Divorce, labor style

The breakup of the AFL-CIO may turn out to be a good thing, especially for workers.

Published July 26, 2005 4:30PM (EDT)

With the Service Employees and Teamsters unions leaving the AFL-CIO at its convention in Chicago on Monday, taking away nearly a quarter of the federation's members and dues, the months-long debate over strategy for the labor movement finally turned into a full-fledged fracture. Two other unions are boycotting the 50th anniversary of the labor federation's founding merger, and there's a good chance for at least two more defections from the federation in the coming months.

As one of their major constituencies unravels, Democratic politicians are worried -- and with good reason. But even if it's obviously not good news for Democrats, the split might turn out to be a manageable problem, maybe even delivering some benefits in the long run.

The initial anxiety is well founded, however. Unions lopsidedly support Democratic candidates with money, troops for the political ground war and votes. Although only 13 percent of America's workforce are union members, exit polls showed that 24 percent of voters in the last election came from union households. And polls taken for the AFL-CIO, still the umbrella federation of most unions, showed union members to be far more Democratic than comparable voters with a similar profile -- even those members who were white males, gun owners and regular churchgoers.

Although unions split all over the map in the Democratic presidential primary last year, variously supporting Howard Dean, John Kerry, Dick Gephardt and John Edwards, they were remarkably unified in support of Kerry in the general election. Such unity magnifies the labor movement's influence, and AFL-CIO president John Sweeney mourned its loss. "At a time when our corporate and conservative adversaries have created the most powerful anti-worker political machine in the history of our country, a divided movement hurts the hopes of working families for a better life," he told convention delegates Monday. About an hour later Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa and Service Employees International Union president Andy Stern broke away.

The main issues in the fight between Sweeney supporters and the SEIU-led Change to Win Coalition centered on organizational changes that the dissidents argued would increase organizing of new members. But the coalition's moves were also seen as "nothing but a disguised power grab," in the words of Steelworkers president Leo Gerard, who supported Sweeney. Both sides insisted that unions need both to organize and to do political work. But the Change to Win unions criticized the Sweeney camp for increasing the AFL-CIO budget to create a year-round political education and mobilization program but not providing the massive dues rebates for organizing that it proposed.

The Change to Win Coalition, now on its way to becoming a rival labor federation, also attacked the AFL-CIO for being too close to the Democratic Party and simply "throwing money at politicians" in hopes of solving labor's problems, especially its continually declining share of the workforce. "I think workers want an AFL-CIO program that's not an appendage of any political party," argued John Wilhelm, the hospitality division president of UNITE HERE, which represents textile, laundry and hotel workers. "We should support Democrats when it makes sense. We should challenge Democrats in the primary." His colleagues and some of Sweeney's supporters argue that unions should reach out more to Republicans, despite the rightward and anti-union trend of the Republican Party.

The AFL-CIO's leaders argue, however, that they've always been willing to back moderate Republicans who support some key worker issues, like Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, who addressed the convention by video. There are just fewer of them these days. And labor's political operation does not give money to politicians, as many individual unions do with their voluntary contributions, but rather educates, registers and mobilizes union family voters.

Unions in general are also clearly frustrated that many Democrats rely on their backing but then neglect their key economic populist issues. Yet despite their internal conflicts, leaders from both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win insist that any Democrat who votes for the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement should not get labor backing.

So the differences in political strategy and policies may not be as great as the rhetoric suggests. AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman argues that "unity in the labor movement is always critical, and anything that serves to undermine that unity hurts the program." What's more, there have always been divisions in organization and policy in the labor movement: The biggest union, the National Education Association, is among the unions outside the AFL-CIO. And even within Change to Win there's a gulf on environmental politics between the SEIU and UNITE HERE, which oppose drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the Teamsters and Laborers, which support drilling.

One of the biggest challenges to unity concerns the state and local federations of unions that are, in the best cases, important political powerhouses. The most aggressive central labor councils have worked hard to pull together local unions in active coalitions. Stern and Hoffa pledge to continue supporting these groups, which in some cases rely heavily on SEIU dues in particular, but official AFL-CIO policy prohibits such participation by unions not in the AFL-CIO. Lamenting that central labor councils are like the children hurt by a divorce between parents they love equally, John Ryan, leader of the Cleveland Federation of Labor, is not alone in hoping to maintain as many ties as possible, even with defectors, while still following the rules.

Like other Change to Win leaders, Stern says, "We intend to cooperate with the AFL-CIO politically. We hope they will cooperate with us." And Harold Schaitberger, the Fire Fighters union president who is critically loyal to Sweeney, says, "Politics will remain similar, if not identical ... It doesn't bode disaster if these unions choose to disaffiliate."

In the end, the split has the potential to make union politics only a bit more fractious than usual, with the Change to Win unions simply outside the well-honed political apparatus of the AFL-CIO.

Is there an upside? Although there's a chance that Republicans will attempt to leverage the divisions within labor, cutting narrow deals for endorsements while maintaining conservative policies, there's also a chance that a fractured labor movement will force candidates to work harder for endorsements. "I think it's good for Democrats and good for Republicans, if they're promoting worker rights," UNITE HERE's Wilhelm said. "But if union membership declines, it's bad for worker [friendly] candidates."

The main potential benefit is if the competition between the two rival federations and strategies ends up generating union growth -- instead of expensive, destructive fights over who represents whom. And the growth of the labor movement would be one of the best possible developments for Democrats, especially in swing states like Ohio and Florida. As Ackerman told delegates at the convention, "If we had just 100,000 more union members in Ohio last fall, this country, this world, would be a different place." Ultimately, if there is much greater growth, the current disunity may be worth the very real political risks.

By David Moberg

David Moberg is a senior editor at In These Times and a fellow at the Nation Institute.

MORE FROM David Moberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

The Labor Movement