One year ago, a number of union leaders took the major decision to split from the AFL-CIO national union federation and form an alternative coalition called “Change to Win” (CtW).

CtW is headed up by the leaders of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and also includes the Teamsters, UNITE-HERE (textile workers, hotel and restaurant workers), Carpenters, United Food and Commercial Workers, the Laborers, and the United Farm Workers. Together, these unions accounted for around 40% of the AFL-CIO’s membership.

The dissident leaders made a number of demands at the 2005 AFL-CIO convention, including increasing union membership through nearly doubling the amount spent annually on organizing, launching a $25-million-per-year campaign to unionize Wal-Mart, restructuring the 61 unions that were part of the AFL-CIO into 15 to 20 mega-unions, and spending even more money on politics (for Democrats and Republicans!). When they saw they had no chance of winning a majority at the convention, they broke away and formed their own federation.

This split at the top of the labor movement reflects the deep divisions within the bureaucracy on how to reverse the decline in union membership and maintain union power in the face of the corporate offensive of the past 30 years. Since AFL-CIO president John Sweeney was elected in 1995 promising to “organize the unorganized,” the percentage of private sector workers in a union has fallen from 10.3% to 7.8%, the lowest rate in over 100 years.

The CtW leaders have presented themselves as a more progressive force than the AFL-CIO, with strategies that can rebuild the labor movement. It is absolutely true that the policies of Sweeney and the AFL-CIO leadership have been an abysmal failure and there is an urgent need for a real debate about how to rebuild the labor movement.

However, the reality is that on many political issues, like their refusal to support amnesty for undocumented immigrants and their support for “good” Republicans, the CtW unions are actually to the right of the AFL-CIO, and their strategies are not fundamentally different from ones that have failed under the AFL-CIO.

The “Wake Up Wal-Mart” campaign recently launched by UFCW and CtW is very revealing. The campaign is mainly a publicity tour, with bigwigs from the Democratic Party asking people to sign a pledge saying, “We hope Wal-Mart will change for the better and join us in our fight for a better America.” It would be just as effective to ask hyenas to become vegetarians.

Some of the CtW unions have followed through on promises to put more money into organizing new members. While this is a step forward, they are following the same basic model that has already been tried under Sweeney.

Rebuilding the union movement will require more than an injection of resources. As the longtime labor activists and writer Harry Kelber pointed out, “AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and the 51-member Executive Council have tried for nine years to reverse the decline in union membership by making union organizing their top priority. They set an example to their affiliated unions by budgeting 30% of their revenue for organizing. They hired hundreds of bright, young African-American and Latino organizers. Nevertheless, with all the money, time, and energy they spent on organizing, the AFL-CIO’s membership continued to decline.” (Labor Educator, 11/17/04)

New Direction Needed
To attract the millions of unorganized workers around the country, unions have to demonstrate they are democratic, fighting organizations capable of winning significant improvements in the living standards of their members, or at least successfully defending them from the ongoing attacks of big business on wages, pensions, and healthcare.

However, both the AFL-CIO and CtW leaders lack an effective strategy to do this. Instead of linking the struggle for unionization to bold demands for improvements in wages and benefits, they put forward vague slogans like “dignity and a voice at work.”

This flows from the union leadership’s acceptance of the need for big business to make profits and be “competitive.” They dream of recreating the partnership between capital and labor that existed in the post-World War II era.

This policy is completely flawed, especially in the current environment where bosses are demanding concessions across the board all over the world. In the U.S., the most recent examples has been the mass layoffs and demands for givebacks in the heavily unionized auto, airline, and grocery industries. Over the last 30 years we have seen workers’ wages stagnate or decline.

Rebuilding the labor movement will require that the unions have a strategy to win. This means mass mobilizations, well-organized strike action that mobilizes solidarity among wide sections of workers, and the use of militant tactics, including mass pickets, defying anti-union laws and injunctions, and workplace occupations – the same tactics that built the unions in the 1930s.

Unfortunately, the militant struggles of the past are a closed book to the present union leadership. At a time of record corporate profits, union leaders have failed to put up a serious fight against management. Looking out from their cushy offices where they rest on bloated salaries, they are far removed from the day-to-day lives of workers.

Huge Struggles Ahead
The inspirational national boycott and strike of immigrant workers this May 1, which shut down the port of Los Angeles and affected a number of industries, demonstrated the latent power of the working class. Last year’s New York transit workers’ strike shut down the financial capital of the world for 3 days. The development of the opposition group Soldiers of Solidarity among autoworkers shows workers’ anger at sell-out contracts by sell-out union leaders.

Anger is growing at rising prices, cuts in living standards, and brutal attacks on working conditions. Large sections of workers and youth are facing the prospect of bankruptcy or serious impoverishment in the next period, especially when an economic downturn hits as the housing bubble comes to an end. Out of the colossal struggles that will follow, workers will seek to forge a new, fighting labor movement and reject the current, failed leadership.

An essential step in this process is for the labor movement to stop supporting candidates from the two parties of Corporate America – the Republicans and the Democrats. They promise crumbs to workers at election time, then turn their backs and do the bidding of big business, as we have seen with the bankruptcy bill, energy, NAFTA, CAFTA, and the Iraq war.

It is a disgrace that both the AFL-CIO and the CtW are spending a record $40 million for the 2006 midterm elections to support Democrats rather than fielding independent candidates who could have campaigned for taxing the rich and big business, bringing the troops home now, a living wage of $12.50 per hour, a massive increase in funding for education, public works programs, and a free quality national healthcare system.

Such candidates could also fight for a repeal of all anti-labor legislation and equal rights for all immigrants, and against the racism, sexism, and homophobia that the religious right and their corporate backers use to divide working people.

The labor movement should be at the forefront of building a new political party to fight for all workers – organized and unorganized, young people, immigrants, and the poor to challenge the corporate dictatorship of capitalism and prepare the way for a radical change of course: an economy that serves the needs of the overwhelming majority rather than the profits of a tiny minority.

We Need Rank-and-file Control over Our Unions!

For unions to be a force to fight management, workers need to have real power in their own unions. However, the CtW unions are in many ways even more top-down and bureaucratic than the unions in the AFL-CIO.

The SEIU, Carpenters, Teamsters, and UFCW are all controlled by a very narrow bureaucratic leadership that allows no criticism. Union locals that oppose the leadership have been shut down or taken over and put into trusteeship. Bureaucrats and staffers dominate national conventions.

The struggle to transform the unions must include basic democratic policies like:

  • Democratic election of all union officials
  • Annual election of shop stewards
  • Union leaders to be paid the average wage of the members they represent

    Teamsters’ Presidential Election

    This fall, one of the most important events in the labor movement will be the presidential election in the Teamsters union. Incumbent president Jimmy Hoffa, who has failed to effectively stand against the corporate offensive, is facing a strong challenge by Tom Leedham, who is campaigning against corruption and for a more democratic union. You can read more about this election and building a fighting Teamsters union at: