As Corporate American continues to attack workers’ wages, working conditions, and benefits, the need for a fighting labor movement is more vital than ever.

Given the failure of the AFL-CIO’s leadership to successfully resist this corporate offensive, many union members’ hopes were raised when Andy Stern, leader of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), pulled his union out of the AFL-CIO promising a new direction for labor.

Stern and SEIU went on to found an alternative federation, Change to Win (CtW), that includes the Teamsters, Laborers, Carpenters, Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), Farm Workers, and Hotel and Restaurant Workers (UNITE HERE) – about 6 million members in total. But two years after the creation of Change to Win, what has been achieved?

Stern focused his criticism of the AFL–CIO on the need to put more resources into hiring more organizers. SEIU has put more resources into organizing, and the UFCW and UNITE HERE have made splashy campaign efforts against Wal-Mart and the hotel chains. But no real progress has been made in unionizing new workers. The real issue is not more resources; it’s how to organize workers, and around what program.

Stern has been going out of his way to talk to Corporate America, including working with Wal-Mart. At a recent conference of corporate lawyers, he said: “SEIU’s goal for 2006 is to bring unions and employers together as partners, not enemies.”

Can unions really organize members and win better conditions when they are looking to be friends with Corporate America? In negotiation after negotiation, what workers have seen is Corporate America ripping up the social contract with labor. Corporate America is flush with cash from this orgy of attacks on wages, healthcare, pensions, etc. They aren’t about to be convinced by Stern’s words.

Compare Stern to “Big” Bill Haywood, a giant of the labor movement who 102 years ago opened the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) with these words: “We are here to confederate the workers of this county into a working-class movement that shall have as its purpose the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism. This organization will be formed based on and founded on the class struggle … [having one purpose:] to bring the workers of this country into full possession of the full value of the product of their labor.”

Only by building an active and class-conscious membership can the unions regain their power. That means demanding fundamental change on the issue of wages, working conditions, hours, healthcare, pensions, and child care.

The refusal of the leaders of the AFL-CIO and CtW to see outside the box of this system means they accept its logic. When corporations say “we need to cut costs to compete internationally,” the union leaders should be exposing this for what it is: a recipe to make workers compete for who is going to work for less, which country can destroy the environment the most, and a race to the bottom for all workers to guarantee huge profits for the corporations.

If we withdraw our labor, the bosses don’t make any money. That’s the power that enabled workers to win the battles of the past. And that’s what we need to return to.

Break from the Democratic Party
In the same way, the union leadership needs to stop throwing our support and money behind the bosses’ political parties. The AFL-CIO spent $150 million in 2004, and both federations spent a record $66 million for the 2006 midterm elections, supporting mainly Democratic Party candidates. They believe that when Democratic politicians make promises, they actually plan to deliver on them!

Any serious study of history shows that the Democrats continually lie to get labor’s support. But once in office, they do their corporate sponsors’ bidding. They are a corporate-controlled political party, as hostile to workers’ interests as Wal-Mart and GM. The first step has to be for the unions to stop spending money supporting corporate politicians and use these resources to organize, as well as supporting independent workers’ candidates in the 2008 elections.

Workers don’t need union leaders trying to convince them that one set of corporate politicians is better than the other but that we need to build an independent political party for workers and young people.

Workers are ready to struggle. Last year, we saw the historic movement of millions of immigrant workers fighting for their rights, and more recently the enthusiasm of working people around the country for the movie Sicko.

A new working-class movement fighting for a free national healthcare and child care system, a living wage, taxing the corporations and the rich, ending the Iraq War, cleaning the environment, guaranteed pensions, and a mass program to rebuild the urban infrastructure can truly turn around this country.

This is also the only way to reverse union decline, as it would inspire millions of workers to join. It’s going to mean workers taking back their unions from the current leaders of both federations to achieve it.