Labor’s future:

Unions react to SEIU proposal

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

(Part two of two)

A debate begun in November by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has caught fire among the national leaderships of AFL-CIO affiliated unions.

At issue is the structure of the American labor movement, and the discussion could precipitate major changes at the AFL-CIO’s July 2005 quadrennial convention.

The discussion began with the public release by SEIU of a detailed document entitled, “Unite to Win: A 21st Century Plan to Build New Strength for Working People.” In it, SEIU asserts that worker power within a given industry comes from achieving critical mass — union density — in that industry. And if that’s true, SEIU argues, the union movement can’t reverse its decline without a restructure that would move workers in each industry into just one or two unions large enough to win economic power in that industry.

When the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organization merged in 1955, the newly formed AFL-CIO had 165 affiliated unions. Today, after 50 years of mergers, there are 59 affiliates. That’s still too many separate unions, says SEIU, because most unions have under 100,000 members — too few to win real improvements. Unite to Win suggests that 15 to 20 mega-unions, each concentrated on organizing a particular economic sector, would be much better able to win in the workplace.

To achieve that, SEIU proposes to give the AFL-CIO the authority to merge smaller unions, and to offer a sizable rebate of AFL-CIO dues to unions that shift to strategic organizing in their core sector.

SEIU has been promoting versions of this idea for two years.

To press for change in the AFL-CIO, in 2003 SEIU President Andy Stern joined with the leaders of four other unions — the Laborers, the Carpenters, UNITE and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) — to form the New Unity Partnership. UNITE and HERE have since merged to form UNITE HERE, and the five leaders reportedly decided to dissolve the New Unity Partnership at a Jan. 4, 2005 meeting. The discussion they started has now taken off throughout the labor movement.

At one time, if you belonged to the United Auto Workers, you made cars; if you belonged to the United Steelworkers of America, you made steel, and if you belonged to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, you drove a truck. Now the UAW represents freelance writers; the Steelworkers represent nursing home workers, and the Teamsters represents just about anybody. Examples like these point to a drift toward “general unionism,” and SEIU argues it’s bad strategy. If you had to design the labor movement from scratch, SEIU leaders say, workers would be better off with 15 unions that each specialize in one of 15 separate industries than with 15 unions that divided their memberships among many different industries.

Most of the unions that have joined the debate don’t necessarily disagree on that point, but they disagree on what to do about it.

To keep up with the debate, it helps to understand the union movement’s structure. Most unions consist of national bodies which charter local chapters. The local chapters are typically referred to as “locals.” The national bodies are typically referred to as “internationals” because they often have some locals in Canada.

Individual union members elect the leaders of their local, as well as delegates to international conventions. In most unions, those delegates elect the international leaders. Most American internationals are affiliated in a loose federation — the AFL-CIO. The AFL-CIO’s national leadership is elected by the leaders of the international unions, who vote according to the number of members they represent. Only three national presidents have been elected since the formation of the AFL-CIO: George Meany from 1955 to 1979, Lane Kirkland from 1979 to 1995, and John Sweeney since 1995.

Some observers see in SEIU’s proposal a criticism of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. Ten years ago, Sweeney, then-president of SEIU, ran as a reformer against Thomas Donahue, the secretary-treasurer under then AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland. Sweeney argued for a sense of urgency, because unions had declined — as a percentage of the workforce — by two thirds since their heyday. But Sweeney has been unable to turn around labor’s steep decline.

Faced with SEIU’s call for further reform, Sweeney asked that the debate be postponed until after Nov. 2. SEIU’s President Stern agreed to hold off until after the 2004 presidential election, for the sake of labor unity.

Immediately after the election, SEIU released its Unite to Win. Two weeks later, Sweeney sent a memo inviting the presidents of national and international unions to submit their ideas, and encouraged a “full and open discussion about our future and about the choices we must make together.”

Since then, eight other unions have weighed in with statements and proposals. The four most distinctive are detailed in this article.

Most of the unions agree with the value of labor unity within industries, but disagree with SEIU about how to achieve that unity. Most of the unions agree that the AFL-CIO’s process for resolving jurisdiction disputes is in need of repair. And most praise the efforts of Working America, an AFL-CIO project that enables workers to join the labor movement as individuals.

But aside from those areas in common, each union’s contribution to the debate, including SEIU’s, seems to reflect the perspective of that union and its leadership.


