From “Unite to Win” to “Split to Win” at AFL-CIO’s July Convention?

by David Jones


A version of this article will appear in the July issue of Socialist Action newspaper. For a one-year subscription, send $8.00 to Socialist Action, 298 Valencia St., San Francisco, California 94103.

There is no doubt that the possibility of a deep-going split in the AFL-CIO will be the central preoccupation of the delegates who will assemble in Chicago on July 25 for the federation’s convention.

Five “international” unions have gathered under the banner of the Change to Win Coalition, formerly known as Unite to Win and led by Andrew Stern of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)—and just before this article went to press Stern announced the affiliation to his coalition of the half-million-member United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC).The “Change to Win” unions have taken numerous steps over the past months whose logic clearly points to preparation for a split. The shift in emphasis in the coalition’s new name is certainly not accidental. The Big Five (now Six) have already signed an agreement which they state will be implemented “regardless” of the outcome of the convention.

This internal crisis is unmistakably being impelled by the now generally undisputed maladies of organized labor in the United States, especially the declining percentage of union members relative to the workforce as a whole. A June 14 Associated Press report on the differences noted in passing, as though it was a settled matter of long standing, that the union movement had been “in decline for fifty years,” that is, ever since the merger in 1955 that reunited the AFL and the CIO.

This assessment is, to say the least, not the impression that the stand-pat leaders of the trade union bureaucracy have sought to convey to the rank and file, or to the public at large, over these five decades as union density declined from 35% to 8%. Only now has a credible threat emerged that something may be done about it other than replacing the incumbent president. This is definitely not small potatoes—four of the Big Five occupy 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 6th place in the federation and make up about one-third of the membership.

Within the halls of labor, dissenting opinions, or alternative policies, especially militant ones, which were advanced during this half century of decline, and before, were continuously stigmatized as “anti-union,” while the course of seeking labor peace, delivering uncritical support for the bosses’ foreign policy, and abstaining from independent political action were the three legs supporting the bureaucracy’s complacent and well-paid administration of business as usual.

The relatively abrupt announcement by these labor statesmen that we are now in big trouble has not been preceded or accompanied by any meaningful analysis or debate on the causes of the emergence of this crisis. Have they learned anything? In 1986 Joseph Hansen, now president and then UFCW’s regional director in Minnesota, told a closed session of arbitrators and labor-relations types: “When Guyette (then president of striking UFCW Local P-9 in Austin, Minnesota) talks this solidarity shit, it makes me want to puke.”

The Stern gang’s “Change to Win” proposals do not call into question any of the basic policies that the bureaucracy has followed over the past fifty years. Calling for more money to be spent on organizing and proposing a restructuring of the shrinking number of U.S.-based “international” unions into larger amalgams that, in the Stern gang’s proposal, would “unite workers by industry”—these are nothing but administrative tweaks.

Even “union density,” the quantum of union membership, while obviously a crucial component of union strength, considered in isolation from other factors, is not in and of itself decisive. For example, the United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) plummeted from a high of around half a million after World War I to 50,000 by the late 1920s. Yet it rebounded to similar heights during the labor upsurge of the 1930s and the expansion of coal production during WWII.

Historically union membership has cycled up and down along with the recurring boom and bust business cycles, and often unions have gone out of existence altogether, only to be reestablished when employment rose again after the latest crisis. This was the pattern up until the legal institutionalization of the unions after the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, and especially after the statist relationships forged between government, employers, and the union apparatus in WWII. In particular, the “checkoff” system in which the employers deducted union dues from the workers’ paychecks has guaranteed the union bureaucracy a life support system independent of the membership long after the brain has died.

Mergeritis

The mergers that are actually taking place at the present, which are proceeding at an accelerating pace as the labor skates begin to circle the wagons around their marble palaces in Washington, are unmistakably driven by the financial needs of the apparatuses, and implemented by bureaucratic horse trading. Most, if not all of the mergers, lead away from, not toward, unity of workers by industry or occupation.

One striking example of this is in the railroad industry. The heroic struggle of the American Railway Union in 1894, led by Eugene V. Debs, to enroll all rail labor in one organization, remains a major signpost in American history, despite its defeat by government repression. Here craft unionism has persisted into the modern era. The railroad brotherhoods, at one time numbering up to 21, remained immune to the enormous advance of industrial unionism in the 1930s, their commitment only wavering when railroad employment began to shrink drastically in the 1960s. In 1969 four of the operating brotherhoods merged into the United Transportation Union. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE) remained apart from this consolidation, not even deigning to enter the AFL-CIO until the 1990s.

Since then there have been numerous mergers (or acquisitions) of rail unions with larger partners. None of them have been with other rail unions. The first one, in 1995, was the entry of the International Brotherhood of Firemen and Oilers, representing railroad shop laborers, into none other than SEIU. The outgoing president negotiated himself a juicy retirement package, based on the per capita dues payments he was bringing into SEIU, and secured his son an apparent lifetime tenure as the head of SEIU’s newly minted National Conference of Firemen and Oilers.

Since then, the BLE and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees have entered the Teamsters Union, the railroad clerks union is exploring entry into Communications Workers of America, and the UTU, it was announced recently, is exploring merger with the Sheet Metal Workers. The pathetic spectacle of the dispersal of these components of rail labor into unions with unrelated jurisdictions underlines with particular clarity that the decisive element in these mergers is nothing more or less than bureaucratic opportunism.

Congress of Industrial Conglomerates

The mushrooming industrially-based “international” amalgamations, like the United Steelworkers of America, now containing the former Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, as well as former unions of rubber workers, woodworkers (Canada only), paperworkers, non-ferrous miners, etc., etc., have concentrated their organizing not on unorganized industrial workers, but on what superficially appear to be easy pickings like nursing home workers and public employees, notwithstanding the obvious jurisdictional conflict with the two largest public employee unions, SEIU and AFSCME.

