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
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
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
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
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