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Analysis: AFL-CIO Splits

By staff

Chicago , IL – A dramatic split rocked the U.S. trade union federation, the AFL-CIO, convening its 25th Convention, July 25-28. Four major unions stayed away: The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Service Employees International Union, United Food and Commercial Workers and UNITE HERE.

As Fight Back! goes to press, Teamsters (IBT), Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) have quit the AFL-CIO.

For now, UNITE HERE, which combines needle trades, hotel and food service workers will not leave and continues paying dues to State Federations and local labor councils.

The departing unions are part of the ‘Change to Win Coalition’, which also includes the Laborers, UNITE HERE, the United Farm Workers and the Carpenters Union. The Carpenters Union left the AFL-CIO long before the convention.

The break up puts about one third of organized labor outside of the AFL-CIO.

The Debate that Wasn’t

The ongoing decline of the size and influence of the trade union movement provides the backdrop for the split. In the private sector, less than 8% of workers now work under union contracts.

Though many AFL-CIO convention delegates watched it unfolding, their disbelief and anger filled the convention when four of the largest unions remained outside. Chicago radio stations in the African American and Latino communities were flooded with calls from workers wanting to know if they would still work under collective bargaining agreements. Across the U.S., workers in union halls and workplaces are asking what this means. Workers are left wondering, because the debate preceding the convention was restricted to a small layer of top union officers. The debate never reached the rank and file union members.

Though narrow, the issues debated are important to everyone who is concerned about the direction of the labor movement. One camp, the Change to Win Coalition, is led by SEIU’s President Andy Stern. The other camp is headed by the AFL-CIO’s John Sweeny, a former president of SEIU.

The problems of organizing the unorganized, union restructuring, along with the role and nature of political action are common concerns of all workers. Unfortunately, 90% of union workers had no idea these debates were taking place.

Class Struggle Unionism

On the eve of the AFL -CIO Convention, Chicago trade unionist Joe Iosbaker, leader of the Labor Commission of Freedom Road Socialist Organization, spoke to a packed hall. Labor and solidarity activists from across the U.S. listened closely.

Iosbaker stated, “Sweeney’s failures have led to a revolt in the palace. There is not much to say about the ideas on either side of this debate. But the debate itself provides an opening to raise the need to transform the unions. The unions need to become organizations of class struggle; they need to oppose the corporate class at home and U.S. imperialism abroad.”

“Some people say the way forward is democracy. We certainly support union democracy. We fight for union democracy in order to have worker-run organizations and to more effectively wage class struggle – not just to have fairer rules for replacing one set of bureaucrats with another.”

Iosbaker added, “The way forward for the labor movement is to revive class struggle unionism. We need unions to be fighting organizations, not dues collection machines. It means reviving tactics of earlier generations – of the 1910s and the 1930s. During those periods, workers did not content themselves with going on strike and holding up picket signs. They used every tactic in their arsenal, from sit-down strikes to shutting down production at the plant gates or to taking the fight industry or class wide. Class struggle unionism also means solidarity unionism, where unionists go all out in support of key struggles when they break out.”

Iosbaker also noted that labor movement needed to take on discrimination faced by African American, Chicano and Latino, Asian and other oppressed nationality workers. Unless this is done it will be impossible to build a labor movement that reflects the actual composition of the U.S. working class.

Stern and Sweeney, as well as the other union leaders on both sides of this debate think that labor management cooperation is not only possible, but good. In an April issue of HRO Today, a magazine that promotes outsourcing, Andy Stern stated, “The sum total of the wage race to the bottom is that this generation of American workers will be the first ever to have a worse quality of life than their parents. To try to stop the wage drops, unions have been an anti-competitive force, protectionist. But what union wages should be is like electricity, which allows their users [employers] to operate more efficiently with better quality.”

In various articles and speeches, Stern explains his belief that corporations should accept unions because unionization will aid them in their business plans. The Sweeny camp holds the same view and work life itself proves them wrong.

Political Action

The $200 million spent backing Democrats in the last elections is a source of dismay for many in the labor movement. Some progressives in and around trade unions are hoping the Change to Win split will lead to a break with the pro-big business Democratic Party. More likely it will lead to ‘bi-partisanship,’ meaning supporting Republican and/or Democratic candidates for narrow opportunistic reasons.

In a post-convention interview with the Detroit Free Press, Teamster head Jimmy Hoffa, Jr. speaks of supporting Republican candidates. Historically the IBT has a track record of backing Republican candidates, such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Hoffa supported a Republican attempt to drill oil in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. It was Hoffa’s ploy to gain power and money through union membership. Hoffa would run the Teamsters’ hiring hall for the corporations and the government. The plan failed.

For its part, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Workers (AFSCME), one of the pillars of the Sweeny-AFL-CIO camp is spending a half million dollars to back the Republican candidate in New York City’s mayoral race. Similar to an earlier ‘go it alone’ approach by Dennis Rivera of SEIU 1199 in supporting a Republican candidate for governor of New York, these strategies only benefit the narrow interests of one union over the others.

Independent political action that is consistently pro-worker and advances the interests of the oppressed is not on the agenda of the Stern or Sweeny camps.

That said, it was clear in the pre-convention debate that Stern placed more stress on organizing the unorganized as a road forward, while many of the unions in the Sweeny camp stressed changing the political climate.

Labor Unity

The end of the AFL-CIO as it was presents some challenges for militants in the labor movement as it is – particularly for those active in Central Labor Councils (CLCs).

In a July 28 memo John Sweeny orders, “We must reject efforts to pick and choose the places and terms of ‘partnership’ and support. These unions are proposing a form of free

ridership: No financial or other support for the national AFL-CIO, no responsibilities or obligations under the AFL-CIO Constitution, but selective buy-in at central labor bodies of their choosing.” In other words those who quite the AFL-CIO are to be kicked out of local labor councils and statewide federations.

For his part, Stern could care less about the CLCs and knew full well that the split was likely to tear them apart.

In a number of cities where the CLCs have become a rallying point for militants and progressives, moves are being made to defend them. The key is to defend the right of affiliation to the CLCs for the local unions that have left the AFL-CIO.

The Future

This new situation presents challenges and opportunities for those that want to advance the labor movement. The main thing however, is to build a labor movement, that is of and for workers. Collaboration with management has gotten the movement where it is today – facing a crisis in the face of an employer offensive.

On the issue of class struggle unionism, Joe Iosbaker points out, “Those unions which in the last decade or two have started down this path of class struggle unionism, however fleetingly – such as the Staley workers, the Detroit newspaper workers in the mid 1990s, the mineworkers at Pittston coal in the early 1990s, and Local P9 at Hormel in the 1980s or the workers at UPS, or the Charleston Five of the International Longshoremen’s Association – have shown us the path to a renewed labor movement. The path of a militant, class-conscious labor movement is the only road forward.”

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