infrastructure gets. But that doesn’t mean we break away from the federal governent; we still need that level. Rhode Islanders and Montanans would be lost without a federation of states. Or swallowed up by a larger state, which isn’t necessarily a step in the right direction either.

Labor should be working on empowering unions, not union bosses.

How do you know that?

Well, maybe I shouldn’t have said ‘personality’ conflict, but rather political. For one, when Sweeny left SEIU after he was elected head of the AFL, if I recall, he didn’t back Stern to succeed him. That’s gotta sting a little.

But the pissing contests and ego strokes I can attest to first hand. The leadership of two, maybe three unions (AFSCME, SEIU and the Teamsters) all try to organize the same type of workers quite a bit. These leaders oftentime attribute their own success to the numbers their respective unions put out, which needs to stop. This should be about a labor movement, not a labor institution.

I also feel the break-away unions are putting out one message and being hypocritical with their actions. I don’t honestly believe Hoffa thinks unions ought to stick strictly to their industry, as Change to Win’s proposal reads. I mean, the Teamsters are the most diversified union around as far as industry goes, representing “airline pilots to zookeepers,” as they put it. Do you honestly believe they’ll stick to only organizing one core industry once they officially break away? This is just an excuse to get away from the confines of the AFL so they can go after whomever they want without the AFL telling them ‘no.’

Plus, Stern says one thing (“The Change To Win unions will continue to make payments to and participate in local AFL-CIO Central Labor Councils because we think at a local level we need to coordinate and cooperate.”), and does another-- almost every day I hear about SEIU organizers following two steps behind me to talk to the same workers I am; the same thing is going on in California, Michigan, Iowa… There’s no coordination or cooperation going on here.

I’ve got co-workers in California fighting SEIU tooth-and-nail for the right to represent home child-care providers. Initially in that state, AFSCME and SEIU did coordinate their efforts-- they divided the state, and agreed to stay out of each other’s way. Now that both sides have achieved a level of sucess in their respective turfs, SEIU has decided the child-care providers AFSCME organized need to be represented by SEIU too. It’s a pissing contest.

Same thing happened in Illinois in March, only this time AFSCME was the asshole aggressor. Another pissing contest, which ended when an AFL-CIO arbitrator told AFSCME to leave.

Methinks the best thing for labor would be a change in a number of unions’ national leadership-- including the AFL-CIO’s. However, unless someone decides to run a challenger, the members are stuck with what we got. And that sucks.