Union split could be turned into opportunity for labor movement
August 2, 2005
The dramatic split in the AFL-CIO is a symptom of a larger problem. And the split itself will not resolve that problem.
The split, which has resulted in the Service Employees International Union, the Teamsters and the United Food & Commercial Workers leaving the federation, reflects the frustrations of a labor movement under siege.
Corporations and their political allies have waged a one-sided class war against workers since the late 1970s. The failure of laws and governmental bodies to address the severity of employer attacks on workers -- along with changes in the domestic and global economy -- have contributed to an increasingly hostile environment.
Yet the leadership of the AFL-CIO failed to respond effectively. Union reform efforts, such as the movement that brought AFL-CIO President John Sweeney to power in 1995, did begin to address the increasingly marginalized position of organized labor and the U.S. worker. But there was not the dramatic rethinking necessary to confront the new challenges.
Steps were not bold enough, and many unions didn't follow in line.
While the new Change to Win Coalition -- which includes the bolting unions as well as the Laborers, the Carpenters, Unite/Here and the United Farm Workers -- presents itself as an
alternative to the decline, it actually is a manifestation of the decline. These seven unions
have little in common except a stated desire to organize more workers. Beyond that there are vast differences in outlook that make long-term unity an iffy proposition.
The irony is that the proposals of the Change to Win Coalition are not that different from those John Sweeney was offering. The differences were not splitting differences.
Each side magnified areas of disagreement, and each side personalized the debate.
Such actions make reconciliation, let alone reunification, much more difficult to accomplish. In fact, they make even non-aggression a tricky pact to negotiate.
Yes, the union movement desperately needed a debate over its future, a debate that engaged union members all down the line. But this was not that debate. This was a squabble within a very small circle of the same old people.
The real debate never began. But it must begin now.
We need to reinvent a trade unionism for the 21st century. To do so requires movement-wide participation. Local labor councils should host assemblies that bring together unions within and outside the AFL-CIO, plus community-based organizations. Together, they should develop agendas and make demands that respond to their needs.
Once they hash out these issues, then they will be in a position to discuss the particular forms of organization they will need to accomplish their goals.
In the meantime, the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win Coalition both need to guard against civil war. Instead of fighting each other, they should work together against a common enemy, whether it is Wal-Mart, the auto parts industry, rural steel mills or open-pit mining.
Even at this late date, it is still possible to turn this split into an opportunity for reviving the labor movement.
Bill Fletcher Jr. is a longtime labor activist and writer. He is also president of TransAfrica Forum (www.transafricaforum.org), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organizing and educational center formed to raise awareness on issues facing the nations and peoples of Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.