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Labor Divided — What Does the Split in the AFL-CIO Mean?

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By Alan Jones, Shop Steward, IUO

There was little to celebrate at the July convention marking the 50th anniversary of the AFL-CIO, the labor federation which until then united almost all the country’s major unions. The convention saw a historic split of the federation. A number of union leaders had announced the formation of the Change to Win Coalition (CtW), which is in effect a separate union federation.

The CtW Coalition is headed by the leaders of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). CtW also includes the Teamsters, the Laborers’ International Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the merged hotel and textile union UNITE HERE, and the Carpenters. Together, these unions account for about 40% of the AFL-CIO’s 13 million members.

In our opinion, the leadership of the AFL-CIO under John Sweeney has fiddled while the labor movement continues to decline. Unfortunately, the people leading the split do not stand for a progressive strategy which can really defend and win gains on behalf of working people.

Both sides in the split advocate different versions of the failed “business unionist” approach which dominates the AFL-CIO. This approach is based on the idea “we can’t negotiate raises for our members unless their employers make a profit.” Standing up and fighting the bosses for decent pay and conditions is to be avoided as much as possible. Strikes are only a last resort.

Why Was There a Split?

CtW would like us to believe they are “insurgents” fighting the conservative old guard. They argue there should be a far greater focus on organizing, and to that end unions should keep more of the dues they send to the federation. Let’s look at the record of both sides.

The current leader of the AFL-CIO, John Sweeney, has been at the helm of the federation since 1995. He was elected promising to “organize the unorganized,” but since 1995 the percentage of private-sector workers in a union has dropped dramatically from 10.3% to 7.9%. This is the lowest rate in over 100 years.

This drop is due to many factors, including the bosses’ neo-liberal offensive against our wages and conditions, and outsourcing. However, the AFL-CIO leadership’s response has been to refuse to engage in real struggle. Instead, they have focused on a losing “political” strategy of putting huge resources behind the Democrats and pressuring politicians for curbs on outsourcing.

The SEIU isn’t as focused as the AFL-CIO leadership is on outsourcing. The union, led by Andy Stern, represents mostly workers in the service sector, which is the fastest growing part of the U.S. economy and also contains mostly low-paid jobs. These jobs (e.g. janitors, healthcare, etc.) cannot be outsourced easily. Since the service sector is growing while manufacturing is falling, SEIU has become the largest and fastest growing union in the country.

But the growth in SEIU is not overall due to great methods. Many of its organizing successes have been achieved through sweetheart deals with the bosses, sometimes promising corporations help in lobbying state regulators in return for union recognition, or promising state governments workers at a discount. Stern even went so far as to lobby against state regulations in California that would protect subsidized nursing homes and their employees. The SEIU is also an extremely top-down union with little democratic involvement by the membership.

The examples of betrayals and mistakes by the misleaders on both sides of the split could fill volumes. Sweeney, Stern, and others say they want more workers in unions. But to do this means we need to get back to the strategies that organized the unions in the first place. We need to use the strike as a weapon against the bosses. We also need to have real democratic involvement of the rank-and-file members who will be the backbone of the serious struggle necessary to reestablish the labor movement’s strength.

Another 1935?

Seventy years ago, there was another very important split in the labor movement. The formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations led to great organizing drives among auto workers, steel workers, and other crucial sections of the working class. Within a dozen years of its formation in 1935, the combined membership of the two federations went from under 3 million to 15 million.

But the context of the formation of the CIO was very different from today’s split. In 1934, there were general strikes in Minneapolis, Toledo, and San Francisco, all led by socialists. The working class was inspired by these struggles, and activists rallied to the new CIO as the vehicle to carry forward the struggle for unionization and improvement of labor’s living standards.

Today’s split has occurred at the top of the labor movement without any debate among the rank and file. Nevertheless, as in 1935 there is widespread anger among working people. Our pensions are under threat, healthcare costs have gone through the roof, and education costs are going up, while hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent on the disastrous occupation of Iraq.

In this context, the competition that will be set off by this split could force union leaders to do things they never planned on doing as they try to prove they are serious about organizing. At a certain stage, the rank and file will also begin to assert itself more forcefully. The potential for that could be seen with the vote against the war at the AFL-CIO convention.

What Now?

Unfortunately, there is also plenty of potential for unhealthy competition. Already, there are “raiding campaigns” where one union tries to get members to disaffiliate from another union. These campaigns are dangerously divisive. Is this where the labor movement’s resources should go? To fighting one another?

Also, the AFL-CIO leadership has attempted to kick all the Change to Win representatives off local labor councils. Local councils should refuse to be split by the national leaders.

Both the CtW and the AFL-CIO are right. We need to organize the unorganized. Money, however, is not enough to get the job done. Big business has more money than we do. We need to use our strength: our collective power. Workers need to see the benefits of unions in action. Mass demonstrations, pickets, and strikes can help us to realize our potential power to change society. They can also immediately impact our lives by stopping the attacks on pensions and healthcare.

We need leaders who are paid an average worker’s wage. Then they have a stake in our fight. The leaders today are so disconnected from our lives, they almost have more in common with the bosses than with ordinary working people who have to live paycheck to paycheck.

Both the AFL-CIO and the unions in CtW pour millions of dollars into campaigns for rich politicians, overwhelmingly Democrats. SEIU alone poured over $60 million into billionaire “fiscal conservative” John Kerry’s campaign. Look what the unions have gotten for their investment. Democrats have been “Bush-lite” on tax cuts for the rich and bankruptcy reform, and on the local level the Democrats are carrying out budget cuts in state after state. It is striking that the people who seem most agitated about the split are the Democrats, because it might affect the flow of cash they have done nothing to earn.

The split again raises the question of labor’s political affiliations. Unions have the resources and the social power to organize a political party based on the labor movement that will stand up for all sections of society who are being attacked by the corporations, including immigrants, women, and people of color. Such a party could play a vital role in ending the dictatorship of big business once and for all.

AFL-CIO Takes a Stand Against the War

The other event that made the AFL-CIO’s 50th year an historic one was the vote to call for the “rapid” removal of U.S. troops from Iraq. The AFL-CIO leadership had initially supported wording saying troops should be removed “as soon as possible.” The difference may seem slight, but it reflected a clear anti-war sentiment which had made its way into the convention hall. None of the more traditionally conservative representatives spoke against it.

Although not as sharply worded as many of the anti-war resolutions passed by union bodies at all levels during the past 12 months, the resolution signifies an historic moment: this is the first time since 1896 that the main U.S. labor federation has taken the step of opposing a war supported by the U.S. government and big business. The resolution passed thanks to a successful rank-and-file organizing strategy on the part of the anti-war organization U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW). It was a genuine reflection of the wishes of rank-and-file union members – something that is usually notable only by its absence from AFL-CIO deliberations.

What is imperative now is that the leadership of unions and state councils which have taken the most clearly anti-war positions really mobilize to get their members on the streets. If the social power of labor begins to be exerted, it would play a key role in turning the tide against this dirty war.

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