US union split will not bring class politics

Submitted by Anon on 16 August, 2005 - 10:26

Jim Byagua reports on the 2005 conventon of the AFL-CIO, the United States’ trade union federation.

The AFL-CIO convention, which took place in Chicago on 25-8 July, was witness to two important developments. One concerned the split in the American labour movement, the other, the US occupation of Iraq.

Four of the biggest affiliated unions — SEIU service employees, UFCW food and commercial workers, UNITE HERE textile, hospitality and retail workers and the Teamsters — boycotted the event. Two unions, LIUNA laborers and UFWA farm workers, did attend, but are working with the boycotters as well as the already disaffiliated Carpenters’ union to form a new coalition called “Change to Win”.

This wasn’t a departure of principle. In 1938, when parts of the trade union movement quit the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) the rationale was clear and principled. The AFL opposed organising mass production industries (and thus many black workers), and the dissident unions saw this as crucial for the survival of the labour movement, so they walked out. Sadly, there is no real analogy between then and now.

The radicalism of “Change to Win” is mostly rhetorical, and their proposals highly contradictory. The coalition is more a collection of unions disaffected with the AFL-CIO for their own varying reasons than a coherent force committed to a common goal. “Change to Win” proposes to build union density by having each union work to organise the unorganised in their core industries. At the same time, however, one of its key components, the Teamsters, wishes to remain a general union.

The coalition talks about increasing “diversity”, while at the same time proposing the elimination of seats on the AFL-CIO executive reserved for ethnic minorities and women. The seriousness of the Teamsters’ commitment to diversity is evident from the make up of their General Executive Board — 23 out of the 25 members are white men.

“Change to Win” criticises the AFL-CIO for spending too much money funding the Democratic Party and not enough on organising. This is a partially valid criticism – the money would be much better spent on supporting grassroots organising and developing independent working-class political action. However, this is not what is being proposed. The “Change to Win” unions also spend large sums on politicians — Republicans as well as Democrats. Both the Teamsters and the Carpenters are well known for their close relationships with prominent Republicans, and SEIU donated $20,000 dollars to the Republican Governors Association and were the single biggest contributor to one Republican Governor’s campaign fund.

Perhaps the most significant “Change to Win” proposal is that the AFL-CIO returns half the dues money it collects from affiliated unions so they can spend it on organising. The possibility that the Teamsters may no longer need to write a $9 million affiliation cheque every year has guaranteed the coalition support from Jimmy Hoffa Jr, but quite how his windfall will be spent is a different matter altogether.

What the split in the AFL-CIO will mean for the American labour movement is unclear Events are still unfolding, but the indications are ominous. So far only SEIU, UFCW and the Teamsters have formally quit the federation. Yet these three unions alone represent four million workers; their departure will leave the AFL-CIO approximately one third smaller than it was. The federation’s dues income will consequently be reduced by a similar amount, and staff are already being laid off and training programs such as the Organising Institute cut back.

Many Central Labor Councils (roughly equivalent to trades councils in Britain, but stronger) will suffer similar ruptures if the purging of disaffiliated union members demanded at the convention by Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson. The CLCs are important for local organising and providing cross-union solidarity. The split will weaken or destroy many of these organisations and the relationships and trust they have developed. The prospect of internecine conflict within the labour movement is increased by the fact that the AFL-CIO ban on affiliates raiding each others members will not apply to the departed unions.

Despite these dismal prospects, the “Change to Win” leadership argue their move will stem the decline of union membership in the US. At best, however, the substance of their proposals is extremely vague, and exactly how they will evolve in the coming months is unclear. Having started life as the New Unity Partnership, they temporarily became “Unite to Win” before morphing into “Change to Win” within less than a year.

The coalition will be organising a conference in September, which should allow a clearer idea of how it will mutate once it emerges from behind closed doors. But it is most likely to be an extension of the existing SEIU and Teamster organising model — top-down business unionism with an occasional orchestrated mobilisation of the membership.

US labour certainly needs a radical change — in the first instance, by the unions breaking with social partnership and asserting a basic working-class agenda at every level from the shopfloor to national politics. The problem is that the “Change to Win” leaders are not in favour of making this break. Democratic, fighting unions based on an active grassroots membership are the opposite of what Stern and Hoffa envisage, as well as the opposite of what the AFL-CIO has encouraged. Both the “Change to Win” leaders’ decision to split with no membership discussion or rank-and-file involvement, and the entirely scripted AFL-CIO convention, are further indications of this.

No doubt Stern, Hoffa and co are genuinely concerned about declining union membership – but mainly because it means a decline in their power and influence. The same motivation makes them jealously guard power from the rank-and-file in their unions. “Change to Win” is about developing a new style of business unionism to increase their dues base while keeping the membership as passive as possible.

Despite all this, the breaking up of long-established structures and power blocks in the US labour movement may provide some opportunities for the left. There may be new opportunities for the union rank-and-file to assert itself. Unofficial solidarity networks and organisations such as “Jobs with Justice” are likely to become more important. At the same time, the split will undoubtedly weaken the labour movement at a time when the fat cat bosses are all too eager to pounce.

See Change to Win and the AFL-CIO site

Vote on troops

The second noteworthy event of the convention was a unanimous vote in favour of a resolution advocating a “rapid” withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. This represents the first time in its 50 year history that the AFL-CIO has taken a stand against a major US foreign policy or military action. The passing of this resolution was overshadowed in the media by the split in the federation, but despite the lack of press attention it represents an important shift of attitudes within the labour movement.

The motion also called for solidarity with Iraq’s emerging labour movement. Its passage was a victory for all the labour movement anti-war activists across the US who worked hard to get the text to conference and ensure its success. The fact that it was discussed shortly after the successful Iraqi union speaker tour recently organised by Labor Against the War with the IFTU and FWCUI was also significant.

The result means that we have a powerful tool for organising an independent labour presence on the forthcoming anti-war demonstrations in September.

See the Labor Against the War site.

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