Service Employees

SEIU, the largest and fastest growing union in the AFL-CIO, devotes an estimated $180 million a year to organizing (nearly twice the entire budget of the AFL-CIO). SEIU’s organizing efforts conform to its strategic plan to build union density in the industries where it has a presence — health care, janitorial services and the public sector. So in effect, Unite to Win is a call for the rest of the labor movement to adopt the same strategy.



The Teamsters is probably the most “general” of the large unions. Dating from 1957, when the Teamsters was expelled from the AFL-CIO for alleged Mafia ties, the Teamsters began to organize in other unions’ jurisdictions. By the time the Teamsters rejoined the AFL-CIO in 1987, it represented workers in almost every major industry.

So in its response to Unite to Win, the Teamsters Union agrees with the proposal that the AFL-CIO support organizing by refunding a portion of AFL-CIO dues; but disagrees with any requirement that it focus that organizing in a particular industry.

“Proposals to centralize strategic authority in the AFL-CIO and transform it from a coordinating center to a command center are politically impractical and will only lead to a split in the labor movement,” said the Teamsters in its policy statement.

“While we believe that forced mergers are inappropriate and unrealistic in a democratic labor movement, we believe that the AFL-CIO needs, as a matter of policy, to serve as a spark for mergers and assist in the merger process.”

Last year, the Teamsters brought in more than 125,000 members through mergers with the Graphic Communications International Union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees.


Fire Fighters

Since 2000, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) has stood out among unions for the degree of its support for Republican candidates; in the 2004 election cycle, nearly a third of its campaign contributions went to Republicans. In its contribution to the debate, the IAFF opposes “forced consolidation or mergers of affiliates,” and instead argues that the AFL-CIO should support more Republican candidates.

“The AFL-CIO should end its practice of relegating itself to being subservient to one political party,” writes IAFF General President Harold A. Schaitberger.

“The federation’s political operation needs a strategic change. It needs to target the issues — God and country — important to the ‘forgotten majority.’”

Schaitberger also argues the AFL-CIO “must adopt the marketing and targeting strategies used by corporations and political parties to pinpoint customers and voters.”

He proposes that the AFL-CIO hire a non-partisan pollster to survey union members’ attitudes and priorities, and that based on the survey, it develop a “strong thematic message.” That message “must recognize that security fears post-9/11 … have been overwhelming in the media and in the minds of Americans.”

To deliver this message, the AFL-CIO would use “the contemporary media used the most by potential members and voters … rather than continuing to rely on leaflets, direct mail and e-mails as the major means for getting out our message.”



The strongest negative reaction to the SEIU’s position came from International Association of Machinists President Thomas Buffenbarger.

Buffenbarger threatened to withdraw from the AFL-CIO if the SEIU’s proposals are implemented, and he criticized Stern personally in interviews published in the Sept. 13, 2004 edition of Business Week and the Jan. 30 New York Times.

Responding to Sweeney’s call for big ideas, on Jan. 10 the Machinists released “Use Our Power,” which it called “a sweeping seven-point strategy document that … is certain to reinvigorate the debate over the future of the AFL-CIO.” In the document, the Machinists propose that the labor movement invest $200 million to create a labor-owned cable network that “projects a positive image of union members and the American labor movement;” that it establish a health care database to leverage its members purchasing power; and that it focus its political efforts on states with a heavy concentration of union households.



The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), in its position paper, responded directly to a number of the points raised by SEIU. AFT agreed that industrial unity is desirable, but criticized the methods SEIU proposed: “Workplace democracy counts. Workers aren’t commodities or inert molecules to be traded, rearranged or reassembled into organizational units.”

Instead, AFT advocates a gradual, voluntary version of the restructure SEIU has called for. AFT calls on the AFL-CIO to set up “Industry/Occupation Labor Centers” — voluntary coalitions of unions — which would work out the details for multi-union organizing and bargaining efforts; coordinate campaign research, and set contract standards. AFT predicts that the partnerships forged through participation in these coalitions would pave the way to more strategic union mergers.

But while such a restructure would strengthen the union movement, AFT argues that the best way for organized labor to revitalize itself is to turn away from narrow concerns and start re-asserting itself as a mass movement — becoming a voice for working people.

“Organized labor was founded to advance a peoples’ agenda, but increasingly we’ve come to be viewed as another special interest.”

“Labor’s power, legitimacy and appeal are derived from enduring principles rather than from more effective tactics and efficient structures,” AFT declared. “Organized labor needs to earn our role and recognition as the peoples’ lobby.”

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