Published on Tuesday, July 26, 2005 by WorkingForChange.com
Solidarity Later: Andy Stern and CWC Challenge AFL Power Base
by Molly Ivins
Organized labor is weak, but unorganized labor is a hell of a lot weaker. That's what's splitting the AFL-CIO. You may think this is none of your beeswax, but if you work in this country, you owe labor, big time. And I'm talking to you, white-collar worker.
This is not about the old stuff -- 40-hour workweek, unemployment insurance, health benefits, safety regs, etc. This is about right now, today. The money that controls this administration is out to screw you -- it's your pension on the line, your salary on the line and your job on the line. If your company can replace you cheaper, you are gone, buddy. And this administration is pushing jobs overseas just as fast as it can.
The split is not a case of good guys versus bad guys -- it's good guys versus (we hope) some better guys.
John Sweeney, current head of the AFL-CIO, is not only one of the world's nicest people, he's also pretty damn tough. Sweeney and his team have been fighting like pit bulls, but the deck is increasingly stacked against them. (How's that for mixing metaphors?) Since the Republicans have taken over the executive branch, myriad executive orders, administrative changes and the stacking the National Labor Relations Board have quietly been implemented. The result is that organized labor is now hemorrhaging.
The larger result can be seen in the whole picture of stagnant wages, frozen minimum wage, corporate gains against labor on every front. It won't stop -- the Bush administration is in a fight to the death against labor. They even intervened to block a California law that says employers cannot use taxpayer money to run anti-union campaigns in the workplace. How do you like them apples, middle-class taxpayer?
Two things to remember when discussing union politics -- you can't avoid initials, and these are some tough SOBs.
To oversimplify, Sweeney pretty much bet his wad on the Democrats on the theory that labor will never come back unless it gets a level playing field. Setting aside the spinelessness and incompetence of the Democratic Party (I think Democrats who voted for the bankruptcy bill alone should be run out of the party), it sure looks like a losing strategy. Labor skates with the Change to Win Coalition cite the old definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. To oversimplify again, the CWC wants to move all the artillery over to grass-roots organizing.
It may take some arrogance to think your union would do better outside the AFL-CIO, but the CWC has some record on its side. In this debate, you should know that the word "arrogance" is code for Andy Stern, head of the SEIU, who is one impressive guy and also has the nerve to think he knows how to organize better than the leadership of the AFL-CIO. Stern is leading the walkout faction.
Stern's claim to fame is that SEIU has successfully organized the "unorganizable" -- some of the poorest, most powerless people in our society, the people who push mops, clean toilets and never voted in their lives. Credit is due to a superb new generation of organizers. (Obligatory disclosure: A few years ago, I addressed an SEIU convention, but had them donate my fee to charity. My most vivid memory is how proud they are of their children in military service.)
The CWC wants reorganization. They especially think the smaller unions should be merged because each has its own administrative apparatus. Their payrolls eat up dues that should be going to organizing, as do some useless central labor councils. The CWC unions, freed from AFL dues, can hire more organizers and make more progress.
On the other hand, the AFL has AFSCME (government workers, a fast-growing union) and the Communications Workers -- strong power bases. The AFL claims the CWC unions are committing the unthinkable sin of poaching other unions' workers (very unbrotherly -- in fact, cheating), and it's true. And they are threatening to keep doing it.
The AFL also points out that at least a few of the CWC unions are fairly mobbed up, which has the disadvantage of being probably true, but unprovable.
Unions figured out a long time ago that Republicans are perfectly happy to let the mob issue fester in order to discredit labor -- their despicable efforts to undermine reform in the Teamsters Union will not be forgotten.
Both sides are slugging hard in this fight but are still talking and negotiating, too -- they realize a split can only weaken labor in the short run. This is not so much a left-versus-right fight as it's old strategy versus new -- restructuring labor in ways that make more sense for a de-industrializing economy. Pretty much everyone who supports labor has friends on both sides. I'm supporting Stern and the CWC because the AFL is way too much about protecting turf.
© 2005 Creators Syndicate