Union officials share insights on AFL-CIO breakup

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

Lawyers and law students from around the country got an earful about labor's tumult at an Oct. 26-30 conference in Portland.

The occasion was the annual convention of the National Lawyers Guild, which calls for human rights to take precedence over property interests in the nation’s legal system. Several hundred took part in the conference, held at the unionized Benson Hotel; many of them were labor lawyers or political allies of organized labor.

John Wilhelm, co-president of the textile and hotel union UNITE HERE, gave the conference keynote address Oct. 27. He outlined labor’s predicament and shared his thoughts on his union’s decision to leave the AFL-CIO and join a new federation, Change To Win.

“Change To Win is either a bold or a foolish undertaking,” Wilhelm said, “because we have set only one standard to judge success — whether we can organize and grow.”

Despite the fact that offshoring and international competition are eroding labor’s base in well-paying manufacturing jobs, Wilhelm said he’s an optimist about the future of the labor movement. That’s because there’s nothing inherent about jobs in manufacturing that makes them well-paid. Manufacturing jobs used to be sweatshop jobs; it was the union movement that made them good jobs. The same could be done today, Wilhelm said, with what are now low-paid service jobs.

“Today’s challenge is to make the jobs that can’t be exported into good jobs.”

For its own industries, UNITE HERE has a strategy to do that, Wilhelm said, by increasing the portion of the industry that’s unionized. Wilhelm predicted 2006 will be the biggest year in hotel bargaining history, for example, because the union has arranged for most hotel contracts to expire in 2006, and is planning multi-city pressure campaigns to get the giant national and international hotel chains to agree to remain neutral when union organizers try to unionize non-union locations of those companies.

Despite its decision to leave the AFL-CIO at the national level, Wilhelm acknowledged the value of labor unity, and said he encourages locals to continue to affiliate with local and state bodies of the AFL-CIO.

Hotel and restaurant and textile workers in Oregon are represented by UNITE HERE Local 9.

Two days later, outgoing Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt shared his thoughts on the breakup, as part of a labor panel. Nesbitt announced last month that he will step down as president Nov. 18.

The breakup, Nesbitt said, was the result of a debate over “causes and cures” that broke out after labor threw everything it had into getting George W. Bush out of office — and lost.

CTW, the acronym for the new Change To Win federation, could apply to both sides in the debate, Nesbitt said: He thinks of the breakaway group as the “Coalition of The Willful,” and the left-behind unions as the “Circle The Wagons” group.

The breakaway unions tend to blame the union movement for its decline; the unions that stayed in the AFL-CIO tended to blame external forces.

Both had valid points to make, Nesbitt said.

Nesbitt’s fellow panelist Tom Leedham, president of Teamsters Local 206, was less charitable of the motives of the breakaway group. The Teamsters is one of the unions that left, but Leedham has been a long-time critic and opponent of Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa Jr.

Leedham said any union negotiator who looked at differences between the two sides would have concluded they would have come to agreement — they weren’t that far apart.

And, Leedham said, union democracy was left out of the debate, which centered on the structure of the AFL-CIO.

Until rank-and-file members feel part of the decisionmaking, labor won’t be able to turn around its decline, Leedham said.

Wilhelm had made similar observations, saying insufficient democracy and lack of accountability had led to complacency among labor leadership. Too many union leaders, Wilhelm said, are isolated from the consequences of labor’s decline.

“The labor movement is at its best when it has strong rank-and-file participation and fertilization from progressive movements.”.

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