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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 Side

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 of America.

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 the 1920s.

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 1930s.

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 fosters disunity.

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 unionism.

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.

More resources on Change to Win and SEIU:
See Benson's Union Democracy Blog for several articles
Stern Employees International Union
Reflections on the SEIU Convention in Puerto Rico
Andy Stern is slipping off the pedestal
SEIU needs a public review board
On the eve of the SEIU Convention
Opposition wins most delegates from big SEIU local
Fight in Ohio between SEIU and California Nurses revives old issue: When employers welcome unions at the NLRB
On "democratic" centralism: Stern's illusion and democracy's nightmare
Healthcare leader raps Stern; quits SEIU board
SEIU rearranges 600,000 into mega locals
Debate on Union Democracy and Change to Win
If you can't woo 'em, sue 'em! An ingenious twist in punishing dissent in the SEIU
SEIU's Unite to Win blog reviewed.
Local 509 asks questions about democracy in the SEIU
New Unity Partnership:Sweeney Critics would bureaucratize to organize.
Service Employees: Mass. merger in Local 888.
Benson's Union Democracy blog.
Student Labor Activists support union democracy.
Articles on the Labor Notes site on NUP from various sources.
See UDR articles on the Carpenters (UBCJA) for case studies in merger and bureaucratization.
Several articles on the New Unity Partnership are available on the BC Carpenters website.
Find articles on the consolidation of power in the Carpenters union on the main UDR page.
An exchange on union democracy between Herman Benson and Steve Fraser, on the Laborers.org website (click on Fraser's name for a link to his article)
Links to rank-and-file websites in the NUP unions: Carpenters, Hotel and Restaurant Employees, Laborers, Needle Trades (UNITE), Service Employees (building services, public employees).

 

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