Nathan Newman

Five Unions to Exit AFL-CIO?

June 15, 2005, may end up being seen as a landmark day in labor history, as five unions, led by the Services Employee International Union (SEIU), announced their plans to demand reform in the AFL-CIO or leave the federation. And in the meantime, they are forming a committee for joint organizing campaigns -- a nice historical echo of the original Committee for Industrial Organizations, which existed within the AFL in the 1930s before it seceded from the federation.

The biggest news was that, the day before, the United Food & Commercial Workers authorized its leadership to secede from the AFL-CIO if the coalition's proposals are rejected. The UFCW wasn't part of the original "New United Partnership" discussions last year, which kicked off the whole internal union debate, so the fact that the UFCW seem signed on for secession makes the whole thing more likely.

SEIU, the Teamsters, UNITE-HERE and the Laborers released their joint vision for the labor movement back in May with the emphasis on massively expanding the AFL-CIO's budget for helping individual unions organize and supporting campaigns against Wal-Mart and other targets too large for any single union to organize.

Organizing versus Politics: To understand the most fundamental disagreement between the unions supporting John Sweeney and the dissident unions, read this section from the dissident manifesto:

"As the recent election shows, even our maximum political efforts fall short for the simple reason that we are too small. We believe that our movement can and must organize and grow on a mass scale today, because that is the only way to bring true change in the direction of our nation."

Pay attention to that italicized word "today", which was emphasized in the original. Some unions argue that they need to achieve political change in the national government to create the environment necessary for broad growth of the labor movement.

What SEIU and others are stating is that unions have all the power they need to expand if they act strategically.

This is a fundamental disagreement with the Sweeney-led unions who believe that focusing on politics should be the focus for joint union action.

Of course, both sides believe in both organizing and political work, but this difference is more than a matter of emphasis; it is a fundamental difference in evaluation of the strategic situation the labor movement faces. The political and legal environment for unions is harsh in the US today, yet the new union alliance argues that labor can succeed nonetheless without additional political changes, that in fact political change will only happen if labor first succeeds in organizing new workers.

As the Teamsters' Jimmy Hoffa Jr. said at the June 15 press conference, "We cannot afford to wait for a ripe political climate to rebuild our movement. A political sea change in America will not take place until we rebuild our movement."

So that's the real divide today in labor -- this confidence that organizing, if properly supported, can succeed today without fundamental political change versus the belief that labor needs to focus on politics as a precondition for labor success.

Splitting and Unity: Many labor analysts worry that the dissident unions will split "the movement" and make organizing Wal-Mart or fighting Tom Delay harder.

I don't actually buy this. It's not like unions are united today in launching massive organizing drives, which is the argument of the SEIU-led coalition. Today, unions regularly fight each other for the same workers -- CWA fighting UNITE-HERE over California Indian casino workers, SEIU and AFSCME fighting over child-care workers, and all sorts of unions fighting over various healthcare constituencies.

Ironically, a split in the AFL-CIO could lead to more unity. The SEIU-led coalition goal is to create organizing unity among its five unions -- plus probably the Carpenters. And the rest of the remaining AFL unions will no doubt feel pressure to unify more of their organizing drives or see the new coalition moving in on their territory. This is exactly what happened in the 1930s when the formation of the CIO led to the AFL launching a massive organizing drive, something the CIO unions had been demanding but something those unions refused to do until they had the pressure of an alternative federation breathing down their neck.

This may be unity of two competing blocks, but that's better than 57 separate unions all doing their own thing as happens today.

As for political work, the unions are already working through labor-community coalitions like America Votes and ACT, so as long as both sides continue to do so, they can coordinate political work through those institutions.

So while the split in labor is big news, in many ways it's probably less big news, or at least less bad news, than many analysts may fear. What it does promise is to stir the pot and force unions on both sides of the divide to improve their game in response.

Nathan Newman is director of Agenda for Justice, an organization that supports progressive policy campaigns. Email or see

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