Labor's Voice for Change (9) February 3, 2009

Members of AFL-CIO and Change to Win
Have Major Role in Building Labor Unity

By Harry Kelber

It’s safe to say that just about every member of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win would like to see a united labor movement. So how and why did the split in labor’s ranks develop? Why did the leaders of seven international unions decide to break away from the AFL-CIO and form their own labor federation? Let’s begin by reviewing the past that can shed some light on labor’s future.

For openers, it’s worth noting that none of the four million members of those seven breakaway unions were given an opportunity to vote on whether or not to quit the AFL-CIO. It’s highly doubtful they would have approved it.

The breakaway movement was led by Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, who insisted that the AFL-CIO wasn’t doing enough organizing. Stern came up with a plan to restructure the AFL-CIO into 15 “mega-unions” that would be powerful enough to take on the biggest corporations. (Actually, Stern and James Hoffa, president of the Teamsters, had a special incentive for quitting the AFL-CIO: they could keep for themselves, the $10 million their unions paid in per capita taxes each year to the Federation.)

Stern was hailed as the No. 1 leader of the labor movement. Pundits were quick to compare Change to Win with the CIO, that had organized millions of workers in the late 1930s. But Stern soon found out that he couldn’t field his grandiose, mega-organizing campaign, because he didn’t have the manpower and resources; also, his seven unions in a few industries were no match for the AFL-CIO, whose members worked in more than 40 different industries.

Soon after, Change to Win launched a 45-city organizing blitz that turned out to be an embarrassing disaster. It was becoming obvious that CtW would not be able to build the “bigger and stronger” labor movement that Stern had predicted. Indeed, the CtW unions were not doing any better than if they had remained within the AFL-CIO.

So now, at least several leaders of CtW unions are ready to come back into the AFL-CIO if they can get the right terms for rejoining. They’ve been holding secret meetings with their AFL-CIO counterparts, discussing the price they want for agreeing to labor unity. Their members will be kept in the dark about the negotiations until the moment a deal is announced.

Labor Must Speak with One Voice — or Risk Failure

Whatever deal for labor unity is worked out by the leaders of the two rival organizations, it won’t have much influence unless it is implemented by the rank-and-file. There must be clear evidence that members of both organizations are working together on common objectives through their unified central labor councils and state federations. Labor Web sites must be opened up to allow rank-and-filers in both camps to exchange opinions on how to build a united labor movement. and to plan joint actions.

At this critical moment, we can’t afford to have two different strategic plans to help America’s working families. If we don’t act together, our powerful enemies will be in a better position to divide and weaken us. Nor can we expect the Obama administration to deal properly with a divided labor movement.

And if we hope to expand l labor’s economic and political influence in Washington and around the world, we need new national labor leaders.

Article 10 of “Labor’s Voice for Change” will deal with “What We Can Learn from Unions Around the World.” It will be posted on Thursday, February 5, 2009