by Trapper John
Labor unions have been getting more press over the past month or so than they have in probably 20 years. Unfortunately, most of the media attention is focused not on specific organizing campaigns or on new collective bargaining agreements, but on the internecine conflict spurred by the SEIU's Andy Stern and his threat to pull his union out of the AFL-CIO. Even more disheartening is the manner in which labor's internal political squabble is being reported in the mainstream media; one of the less salient consequences of the decline in union density has been a concomitant decline in the number of journalists assigned either exclusively or primarily to the labor beat. But organized labor is a highly specialized field, with an arcane jargon and an ever-present history that influences nearly all decision-making. It's not an easy area for a political journalist -- even a very good one -- with little knowledge of the movement to cover. The result is muddled articles with major factual errors (e.g., the persistant misconception that the AFL-CIO -- which is a federation of labor unions -- is "the nation's largest labor union") and questionable assumptions.
This week is certain to set off a new spate of underinformed "Whither labor?" pieces, as the AFL-CIO Executive Council meets at Bally's Hotel in Las Vegas. This will be the Executive Council's last meeting before June's AFL-CIO Convention. I thought it might be a good idea to put together a backgrounder on the brouhaha at Bally's, so as to ensure better understanding of the garbled articles sure to be published later in the week. I don't claim to be unbiased, or to have perfect information, but I do know a little bit about the lay of the land, and I'm not writing this as an advocacy piece for any one side of the debate. Anyway, your briefing book is below the fold.
What is the AFL-CIO?
Good place to start. The American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations is the federation of almost all labor unions in the United States. It got its start in the late 1800s when Samuel Gompers, chief of the cigar-makers union, convinced his fellow craft unionists not to merge into "one big union" (as the Industrial Workers of the World, or "Wobblies," urged), but to create a federation where broad labor policy could be formulated and where internal differences could be mediated. This federation, the AFL, was comprised primarily of skilled trades unions, and saw itself as the "aristocracy of labor."
As the 20th Century progressed, more and more un- or underskilled workers sought to organize, only to find the AFL resistant to assisting their desire for respresentation. Part of the problem was a fundamentally different understanding of the lines along which workers should be organized --the tradesmen of the AFL had always associated by craft, while it made more sense to organize the growing industrial union movement by workplace. Eventually, the strain between the craft unions and industrial unions grew too great, and in 1935, John L. Lewis, president of the Mineworkers, founded the Congress of Industrial Organizations along with the Steelworkers and Autoworkers (UAW). Over the next 20 years, the CIO unions grew strong, but by 1955 both the AFL unions and CIO unions felt the strain of the rift in labor. Too often unions were wasting time and resources fighting each other rather than focusing on common goals. In 1955, Walter Reuther, head of both the UAW and CIO, and George Meany, a plumber and president of the AFL, brokered a merger of the competing federations into a single "House of Labor."
Affiliates of the AFL-CIO are completely autonomous -- the Fed constitution is much closer to the Articles of Confederation than the US Constitution. Constituent unions can (and do) leave the Fed -- since the AFL-CIO merger, the Teamsters have left and returned, as have the UAW and Mineworkers. The Carpenters left the Fed a few years ago, and have yet to return. Each affiliate pays the Fed a "per capita tax" on each member of the affiliate, so that larger unions bear a greater responsibility for funding of the Fed. The current role of the Fed is what today's debate is all about, and we'll discuss it more below -- but suffice it to say that the major operations include political activities, mediation of jurisdictional disputes (through the "Article XX," or anti-raiding, process), legal leadership, capital strategies, and PR. The building and construction unions also pay per capita to the Building and Construction Trades Department, which is almost a federation within the Fed. It provides many of the same services as the broader Fed, but with particular attention to the unique climate of the construction industry.
What is the AFL-CIO Executive Council?
The Executive Council is the governing body of the AFL-CIO in between conventions. It's comprised of the elected officers of the AFL-CIO (President John Sweeney, Secretary-Treasurer Rich Trumka, and Executive Vice-President Linda Chavez-Thompson), plus about 35 leaders from the AFL-CIO's constituent unions. It meets two or three times a year, and during its upcoming meeting in Vegas will consider a number of structural and constitutional changes proposed by various federation affiliates.
What sort of changes are being considered?
