Which Union Do I Belong to Now?

The life of American unions these days seems modeled after that of the
amoeba: Splitting and recombining are the order of the day.

The unions of the AFL-CIO and unions that split away from it in
2005 to form the rival Change To Win (CTW) federation are currently
engaged in talks to see if they can come together yet again. The three
million member National Education Association, which has never belonged
to a labor federation, is also involved in the discussions.

Meanwhile, UNITE HERE, which was formed in 2004 by a merger of the
apparel workers of UNITE with the hotel workers of HERE, has split into
its two component parts, with UNITE voting to leave the merged union
and go into the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

For its part, SEIU has reached an agreement with its decades-long
adversary, the California Nurses Association (CNA), which recently
merged with other state nurses' organizations to form a nationwide
union, in which each vowed to respect the other's jurisdiction (CNA
will organize nurses and SEIU, the other healthcare workers) and to
jointly organize the nation's private hospital chains. And SEIU remains
embroiled in a fight with a breakaway union in the Bay Area whose
leaders the national union ousted earlier this year from their posts
atop one of SEIU's largest and most successful locals. Confused yet?

The largest and most consequential of these reshufflings, of course,
is the effort to bring the AFL-CIO, CTW and the NEA within a unified
federation. Throughout the year, the leaders of the two federations,
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Change To Win President Anna Burger,
and the presidents of the nation's 12 largest unions have been meeting
to see if they could agree on the function, finances, governance, name,
and leader of either a new federation or a somewhat reconstituted

After meeting on Monday and Tuesday this week, the group of 14
announced that they were forming the National Labor Coordinating
Committee, an interim body that would continue to meet over the next
several months to try to hash out the particulars of a unity deal. With
the AFL-CIO's biennial convention, at which John Sweeney will step down
from the federation presidency, set for September, the Committee has
several months in which it could craft a unification.

Former Democratic House whip David Bonior, who has been chairing the
talks, will continue in his role and serve as the Committee's spokesman
as well. "Bonior has kept us focused and on task," says Randi
Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. He is
not, however, a candidate to run a merged (or unmerged) federation, as
one overzealous labor writer (me) reported in Wednesday's Washington Post.

The primary reason for these talks is the political opportunity that
the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress afford the labor
movement. Universal health care, for which labor has fought since the
1940s, and labor law reform, for which unions have campaigned since the
1970s, are now genuine possibilities, though the Employee Free Choice
Act has had some rough going over the past couple of weeks in the

But the shaky viability of Change To Win is another factor that has
prompted the talks. CTW has never been a full-service federation.
Indeed, it consists chiefly of a strategic organizing center that
devises campaigns to unionize hard-to-organize workers, such as the
port truck drivers who are nominally independent contractors. But even
with its limited mandate, Change To Win is crumbling. Of the five major
unions active in CTW, two (the Laborers and UNITE HERE -- that is, the
HERE side of UNITE HERE) have made clear their desire to affiliate with
the AFL-CIO once again. That leaves three unions left in the breakaway
federation -- SEIU, the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial
Workers (UFCW). Three unions, no matter how large, do not add up to
much of a federation.

All the unions involved in the talks agree that the new federation
should have a focus on lobbying, politics and policy -- areas that are
the AFL-CIO's traditional strengths. But significant differences remain
to be resolved if a unification involving all the participating unions
is to go forward. Still up for grabs, for instance, is the scope of an
organizing program and of the AFL-CIO's international operations.

The number of tasks that the new federation could perform is chiefly
a function of funding -- that is, of the level of financial support its
member unions provide. As was the case during the debate that led to
the split four years ago, there are disagreements over the level of
dues the unions should pay, with the Teamsters, as in 2005, advocating
for a figure considerably lower than most other unions consider
necessary. Were the NEA, the nation's largest union, to join the
federation, that would go some of the way to making up a loss from a
reduction in per capita dues, but most of the AFL-CIO unions, having
already slimmed down their federation after the 2005 defections, are
loathe to make further cuts -- particularly, as they argue, since the
CTW unions have routinely availed themselves of the political, lobbying
and policy operations of the AFL-CIO while failing to support them

Another vexing and unresolved dilemma is the question of who will
succeed Sweeney as president either of a reconfigured AFL-CIO or of a
new federation. Sweeney has announced his support for AFL-CIO
Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka to succeed him, but a number of
union presidents in both federations remain cool to Trumka's candidacy.

The one piece of unqualified good news for labor in recent weeks has
been the peace treaty between SEIU and the California Nurses. Over the
past decade, each union had undercut the other's organizing campaigns
and placed rival health care initiatives on the same state ballots.
Over the past several months, newspaper reports documented that the
SEIU sought to intervene in CNA's internal elections, while CNA (which
is headquartered in Oakland) helped out the dissident Bay Area SEIU
leaders in their fight against SEIU President Andy Stern, and issued a
steady stream of press releases that raised to a baroque intensity the
invective it directed at Stern.

Then, in mid-March, discarding so completely everything they had
said about each other that they called to mind Gilda Radner's immortal
Rosanne Rosannadanna intoning "Never mind!" on the old Saturday Night Live,
the two unions announced they would form an alliance that would seek to
unionize such nationwide hospital chains as Tenet and HCA. "With the
Obama administration in power, this is the first chance to be able to
really do something to get health care reform and labor law reform,"
says Rose Ann DeMoro, the CNA's longtime executive director. "History
created this agreement: we'd be remiss if we failed to take advantage
of the opportunity." Stern concurs: "It didn't make much sense to
continue arguing about small things," he says, what with EFCA and
health care reform now real possibilities.

Even as SEIU and CNA were declaring an end to hostilities, however,
the UNITE HERE civil war continued to rage. On the weekend of March
21-22, UNITE's joint boards -- the term UNITE uses for its regional
bodies -- met in Philadelphia to disaffiliate from UNITE HERE, which
the HERE forces were poised to take over at the forthcoming June
convention, and to announce their entry into SEIU.

As things now stand, the split looks a good deal like the schism in
the Episcopal Church: While the members plainly have the right to join
a different institution, the national organization has a strong claim
to their assets. It certainly seems that whoever controls UNITE HERE --
in this case, the majority HERE side -- has a strong claim to the joint
boards' assets, which include their treasuries, the Amalgamated Bank,
and the union's 7th Avenue headquarters in Manhattan. Nonetheless, a
court on Tuesday rejected the HERE side's request for an injunction
that would have given it control of the UNITE side's assets.

The UNITE side's strategy, which is now also the SEIU strategy,
seems to be to play hardball with the hotel workers -- phone-banking
their members to support UNITE-side initiatives, threatening to
organize hotels -- to persuade them to accept some division of the
union's financial assets. Whether the threat to go into organizing
hotels is only a ploy or a genuine organizing strategy for the UNITE
unit within SEIU remains unclear: The industries that UNITE
traditionally organized -- clothing and textile -- have largely ceased
to exist within the U.S., and SEIU argues that its dealings with
commercial real estate owners in the course of its successful
organizing of janitors and security guards has already given it
experience with investors who own hotels (a claim that HERE rejects as
highly tendentious).

So even as the union presidents meeting with Bonior try to come up
with the rules for a new or improved federation -- and federation rules
invariably include a process by which member unions can adjudicate
jurisdictional claims over an industry -- the question of who should
organize hotels has been unceremoniously plopped before them.
Unification grapples with dissolution and reunification and, for that
matter, vice-versa. For American labor, it's amoeba time.

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