From the May 2006 issue of The $100 Plus Club News #100
Debate on Union Democracy & "Change to Win"
(with Don Taylor & Herman Benson)
The Split in Labor: A View from the Other
by Don Taylor
Don Taylor is Education Coordinator for SEIU Local
1984 in Concord, NH, and teaches in the Political Science department at
the University of New Hampshire. Previously he worked with the United
Electrical Workers in Iowa and Hotel Workers Local 26 in Boston. He has
been an AUD supporter since 1997. This piece originally appeared in the
March 2006 issue of Yankee
Radical, the newsletter of the Boston chapter of the Democratic Socialists
With the recent split in the AFL-CIO we stand at a
truly historical moment for the U.S. labor movement; whether it is a moment
of rebirth or a moment of self-inflicted injury remains to be seen. The
thoughts that follow are my own. I am on the staff of an SEIU local which
has never hesitated to go its own way. Just as my local, 1984, has never
been a mouthpiece for any SEIU "line," neither am I.
The U.S. labor movement as structured for the last
half century has failed to adequately adapt to change. Emphasis on delivering
basic services to members and being a compliant partner in the Cold War
anti-communist social contract led to a loss of vision. While the achievements
of unions in "delivering the goods" on wages and benefits enabled
the working class to begin to join the middle class, the structures of
business unionism that were developed to deliver these goods could not
adapt when the economy shifted toward nakedly aggressive monopoly capitalism.
As the economy shifted from the General Motors model to the Wal-Mart model,
the unions were largely left scratching their collective heads.
Meanwhile, union membership plummeted, and the percentage
of the U.S. workforce in unions slid downward to levels not seen since
Elected in 1995 to bring about change, the Sweeney
team made a powerful call for unions to spend more money on organizing.
It was a call few unions took seriously enough to change direction, and
Sweeney was largely powerless to bring about the changes he called for.
Membership and union density continued to fall.
It just wasn't working. So we left.
There has been a great deal of debate about comparing
this historical moment to the separation of the CIO from the AFL in the
1930s. There are important similarities as well as serious differences.
An important similarity can be seen in the divide over organizing in the
Back then, the AFL was largely opposed to organizing
workers by industry, preferring to organize by craft-splitting workers
among different union "turfs" by skill or trade. The CIO advocated
organizing by industry, because they knew that unity across craft lines
was essential to victory. For example, manufacturing workers at General
Electric had to be united in a single democratic organization in order
to face that industrial colossus effectively, not split into five or twelve
or twenty different unions.
Similarly, much of the Change to Win criticism of
the AFL-CIO has focused on a comparable organizing dichotomy. CTW has
called for unifying workers within industries and areas in order to build
strength against employers. On the other hand, the AFL-CIO structure prevents
unity, where a number of "organize anything that moves" unions
haphazardly divvy up workers regardless of industry or region (admittedly,
many of the CTW unions fit this description-but at least they are now
publicly saying that it is a bad idea).
Take health care, for example. Under the current AFL-CIO
structure, a single catch-all union with a tiny number of health care
workers can veto or retard the development of employer-based, industrial,
regional, or national strategies. A national campaign against an HMO giant?
Nearly impossible, given the number of unions with "turf" in
health care. Thus, the AFL-CIO structure actually weakens workers, preventing
them from organizing for strength by industry. This is a complete betrayal
of CIO principles.
That workers gain through industry strength is undeniable.
In the San Francisco nursing home industry, workers are 52% organized
and enjoy health and pension benefits along with an average wage of $10.90
per hour. In the Los Angeles area, nursing home workers are only 8% organized,
lack health and pension benefits, and make only $8.12 per hour on average.
Similarly, construction workers in the high-union-density
Philadelphia area have an average hourly wage of $36, as compared to $19
in low-density Atlanta.
The loudest voices condemning Change to Win have simply
labeled this an adoption of the corporate concept of "market share"-an
easy way to dismiss the whole debate and avoid arguing the merits.
Think back to the great struggles in the automotive
industry in the 1930s. How different would the outcome have been if the
General Motors workers in Cleveland, at Detroit's Fisher Plant No. 2,
and at Fisher No. 1 in Flint had been split between different unions?
The outcome could not have been the same, and the history of the labor
movement would be markedly different.
Yet, for some reason, many in the labor movement accept
today's atomized status quo. Some even applaud it-like the folks at Union
Democracy Review, who seem to think workers' ability to change between
unions like trading in an old car for a new one is more important than
building power. I do not understand how having six unions in health care,
fifteen unions in construction, nine unions in basic manufacturing, and
thirteen unions in public services is in any way helping workers unite.
The current structure of the AFL-CIO allows a union
with only a minor stake in any particular industry to prevent large-scale
coordination of strategy. It also allows one union to undercut the goals
of another, preventing the setting of industry standards. We've seen this
in New Hampshire's public sector last year, where one small state workers'
union agreed to a two-tier system of health care benefits. This small
union's settlement was used by state negotiators and legislators to leverage
the members of the union I work for-a union with a membership among state
employees twenty times larger than the union that agreed to the two-tier
system. The result for our members was increased co-pays and some other
concessions, and a mountain of public criticism for not entirely swallowing
the "responsible" deal struck by the tiny union.
So I am afraid I must respectfully disagree with Ed
Collins, who wrote in the September 2005 Yankee Radical that the "real
dispute" was "about how to finance future organizing drives."
