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July 24, 2005

Comments

DH,

While you're writing on this this week, can you also explain how it will affect local funding? From a macro standpoint, I think the split might be good. From a micro standpoint, I think it will be a lot harder as a local officer to raise money. And we're in a place with strong union relations on both sides of the divide.

Sure. But for now, I'll say that I think it would be bad at all levels. It would essentiall defund the AFL-CIO, which would hurt labor tremendously in terms of lobbying on legislation and maximizing economies of scale for campaign activities.

Well, see, you've got to explain to some lowly county-level vice chair or something what this means. Someone who is used to having it easy...

DH and others,

You ought to participate from time to time over at TPMCafe's House o' Labor.

Let me also recommend Working Life where Joseph Tasini is reporting direct from the convention. Doesn't look good -- SEIU, UFCW, Teamsters and Unite-HERE seem to be skipping the meeting.

Guess we can only take the actually organized workers of the country for granted for so long …

I have another take. I think labor is splitting from it's roots because old labor doesn't have the support of the grassroots efforts seen at our local level. This year more people are involved and more labor intensive grass roots networks are being forged. There will be a new labor movement in the US as the socioeconomic strata layers out. We do indeed live in interesting times.

SME: I'm sorry, but you're using terminology that confuses me. Can you define old labor, and tell me how the Teamsters and Carpenters are new labor but AFSCME, the Federation of Teachers and other unions that have been organizing new members (such as the Communications Workers) are "old labor?"

Having worked on campaigns in Cleveland—the prototypical rust belt union town—with the local AFL-CIO and the individual union chapters, I have a bit of a different take on your concern, DH.

There is definitely a schism with the AFL-CIO between the unions that represent service workers/professionals versus manufacturing/trade. I wouldn't necessarily characterize it as "old" versus "new" as SME has but perhaps as "transitioning" versus "stagnant".

Part of it is a product of changes in the US economy and work force which have deeply affected the trades/mfg unions. Part of it is also an effect of poor planning and leadership by certain unions. For instance, US textile workers have been seriously affected by the off-shoring of their jobs to Central America, China, and SE Asia. Instead of folding their tent as a union, they successfully transitioned by joining forces with the hotel and restaurant employees union to form UNITE HERE.

Other unions, such as the UAW, have stagnated and failed to re-invent themselves or develop alliances with other unions to retain their once formidable power base.

The union leadership that represents service workers and professionals, like SEIU, tend to have a more contemporary view of their role in contrast to the manufacturing unions which seem to still be stuck in their glory days in the 50s and 60s.

Having said that I think we also need to realize that the union vote has been less reliable for Dems since the Reagan era for a couple of reasons:

1. the strikes and lockouts during the 70s created a huge shift in the trust level of workers versus union leadership.

2. the current generation of union workers (especially in mfg) seem to be quite ignorant of the labor movement history and take for granted the hard-fought protections and wage negotiations that were advanced by the Dem Party in the 20s, 30s, and 40s.

3. There is a weirdly prevelant opinion among trade/mfg workers that they have "made it" financially in comparison to their parents/grandparents and thus are easy targets for the Republican anti-tax rhetoric. In concert, they are also quite concerned about foreign worker competition which fosters anti-immigrant, jingoistic, super patriot tendencies which are also keenly exploited by the Republican Party.

4. The service/professional union, like AFSCME, represent a far less homogeneous group of workers than the product-driven factory-based unions. That alone makes political activism a far more difficult task.

Besides the fact that Gerald McEntee and Andy Stern hate each other. I see this potential breakaway rebellion being a lot more about the power struggle between those two within the AFL-CIO than anything else.

The AFL-CIO must come to grips with the rivaling factions within its family and the individual unions which have done little to re-invent themselves to succeed in the global economy. The smart unions, like SEIU, UNITE, UFCW, Teamsters, and interestingly enough tiny little IUPAT (which I don't know where they stand on this issue), have become political wellsprings for campaigns to tap canvassers, messaging, and strategy. I always knew I could count on them to help the campaigns I was working on; the old school unions not so much.

If the AFL-CIO is not careful, their political role may be usurped by the the expected breakaway unions new affiliation.

Em-D: Let me ask you, what is it that makes you say those particular unions are "smart unions," and not unions like the Federation of Teachers, AFSCME, Communications Workers or several of the building trades, who've grown in recent years? What is it that the Teamsters and Carpenters are doing--besides inviting Bush to join them on Labor Day--that makes their membership losses the result of outside forces to a greater degree than the losses of the UAW or Steelworkers?

