News & Politics

Out With the Old, In With the New

The old AFL-CIO guard wasted millions of dollars in union dues trying to buy political friends, instead of actually organizing. If Democrats know what's good for them, they will side with 'New Labor.'
I hope folks over at the DNC are paying close attention to what's going on in Chicago this week.
CHICAGO, July 25 - The huge split in organized labor has been fueled by stagnant living standards for many workers, by the ascendancy of the service sector and by labor's lack of success in politics and unionizing workers. But as much as anything, the schism reflects the conflicting ambitions of two titans of labor, John J. Sweeney, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., and his onetime protege, Andrew L. Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union, until now the largest union in the labor federation. (Full Story)
What's going on there is so important, it may well decide who will sit in the White House three and half years from now -- as well as the future of the Democratic Party itself.

I am not going to waste your time chronicling the failures of the AFL-CIO or its well-stuffed, overpaid, private jet- traveling, five-star restaurant-dining, limo-riding, security-guard-surrounded, manicured, Italian-suited, underperforming, money-hander-outer-to-politicians, leader John Sweeney.

Suffice it to say that this divorce was long overdue. The reason for it is about as fundamental as it gets in labor terms. The old, comfortable guard at the AFL-CIO has wasted hundreds of millions of dollars in union dues trying to buy political friends instead of doing the hard work of labor organizing.

In the old days -- when labor was young — there was no money. Instead, labor used its muscle to get attention and cooperation. Okay, it wasn't always pretty, and it was really hard work. It required union leaders to engage in one-on-one retail organizing. It meant handing out union fliers at factory gates in the wee hours of the morning, sometimes in freezing weather.

Back in those days union leaders, like Samuel Gompers, John L. Lewis, Harry Bridges and Cesar Chavez, put their personal safety, freedom and lives on the line facing down pipe- swinging company thugs on picket lines.

It was hard, uphill work back when Labor was young. But with the winds of righteousness at their backs, it was effective too. American workers organized in record numbers, salaries went up, benefits went up, standards of living went up.

All those better-paid workers spent more, creating demand for more worker-produced products and services thereby creating more well-paying jobs. It was a self-fueling continuum that built the most prosperous, healthy and secure working class in history. Oh, and a robust national economy as well.

Corporate America could have just left that golden-egg-laying goose alone and let the good times roll. But they couldn't resist. They had to kill the goose in a short-sighted quest for instant gratification. Poorly treated and housed cheap offshore labor became the corporate Holy Grail of profitability. Millions of jobs were sent to developing countries, pensions were cut, healthcare benefits were slashed or eliminated, blah, blah, blah,you know all this.

As this rape of labor marched on and on — and continues to do so — what did the AFL-CIO do? Nada. Nothing. Zip. At least, they did nothing effective. Because Sweeney and his kind at the top of labor had become indistinguishable from corporate CEOs and politicians. They looked the same. They lived the same. They vacationed the same. They talked the same. They walked the same.

Even as the percentage of America's unionized workers halved and halved again, the AFL-CIO stayed its proven ineffective course. The whole AFL-CIO operation was on auto-pilot. The money to politicians kept flowing, the lobbying diners at five-stare eateries continued, complete with cigars. Backs were slapped, palms were greased. But jobs kept disappearing.

Finally, this week a hunk of union members stood up and said, "Hey, what the f--k?" --  and filed for divorce.

Now there are two labor movements — Old Labor and New Labor -- and Democrats would make a serious mistake trying to play both ends. They are going to have to choose, or be exposed as the valueless, directionless losers they have shown themselves to be for the past three election cycles.

But which will Dems back? Old labor will continue handing out money to politicians because that's now the only card they have to play. With their membership in shreds, exerting old-fashioned muscle is no longer an option. So the checks will continue flowing to Washington.

New labor, on the other hand, will not have money to waste on politicians. The breakaway unions want to use their dues for good old-fashioned labor organizing. They believe labor needs to rediscover its activist roots and organize, organize, organize to rebuilt its ranks -- its muscle.

The most important thing New Labor learned from Old Labor is that "friends" you must buy are notoriously unreliable. The only way labor can get its fair share of the economic pie is to come to the table with its own knife.

So, what are the Dems gonna do? The choice will be painful for that lot of losers. On one side, they have Sweeney waving his fat checkbook. On the other they have a bunch of hard-working guys and gals in blue jeans and dirt under their nails and no money to waste on politicans.

If Democrats are smart, they will back New Labor to the hilt -- and publicly. They will stand up and acknowledge that American labor is in crisis, that the pendulum has swung way too far to the corporate end of the power scale and needs to be re-centered — and that Old Labor has failed miserably at the task.

In the short term, support of New Labor will hurt Democrats. They will almost certainly lose much of that easy money as Sweeney and his Old Labor fat-cats punish supporters of New Labor by giving money to their opponents —  most likely Republicans.

But make no mistake about it,  New Labor is now the real House of Labor. It may be little more than a shotgun shack right now, but it's the real deal. And, it deserves unbridled Democratic Party support.

But if DNC fails to figure that out, it will be just another sign the Democratic Party needs a taste of the same medicine Big Labor got this week in Chicago.

So, Howard Dean, tell us -- are you a Sweeney?
Stephen Pizzo is the author of numerous books, including "Inside Job: The Looting of America's Savings and Loans," which was nominated for a Pulitzer.
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