Where Is This Leading?

The split in the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in the mid-1930s that propelled the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) into independent existence was both a symptom and a product of the irresistible pressure of the working class masses from below.

At the October 1935 AFL convention in Atlantic City, President Charles Howard of the International Typographical Union warned the assembled labor skates, “The workers of this country are going to organize, and if they are not permitted to organize under the banner of the American Federation of Labor, they are going to organize under some other leadership.”

In fact the workers were already on the move, as the explosive and militant 1934 strikes in Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Toledo, Ohio, all led by radicals, had already demonstrated. The majority of the AFL leaders were unmoved by the onrushing conflict and stood pat. John L. Lewis of the Mineworkers, who was determined not to be outflanked by the new movement, led the dissenting unions into the formation of the CIO.

Absent a renewed intervention of the masses of workers into the class struggle, and therefore into the affairs of the unions, new developments in the structure of organized labor will flow through the channels already being carved out in real life. The affiliated unions are the masters of the federation, not the reverse. For the most part the AFL-CIO and its state federations are not much more than lobbying offices, while each union essentially determines its own affairs. The bureaucrats are far more concerned with their relations with their employers than with those of their fraternal counterparts. The real development within organized labor, already well advanced, is a grab for more dues-paying members through whatever devices appear to bring the quickest and biggest results.

It is in this context of increasing centrifugal forces that the “progressives” grouped around Stern have raised the threat of a split from the federation. If it happens, it will have little to do with the palaver spread widely over the Internet over the last year. And its future evolution will have even less to do with it. It is the material interests of the multiple bureaucracies that will govern, and will inevitably be driven by the most determined and ruthless among them. Whether amalgamated into one federation or broken up into two or more mini-federations, the organizations will continue to be characterized by self-seeking bureaucratism, toadying to the employers and their government, and suppressing rank and file democracy.

Regardless of the outcome of the July convention, the decomposition of this virtually characterless and rootless bureaucracy will continue, as it struggles more or less blindly to preserve its privileges and immunity from removal from office.

The prospect of a breakup into mutually competing fractions carries with it, in the absence of pressure from below, the danger of its resolution into an accelerated unprincipled competition, even mutual violence and gangsterism. Such disintegration will only embolden the employers to take steps to impose even more draconian anti-labor legislation and to whipsaw one group against the other. This process is in fact already moving forward. SEIU and AFSCME came into a prominent and sordid jurisdictional conflict in Illinois over an AFSCME-directed raid seeking to capture some 50,000-child SEIU-organized childcare workers. Neither one of these unions can do much of anything in any case for these workers, who are independent contractors funded by the state, except collect dues from them. SEIU has conducted similar raiding against AFSCME in Connecticut. The recent legislative repeal of public employee bargaining rights in Missouri and Indiana, two states with relatively high union density, and without any reaction other than pro-forma complaints from the unions, ought to show, if nothing else, the emptiness of the rhetorical posturing about labor’s crisis from the Sweeney and Stern camps.

Beneath the highly publicized maneuvering at the top, the needs of the working masses in the United States become more acute, as employment, wages, and entitlements tumble into the pit, effectively stripping the workers of the gains of the past.

Impact of Immigrant Workers

The emergence of organized dissent from the Big Five is far from accidental. SEIU, and its main ally, UNITE-HERE, have made significant organizational gains and intermittently utilized more militant tactics than others. These two unions in particular are implanted in the health care, hospitality, and needle trades industries, in which many, perhaps even a majority, of the workers are new immigrants. The central leaders of these three unions, Andrew Stern, Bruce Raynor, and John Wilhelm, all have developed a special orientation within their unions toward immigrant workers, and were decisive in persuading the AFL-CIO to jettison its historically reactionary position on immigration and immigrant worker rights. Stern, Wilhelm, and Raynor, none of whom have social origins as workers or immigrants, were social activists of the SDS stripe on Ivy League campuses, whose political orientations led them into involvement with labor.

It is also notable that the other three partners in the Change to Win coalition are three very large unions—Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, and Laborers—whose general jurisdictions have significant concentrations of immigrant workers. The UFCW’s primary concentration is in grocery, big box retailers and meatpacking, all of which have many immigrants. The Laborers, along with the Carpenters (UBC), who had disaffiliated with the AFL-CIO several years ago, are encountering huge numbers of immigrant construction workers, and potential members in residential construction, which is almost entirely non-union.

Recently in California, non-union residential carpenters, virtually all Spanish-speaking immigrants, organized their own union because they were essentially excluded from the UBC. Seeing the opening, the UBC shifted and offered help. After that the new group readily entered into the “official” union. The relationship soured when the UBC imposed preexisting (and therefore discriminatory) seniority ranking on the new members. Understandably, the new members pulled out, rather than be bumped off their jobs by the white job trust.

Which Way?

A breakup of the AFL-CIO would be a major setback for workers in this country, despite the ineffectual leadership, lacking in any vision or program, of the various elements in the union officialdom. Neither variant (Stern or Sweeney) offers any social or political program for resolution of the crisis. Whatever the outcome of the upcoming convention, a further acceleration of the breakdown of the moral and political authority of the bureaucracy, whether grouped under one tent or several, is inevitable. The task before the organized labor movement remains to begin to resolve the basic question of formulating, popularizing, and mobilizing around a program of struggle for the 21st century. This is inseparable from the development of an alternative leadership based on the most exploited youth, national minorities, and new immigrants. The convention’s real value will be measured by the extent to which it helps sweep away further obstacles to this development.