People saw it coming a mile away. The Teamsters’ James P. Hoffa and the Service Employees’ Andrew Stern each made good on their threats to take their unions out of the AFL-CIO at the start of that labor federation’s 50th anniversary convention in Chicago. In the process, they and several other dissenting unions have left observers wondering if the fortunes of organized labor have been irrevocably damaged. While that’s a possibility, the most likely long-run outcome probably will be the opposite. Indeed, unions may emerge with more members, revenues and political clout. As for battling corruption, they don’t seem to view this as a high-priority item. But this requires some context. And the context is the convention.
Populism ran deep, proud and far to the left inside the large air-conditioned convention hall along Chicago’s Navy Pier Monday through Thursday, July 25-28. There was no mistaking the left part, whether at the podium or on the floor. The AFL-CIO’s top brass – President John Sweeney, Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson and Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka – all denounced the Bush administration and in general “right-wing” Republicans as enemies of working families. The outside marquee speakers, if anything, pumped up the excitement further. NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Rev. Jesse Jackson made clear that the labor and civil-rights movements long have been intertwined, the fate of each rising and falling as one. At certain points, the word “diversity” – as in the need for a racial/ethnic spoils system within the union – seemed to crop up in every other sentence. Guest and seconding speakers routinely tore into the CAFTA free trade bill, right-to-work laws, moderate Democrats, Social Security reform, Wal-Mart, the “stolen” 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, and crackdowns on illegal immigration. When Rev. Jackson closed his speech with his patented chant, “Keep Hope Alive!,” most of 800 delegates stood up and chanted along. The re-election, by acclamation, of Sweeney, Chavez-Thompson and Trumka seemed almost anticlimactic in comparison.
But for all the muscular displays of solidarity in the hall, there was a palpable frustration, too, and it wasn’t just over labor’s failure to deliver the White House for John Kerry last November. The AFL-CIO convened with 58 members; in short order, that number was down to 56. The Teamsters and the SEIU, had announced by the end of Sunday that they would boycott the convention; they formally split from the federation the next day. Mention of the dissenting faction invited hisses from the assembled. President Sweeney termed the exit “a grievous insult,” expressing special disappointment that the Service Employees had bolted, since this was the very union he’d headed before becoming AFL-CIO chieftain in the fall of 1995.
The Teamsters have 1.4 million members, and the SEIU, by far the nation’s fastest-growing union, has 1.8 million. Do the math, as they say. By leaving the AFL-CIO, the two unions took away about a fourth of the AFL-CIO’s 13 million workers. What’s more, two other unions, the United Food and Commercial Workers and UNITE HERE (the latter a consolidation of the textile and hotel/restaurant workers unions last year) with 1.4 million and 450,000 members, respectively, joined the Teamster-SEIU boycott of the convention, though neither formally has yet to sever its ties. These four unions in turn are part of a seven-union rump faction calling itself the Change to Win Coalition. Other members include the Laborers (800,000 members), the United Farm Workers (31,000), and the Carpenters and Joiners (520,000), the latter of which already had left the AFL-CIO in 2001.
Change to Win doesn’t see organized labor scoring too many victories lately. They attribute much of this to the AFL-CIO pouring too much energy into using the political system to protect existing high-wage and high-benefit jobs at the expense of large, unorganized numbers of low-wage workers, especially in the service sector. And organizing is what the federation should be doing a lot more of, argue the dissenters. Unless the labor movement reverses its steadily declining share of U.S. workers, all of its activism on behalf of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party may be doomed to irrelevancy. As it is, the AFL-CIO recently had to lay off more than 100 employees at its Washington, D.C. headquarters. The proportion of wage and salary workers belonging to unions has been declining over the last few decades. Whereas it was 24 percent in 1973 and 20 percent in 1983, the figure was only 12.5 percent in 2004. In the private sector, less than 8 percent of workers belonged to a union in 2004 – compare that to about 35 percent in 1955, the year of the AFL-CIO merger. The rise of industrial software applications (lessening the need for assembly-line production techniques and hence the leverage of a strike threat), the rise of globalization, outsourcing, deregulation, and privatization, and the growth of Wal-Mart and other mega-retailers – all explain to an extent the relative decline in union membership. Unions have to find a way to attract new members in the face of these trends, argue the dissidents, if they are going to find political foot soldiers and pay their bills.
But make no mistake about it. Despite all the ballyhooed differences between Old Guard and New Guard unionists, politically and even strategically organized labor is pretty much on the same page. Sweeney himself cited the need for more organizing. “We will begin building the new power we need by approving a huge shift of AFL-CIO resources into organizing so we can ratchet up strategic campaigns aimed at the likes of Wal-Mart, Comcast, Clear Channel and Toyota,” he told the convention Monday. At heart, this family feud appears to be about money more than anything else. Prior to the split, the Teamsters and the Service Employees had combined for $18.1 million of the AFL-CIO’s $96 million in annual dues receipts; the total federation budget is about $125 million.
So what is the upshot of all this? Is the AFL-CIO on the road to ruin? One hesitates to make such pronouncements. The AFL-CIO, remember, owes its very existence to an attempt to undo schism. Twenty years prior to its formation, back in 1935, a group of eight unions, led by Mine Workers President John L. Lewis, formed a dissident faction with the American Federation of Labor. This faction was an immediate forerunner of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. In 1937 the AFL gave the boot to the militant CIO affiliates not returning to the fold. On its own, CIO unions, using the sit-down strike as their prime bargaining tactic, organized large numbers of workers in a relatively short time in the rubber, steel, auto and other mass-production-oriented industries. When the AFL and CIO merged in 1955, the American labor movement was at its zenith, with more than a third of all non-farm workers belonging to a union. Schism, over a two-decade period, proved to be a boon.
Since the merger, there have been additional schisms, and organized labor has managed to minimize the damage. The federation expelled the Teamsters in 1957 for widespread corruption (prompted by the ongoing McClellan Committee Senate hearings); it readmitted the union 30 years later, even though then-International President Jackie Presser was under federal indictment. The United Auto Workers bolted in 1968 to form (with the Teamsters) the short-lived Alliance for Action, only to return to the AFL-CIO not long after. The Carpenters severed ties in 2001, but have held onto their half-million or so members since.
Schism, if occasional and localized, need not undermine organized labor’s strength. And as long as a large pot of revenues, from dues and other sources, is available, protected by existing federal labor law, there will be fights over the spoils, which is now about $17 billion a year. As evidence repeatedly has demonstrated, a large cookie jar is an inducement for union bosses and their employees to steal. (Chicago Tribune, 7/25, 7/26, 7/27; Chicago Sun-Times, 7/26; USA Today, 7/26, 7/27; New York Times, 7/27; Washington Times, 7/23, 7/26; Washington Post, 7/31).