A few years ago, Andy Stern, the President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), began to raise serious questions about the structure of the American labor movement, in light of the steady decline in union desity since the early Seventies. At the heart of his concerns was the idea that labor's strength was dissipated across too many unions. An internal document written by SEIU staffers elaborated upon this concern, and provided the ideological rock upon which Stern founded the "New Unity Partnership" -- an informal group of unions that shared SEIU's concerns. At the heart of the NUP were the SEIU, UNITE (the rapidly shrinking garment workers union), and HERE (the hotel and restaurant workers), though the group also included the Carpenters (who had recently left the AFL-CIO in a protest over per capita tax, and who had a number of jurisdictional disputes with other building trades unions) and the Laborers (who also were involved a number of jurisdictional disputes). The NUP manifesto called for amending the AFL-CIO constitution to allow the Fed to force mergers of affiliate unions, with the goal of reducing the number of national unions to around 15 (from a current 60). Each mega-union would be responsible for a particular sector of the economy. In addition, the NUP founders sought to dramatically increase the amout of money being spent on organizing, and to that end, to reduce per capita dues to the Fed.
Reaction to the NUP was cool from non-NUP unions, especially those who saw themselves as being targeted for forced mergers. The specialized building trades -- who already do focus on defined sectors of the economy -- and the Machinists took special exception to the NUP proposals. Much of the opposition was based in the perception of Stern and his allies (especially the Carpenters' Doug McCarron) as having authoritarian tendencies; indeed, the NUP manifesto itself seemed to recognize the tension between union democracy and forced mergers. The building trades pointed out that they had already carved out distinct sectors, allowing each union to focus on controlling particular sub-sections of the construction market. (Indeed, many of the specialized building trades have densities within their sectors well above the national 13% density.) And there was concern that airing labor's dirty laundry in the national media only served to do big business's work -- to make labor look weak. But the confrontation was put on hold as labor focused its energies on defeating Bush in '04. With the exception of Stern's unfortunate DNC gaffe, in which he mused aloud that a Kerry victory might be bad for labor because it would slow internal reform, unions did an excellent job of rally around the Kerry flag and putting maximum effort into the campaign.
Not long after Election Day, Stern launched the "Unite to Win" website, which contained a toned-down version of the original NUP manifesto and a blog on which Stern exhorted the rest of labor to propose reforms. Indeed, unions did begin to draft reform proposals, which can be reviewed on the site that the AFL-CIO created for discussion of the future of the movement. A major development was the publication of the Teamster plan, which agreed with many of the NUP proposals, but which explicity opposed amending the Fed constitution to allow forced mergers. The Teamsters sought to create a massive incentive to allocate money to organizing, by granting a 50% cut in per capita tax to those unions spending over 10% of their revenue on organizing. Of course, with such in reduction in the Fed budget, there would also need to be a reduction in the activities of the Fed; the Teamsters proposed a streamlining of the Fed by eliminating those departments, such as Organizing, the duplicated activities better performed by the affiliates. The well-written and researched Teamster plan offered a third way to those unions seeking a middle ground between the NUP's call for a radical centralization of power and those, such as the Machinists, who felt that labor's problems were largely a function of the political climate.
What's likely to happen during the Executive Council meeting? What effect will this have on the Fed Convention this summer? And what will labor end up looking like when this all shakes out?
I don't really know. But here's my guess. John Sweeney, the former SEIU chief who was elected Fed President in '95 on a reform ticket, has indicated that he's prepared to accept structural changes along the lines of those proposed by the Teamsters. (The preceding link, btw, is to an NYT article written by Steven Greenhouse -- one of the very few remaining labor beat writers in the US, and a good reporter.) The Council will likely embrace such a package, which leads to two political questions: 1) Will a reform package that doesn't include forced mergers keep Stern from pulling the SEIU out of the Fed, which he is now explicitly threatening to do if the Fed doesn't reform itself along his lines?, and 2) Will such a deal prevent anyone from challenging Sweeney for the Fed presidency? John Wilhelm, former president of HERE (which has merged with its NUP partner UNITE to create UNITE HERE, a union that doesn't exactly hew to any defined sector of the economy), has been frequently mentioned as the most likely possible challenger, but he likely won't run if he can't win -- and it's hard to see how Wilhelm can win if a reform that pleases most unions, such as the Teamsters', is embraced by Sweeney.
Internal politics ultimately aren't what this is all about, though. People form and join labor unions because they want More -- more money, more benefits, and more control over their lives at work -- and because we are stronger together than we are separately. At the heart of the labor movement is the idea of solidarity -- that if we stick together and fight as one, we can win. Any structural changes to the labor movement must strengthen solidarity, must ensure that those who are already members of unions continue to improve their lives at work, and must ensure that more of the unorganized are brought into unions that have the skills and strength to fight for them in their particular field.
OK, I think I covered most of what I wanted to cover. Let me know if I missed anything.