Labor’s future:

SEIU sparks a debate

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

(Part one of two)

Fueled by alarm over labor’s steady decline, a major debate over the structure and direction of the American union movement has been brewing for over a year.

The debate was put on hold until the November 2004 election because unions were banding together in a united front to try to unseat an anti-union president.

But immediately after the election, Andy Stern, president of America’s largest union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — backed by the SEIU Executive Board and a resolution from the 2004 SEIU convention — kicked off the debate with a 10-point proposal for significant restructuring of the union movement.

The key contention of “UNITE TO WIN: A 21st Century Plan to Build New Strength for Working People” is that the union movement can’t reverse its decline if it’s divided.

SEIU argues that American working people will continue their long slide if the AFL-CIO, labor’s coordinating body, continues to function as a loose trade association where 65 national unions are each free to divide workers by organizing in industries where they are not a lead union, negotiate lower pay and benefits than members of another union have fought for, and undercut others’ political priorities.

Instead, SEIU argues, workers in the same industry should belong to the same union, and unions need to be large enough to wield significant clout in the industry.

Right now, there are 13 separate unions representing public employees, nine major unions in manufacturing, 15 unions in transportation, and more than 30 unions in health care. Meanwhile, of the 65 unions affiliated with the national AFL-CIO, only 15 have more than 250,000 members, and 40 have fewer than 100,000. SEIU argues that most unions don’t have the numbers or resources to adequately defend their members, much less advance their wages, benefits and working conditions.

“Having 15 construction unions, or 30 unions in health care, is not in the best interest of workers,” Stern said in an interview with the Northwest Labor Press.

“In the early days unions always had some sort of focus. I don’t think the AFL or the CIO intended that everybody would have no focus.”

The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) began in 1935 as a committee set up by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to organize “wall to wall” in industries like steel, auto and mines. Differences between that model and the AFL’s traditional “craft” model of unionizing only skilled workers led to the CIO’s expulsion in 1937. The two federations merged once again in 1955. But in recent decades, Stern said, there has been a drift of jurisdictions, so that the AFL-CIO’s largest unions overlap substantially, each representing workers in many different industries.

To unite workers in given industries, the SEIU proposes that the AFL-CIO be given the authority to require coordinated bargaining; to merge or revoke union charters; to identify up to three “lead” unions nationally in any given industry; to transfer responsibilities to unions for whom that industry or craft is their primary area of strength; and to prevent any merger that would divide workers’ strength. Where the members of a union have clearly established contract standards in an industry or market or with a particular employer, no other union would be permitted to sign contracts undermining those standards.

Other planks in the Unite to Win proposal include:

• Dedicating the $25 million a year the AFL-CIO gets from Union Plus credit card royalties to support projects to challenge Wal-Mart [Wal-Mart has been so successful fighting unions that not one store in America is unionized.]

• Using union movement resources to lead a grass-roots campaign on the national level to win access to quality health care for all.

• Making reform of the nation’s labor laws the labor movement’s top priority, so that workers once again have the right to freely choose a union without employer interference.

But it’s the restructuring part of the Unite to Win proposal that has provoked the most controversy.

A widely publicized backdrop to the debate is the possibility that SEIU could withdraw from the AFL-CIO if the federation doesn’t change substantially. In 2001, the 500,000-member United Brotherhood of Carpenters withdrew from the AFL-CIO, saying the federation was devoting too few resources to organizing new members.

First to respond to the SEIU proposal was the International Association of Machinists, which itself threatened to withdraw from the AFL-CIO if the SEIU proposals were adopted, arguing that forced mergers would violate the principle of union autonomy.

Since then, the combative stances have toned down. SEIU is downplaying the possibility of its leaving. And the debate has broadened as proposals from other unions have proliferated. The Teamsters have a proposal, as do the Teachers (AFT), Laborers (LIUNA), Communication Workers (CWA), Fire Fighters (IAFF), AFSCME, and others.

“Now all of a sudden it’s not what Andy Stern or SEIU are proposing, it’s what half a dozen unions are proposing,” Stern said.