The real dispute is over whether or not we can structure ourselves to
organize effectively. It is over finding a new approach that truly unifies
workers against employers. It is over the fact that the AFL-CIO structure
Admittedly, the CTW proposals on merging unions to
achieve industry strength do raise some important issues of democracy.
SEIU has sometimes given the appearance of having a problem with democracy-such
as placing what appear to be dissident locals into trusteeship. HERE,
UFCW, and other CTW unions also have spotted histories. But the CTW opponents'
howling about the "anti-democratic" nature of the proposal is
a bit much, coming from many unions whose record on internal democracy
is far worse. The fact is that these goals can be achieved in a democratic
manner, but only if we all are going to speak honestly and practice what
we preach. I would direct this statement to both the Change to Win unions
as well as those still in the AFL-CIO.
Many have said that with the current political atmosphere,
this is the worst possible time to embark upon this endeavor. They say
our enemies will take advantage of our movement's disarray. True, perhaps.
But the neoliberal assault on working families, the poor, and people of
color worldwide did not begin with the election of the Bush administration.
It has been building for years, and even took place under Carter and Clinton.
The year 1985 would have been a bad time to do this, as would have 1995.
If we didn't do it in 2005, 2015 would be an even worse time to make the
split-by then, neoliberal imperialist monopoly capitalism would be even
more powerful and oppressive.
So, to those who say this is not the time, I must
say, if not now, when?
Reply by Herman Benson, Editor of Union Democracy Review
In his comments on the split in labor, Don Taylor
allows his admirable hopes to overwhelm any sense of reality. His disenchantment
with Sweeney and the AFL-CIO seems rooted in his feelings about the cold
war, rigid anti-communism, business unionism, and other evils of a "nakedly
aggressive monopoly capitalism." But it is an illusion to dream that
a new labor coalition of the Teamsters under Hoffa, the Carpenters, the
Laborers, and the Food Workers will deliver something closer to his heart's
desire. He imagines it; they haven't even made the promise. In these times,
when there is so little to cheer about, some radicals grasp at straws.
The danger is that, in a desperate search for reassuring signs, they are
being taken in by a new ideology of super-centralized bureaucratic labor
Small example: Don Taylor now sees that "building
power" is more important than "workers' ability to change unions."
An unfortunate dichotomy! The way to build real union power and political
power is to allow workers to form or even to switch to join unions that
they respect because they feel that the union belongs to them. Some of
the Change to Win unions, he writes, do "have spotted histories"
on issues of union democracy. His reply is that such criticism comes "from
many unions whose record on internal democracy is far worse." I hope
that, even without a deep-stuff discussion, readers of Yankee Radical,
and even Taylor himself, will feel uncomfortable with such consoling comments.
Don Taylor sees important similarities between the
transformation of the labor movement by the CIO and the changes touted
by proponents of the Change to Win, who argue that unions must be "restructured."
Each must concentrate upon its "core" industry. No more all-embracing
unions with their disparate memberships. But that's for talk not for action.
It will never happen and, in any event, restructuring is irrelevant to
the problems faced by unions in mass production ---steel, auto, rubber,
etc - or by unions in the airlines, and in government. The prototypes
of disparate unionism are the SEIU itself and the Teamsters, two Change
to Win unions that show no signs of stripping down to lean, core concentration.
Taylor regrets that there are thirteen unions in public
services. The chief "core" unions in government are AFSCME,
among local public employees; and the American Federation of Government
Employees among federal employees. Does the Laborers Union (Change to
Win) propose to force its 50,000 members who are federal employees into
the AFGE? Do the SEIU and the Teamsters propose to force their big public
employee sectors into AFSCME? Taylor writes that he works for a big union
of state employees, one which he obviously feels is a great union. Does
he suggest that they be forced out of the SEIU and into AFSCME, the "core"
union? The exaggerated virtues of "restructuring" are another
myth to console hopeful radicals.
The chief contribution of the SEIU ideologists, and
the unions which tail along, is their emphasis on organizing low-paid
workers: the minorities, the immigrants, the women --- especially in the
service industries --- and raising their standard of living. Most Change
to Win unions are especially sensitive to the needs and to the possibilities
because minority and immigrant workers already make up a substantial part
of their membership. And they are largely immune to the pressures of global
capitalism and low-wage imports. In this concentration on a growing but
neglected sector of our working class, Change to Win unions are not alone.
They are joined by other, AFL-CIO unions, like the American Federation
of Teachers in its drive to organize child-care workers. Their aspiration
is shared by religious leaders, social workers, community organizers,
and some political leaders whose support is evident in campaigns for the
rights of Wal-Mart workers and for immigration reform.
What is distinctive about Change to Win is its explicit
avowal of the need to systematically bureaucratize the labor movement
in order to organize the unorganized. It's not that other unions are more
democratic. It's simply that Change to Win elevates its conception into
a frank declaration, erects it into an ideology, and puts it arbitrarily
into practice. Restructuring in reality has meant reorganizing unions
into big units dominated by a centralized officialdom in which membership
control is reduced to a bare minimum. Bureaucratic centralization, not
core concentration, is the key.
Because of its concentration on the underpaid and
overexploited, Change to Win has won the hearts of many radicals, civil
rights campaigners, and labor activists. It would be disappointing if,
in that concentration, they forget the need to defend democracy in unions
as they campaign for a measure of democracy in industry.
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