Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #13 June 12, 2001

‘Business’ vs. ’Social’ Unionism:
Century-Old Debate Persists

By Harry Kelber

Andris Silins, secretary-treasurer of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, recently offered another explanation for his union’s decision to quit the AFL-CIO (besides the assertions that the federation employs too many staffers in its Washington headquarters and doesn’t organize new members rapidly enough).

“The AFL-CIO has strayed to social and environmental issues that have nothing to do with getting better wages and working conditions for working people,” Silins complained to an interviewer from In These Times.

There are many leaders and members of construction unions who agree with Silins. When leaders of the building trades, Teamsters, steelworkers and maritime unions sat down with Dick Cheney last month, the Vice President had them salivating at his vision of tens of thousands of “new jobs” that would be created if we built 1,300 to 1,900 power plants and 18,000 miles of fuel pipelines in the next 20 years. Never mind the damage to the environment (remember the Exxon spill?) or the pollution added to our air and water supply — as long as union members perform the work and are paid well for it!

Silins’ model for union policy had its partisans a century ago. They argued that unions should stay out of politics because the money spent on subsidizing candidates could be better used for organizing, improving contracts and resolving grievances. They said members’ political choices were really none of the union’s business. After all, political endorsements create friction within a union whose members invariably back different political parties. (Sounds a lot like the arguments today’s Republicans advance for anti-labor “paycheck protection” proposals, doesn’t it?)

Fortunately, this myopic view of the role of unions didn’t prevail. If it had, we might never have gotten Social Security, the 40-hour workweek, the right to join a union, occupational safety and health protections and other measures that help all working people and strengthen the nation.

Silins’ tenet — that unions should only concern themselves with their own members’ wages and working conditions — is a principal cause for the low esteem in which much of the public holds construction unions. It may also explain why, even though construction jobs are plentiful, union membership has declined steadily and is now less than 20% of the industry’s work force.

Meanwhile, socially-minded unions, in fighting for their members, also go beyond traditional “bread and butter” issues when they advocate low-cost housing, better schools, a clean environment and affordable health insurance. They keep public attention focused on the problems that derive from corporate greed, racial prejudice, gender discrimination, the AIDS epidemic, hungry and homeless children, school violence and other social issues--not only in the United States but around the world. In the process, they help persuade the public that unions have principles and ideals that distinguish them from self-serving “special interest” groups.

Right now, the coalition that AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has forged with environmental activists is endangered by the building trades’ and Teamsters’ flirtation with the Bush Administration. If the labor-environmentalist coalition falls apart, President Bush will have a much easier time getting “fast track” authority to expand the NAFTA trade agreement throughout the Western Hemisphere.

A meeting between union leaders and representatives of major environmental organizations is urgently needed to heal the breach before it widens. And since construction unions are fixated on “jobs at any price,” they ought to at least give environmentalists a chance to present their case. New energy technologies could very well create more and better jobs in a cleaner, safer environment than the oil-spattered scenarios of Bush and Cheney.

Let’s open up the pages of the AFL-CIO’s monthly magazine, America@Work, and its Web sites for a vigorous debate on various proposals to meet the nation’s present and future energy needs. Let’s hear what our union leaders and members have to say on the subject. “Blue collars” and “green activists” have more in common with each other than with the Bush destruction crew.

‘Inside the AFL-CIO’ can be viewed every Tuesday at our Web site, Our ‘LaborTalk’ column appears every Monday.

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