“The good news is they’re all being circulated and debated publicly.”

SEIU launched a Web site — — where union members can discuss and debate proposals for change. And through its “Work in Progress” and “Working Families E-activist” lists, the national AFL-CIO has invited union members to visit to view and comment on the proposals from national unions and sign up for e-mail updates.

The debate, though taking place among the leaders of national unions, will affect the labor movement at every level.

To advance the perspective of state and local AFL-CIO bodies, Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt weighed in with a letter to national AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

Nesbitt agrees with key parts of the Unite to Win proposal, including the need for a stronger AFL-CIO better able to consolidate union efforts.

“The really tough question at the national level is how to get our unions to agree on where to organize, where not to organize, and how to share resources effectively across union lines.”

“We have a lot of autonomy within our unions, and very little agreement on what our boundaries are. I’m not sure it makes sense for eight or nine or 10 unions to be representing nursing home workers when in fact it takes a strategic plan across an industry to be effective.”

Nesbitt likens the AFL-CIO’s current structure to the Articles of Confederation, the loose-knit voluntary union formed by the 13 American colonies. In order to be able to survive external and internal threats, America’s founding fathers scrapped that confederation in favor of the stronger central government set up by the U.S. Constitution.

If it is to survive, Nesbitt argues, the American labor movement may need to do something similar — move beyond a loose coalition to a “coordinated national labor movement with effective, centralized governance.”

In his letter to Sweeney, Nesbitt advocated giving central labor bodies the resources they need to become “permanent campaign organizations.”

“The choices we face are as stark as taking out loans and mortgaging our buildings now or selling our buildings and closing our doors four years from now,” Nesbitt wrote.

Nesbitt belongs to a committee of Western State AFL-CIO leaders, chaired by the national president of the American Federation of Teachers, that will meet in February to approve a stance on the restructuring debate. The committee will then take its proposal to the national AFL-CIO Executive Council at its March meeting.

The Oregon AFL-CIO Executive Board endorsed Nesbitt’s letter at its Dec. 17 meeting. It also heard a presentation about the SEIU plan from SEIU Local 49 President Alice Dale.

Dale, along with Leslie Frane, executive director of SEIU Local 503, Oregon Public Employees Union, took part in the discussions that led to SEIU’s Unite to Win proposal.

“We recognize that the power of our current members depends on our numbers,” Frane says. “So the more members we have, the stronger we are as a collective.”

Dale said that in the mid-1990s SEIU began an enormous shift of resources towards organizing new members. Today, the union spends 50 percent of its budget on organizing at the national level, and locals are required to spend at least 20 percent. Portland-based Local 49, for example, now devotes $450,000 a year to organizing out of annual dues revenues of $3 million.

SEIU wants other unions to follow suit, and proposes that the AFL-CIO support such a shift by returning half of the dues unions now pay to the AFL-CIO to those unions that are the leaders in their industry, have a strategic plan to organize in their sector, and that commit to increase the percentage of local and national revenue devoted to organizing to 15 and 20 percent respectively, by 2010. Such a shift would reallocate $2 billion dollars over the next five years.

“The labor movement has been talking the talk about how important it is to organize for quite a while,” adds Frane, “but the only way to walk the walk is to really put the resources into organizing unorganized workers.”

Dale said she’s glad to see other unions weighing in with proposals.

“What is not okay with us is the status quo,” Dale said. “Labor is dying.”

Sixty years ago, 35 percent of the workforce had union representation. Thirty years ago, it was 26 percent. Today, just 12 percent of workers (and 8 percent in the private sector) belong to unions.

“If the AFL-CIO keeps doing what it’s doing, we know where it’s going,” said Stern. “It’s going to be a smaller voice for working people.”

(Editor’s Note: Part two of this article, appearing in the Feb. 4 issue, will detail the proposals and reactions of the other unions to the debate sparked by SEIU. The debate is likely to be resolved at the quadrennial convention of the national AFL-CIO, scheduled for July 2005.)

Home | About

© Oregon Labor Press Publishing Co. Inc.