I just never have understood, other than savvy wordsmithing, what the hell the New/service vs old/industrial thing was supposed to be. SEIU isn't adding any significant numbers of new members in the private sector; almost all their growth is coming from public sector employees. So what makes them all that different than the AFT or AFSCME? And why are the Teamsters and Laborers more effective than USWA or CWA? And if the UFCW was so much better than everyone else, why are they losing their asses in bargaining with supermarkets, and why are they broke?

I think the problems labor face have to do far more with factors outside of the unions than factors they can directly control. I'm saddened to see so many people--including quite a few in labor--accepting that the problems are within labor mostly or entirely.

And my other concern--what's going to be better by these unions leaving? Other than vague "we have to shake things up" statements, I have yet to see anyone describe the concrete actions that these unions will take to change the overall state of labor in this country. Other than saving the money they currently pay to the AFL-CIO, what will they gain? And what will workers gain?

DH,

I tend to generally disagree with your take on this whole thing, but I think your point as to what makes the CTW "better" or "smarter" are good ones. However, you are way off base with your claim that SEIU hasn't added significant membership in the private sector. That claim has been floated several times, and despite it getting shot down every time, it keeps getting regurgitated.

SEIU has added huge numbers in private healthcare and in building services. In california alone, over 30,000 private sector healthcare employees have organized within the last 5 or so years, and that doesn't include the thousands of RN's the CNA was able to organize by, ahem, "getting in" on the organizing rights SEIU won.

Building service organizing (mainly janitors and security) is slow gowing, often 5 plus years of organizing before winning, but with thousands of workers winning at the end. Big in roads have been made with major security companies and there is a very hot J for J campaign in houston as we speak, as well as active campaigns throughout the country.

Lets not forget the joint organizing with UNITE HERE of Multiservice Companies such as Sodexho and Aramark.

According to the NLRB, SEIU filed for more elections than any other international except for the teamsters last year, and had the highest win rate. (the nlrb only applies to private sector employees) And this doesn't even include organizing victories that use non NLRB strategies (basically the entire building service industry). The rhetoric has been hot on all sides. And while it is ridiculous to make blanket accusations against all the non CTW unions, it is equally off base to repeat innacurrate claims.

"I just never have understood, other than savvy wordsmithing, what the hell the New/service vs old/industrial thing was supposed to be."

My uneducated read has always been that this is a personality / style / generational split among the leadership.

My even more uneducated assessment of blame is that it was on Sweeney to compromise with the rebels, even if it meant his own retirement.

Take it from this labor organizer, the split comes down to this: the breakaway unions are the only part of the labor movement which are growing, and they are doing it by organizing. The stagnant/diminishing unions are holding onto a failed model, trying to influence legislation. How well has this worked? Not at all.

DH, the public employee unions are so circumscribed in what they are able to negotiate that they have done nothing to lift working people generally or their own members in particular that they really have no effect on the larger labor movement. In the right to work (for less) states, which are more than half, they are effectively neutered.

Melanie: the unions breaking away are, other than SEIU, NOT growing, and many unions that are growing are stallwart supporters of Sweeney and the AFL-CIO. That's the spin, but it's not the reality.

Ben: when I referred to SEIU's public sector growth, I was referring to net growth. I'll try looking it up later, but off the top of my head I seem to remember that SEIU has a very high rate of decertifications. Having lots of elections or winning card-check campaigns is great, but the effect if vastly reduced if you're losing the units you organized a couple years earlier. Now holding on to net private sector membership is still impressive compared to what's happened with most other unions, but I'm still not sure it's an example of tremendous progress and success.

Petey:
On point one, I think you're correct.

On point two, I'm not sure. I think a good case could be made that Sweeney should have retired, but I'm not sure it would have made a difference. To be blunt, I think Stern was going to leave unless he could control the entire AFL-CIO. I don't think he ever had any intention to stay. But Sweeney stepping down may have influenced the other unions, but I'm not too sure.

DH

You should check the numbers. while there have been several hi profile decerts within SEIU, they don't come anywhere near the numbers of new (private sector) workers organized. The decerts that I have personal experience tend to be lead by disgruntled staff who would prefer to be the "president" of their own union than to be held accountable. Their campaigns are generally centered around elitism (we're professionals, we don't want to be in a janitors union) reactionary politics (SEIU is too liberal) and the idea that dues could be cheaper if we didn't spend so much money organizng new workers. The decerts SEIU faces at recently organized shops are almost always unsuccessful attempts by very anti union bosses.

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