Economy  
comments_image Comments

The End of Solidarity?

The hardest thing to explain is how labor got here.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

The hardest thing to explain is how labor got here. How it reached the point where it now looks as if we may have two separate and distinct labor federations come September.

After all, it's not as if the two groups wanted to represent different elements within the work force, as was the case in 1935 when a largely white, Protestant (and Irish) AFL took a pass on representing the unskilled workers -- many from Eastern and Southern Europe -- in factories, and the CIO came forth to organize them. It's not as if the two groups had political or ideological differences.

Indeed, the differences within the new Change-To-Win Coalition (the thankfully provisional name of the group that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), and UNITE-HERE, among others, have formed) may be sharper than those within labor as a whole, since the SEIU and UNITE-HERE are among the leftmost of unions, while the Teamsters and the Carpenters have a long history of flirting with Republicans. It's not as if one side had the unions that organized and the other the unions that didn't: Both sides have unions with great track records, and with god-awful ones.

And yet, here we are: The SEIU, the AFL-CIO's largest union, and the Teamsters, the third largest, have left, and the UFCW looks sure to follow. There's been a little more reticence of tone among the leaders of UNITE-HERE, the clothing and hotel workers union, since their union owns the Amalgamated Bank (in which unions deposit -- and from with they can withdraw -- their funds), and needs support from other unions when they're boycotting hotels. Terry O'Sullivan, who heads the Laborers' International Union of North America, has been the most circumspect of the dissidents, as his union depends on collegial relations with other building trades to get construction-site agreements.

But anything resembling middle ground is eroding fast. On Monday, when SEIU president Andy Stern and Teamster president Jim Hoffa announced their unions' disaffiliation, they began for the first time to outline what looks to be a rival federation. Hoffa pledged to direct half of the dues he'd otherwise pay to the AFL-CIO ($10 million) to the new entity, which apparently will develop an organizing staff of its own, much like the old CIO. The creation of a whole new entity will make it harder for unions whose leaders intended to maintain joint memberships to do so: Emotionally and financially, the costs of dual membership will be very high.

For one thing, the departing dissidents leave in their wake some mightily pissed-off labor leaders, who believe that much of what Stern and his allies were calling for was in fact incorporated in the convention's resolutions. The positions ultimately backed by AFL-CIO president John Sweeney on, for instance, coordinated organizing, says American Federation of Teachers president Ed McElroy, "took their issues into consideration, and ours [the Teachers]. He didn't back anyone's ideas entirely. But there are a few leaders who want to dictate terms to the AFL-CIO with just 25 percent of the membership. I won't buy that; my union won't buy that. We won't have things dictated by a minority."

The mood in the Sweeney camp -- and even among some of the dissidents -- is even darker when they contemplate the damage the defections will do to the Federation. The fate of a joint Wal-Mart organizing project, backed by the Federation, with the UFCW and SEIU as the key internationals, is now a mystery. The International Affairs Department, probably the planet's most important proponent of a social-democratic model of globalization, has already been dismantled.

And the political program -- which both sides acknowledge is the glory of Sweeney's presidency and the one indispensable element in American progressive politics -- is clearly endangered. So much so that last Sunday, in between announcing the SEIU's non-attendance at the convention and its departure from the Federation altogether, Stern told me that he'd offered to have the SEIU continue to "help the AFL-CIO with its political program."

"They can keep some of the best aspects of our work," Stern said. "The AFL-CIO is making a huge mistake if it chooses not to work with us."

This policy of selective engagement, which renders the Sweeney people understandably ballistic, will be particularly tested in the central labor councils -- the city and county AFL-CIO bodies (of which the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor is widely thought the most effective) that run labor's election-season political operations. Sweeney's position is that unions cannot choose to be part of, and benefit from, just those AFL-CIO programs they like, and he has said he'll enforce a ban on state and local participation by the defectors. But in California and Los Angeles, the dissident unions constitute roughly half of the AFL-CIO's membership. "Our state will be affected the most," says California Labor Federation Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski.

"We need these unions to do politics," says one L.A.-area labor leader. "But some unions are so angry, they'll say, 'Don't let 'em in the room. Fuck 'em.' "

The journey from "Solidarity Forever" to "Fuck 'em" remains hard to explain. I doubt if any of the dissident union leaders other than Stern -- whose SEIU is so large and successful that it can clearly stand alone -- figured that they would be where they are today. When I interviewed UFCW president Joe Hanson in February, he said he expected to support Sweeney's re-election. But mistrust and frustration have grown in both camps, despite the desire of many of the key players to avoid just this kind of crackup. "There's been a massive failure of leadership on both sides," one union leader close to both the Sweeney and dissident camps told me on Sunday. "The movement's already on life support. It's mind-boggling that we are where we are."

But we are.