The Future of Organized Labor

With U.S. union membership down to only 8% of the workers in the corporate sector – the lowest in 90 years – a clash of unions is underway within the AFL-CIO over the future direction of organized labor. The unions challenging the leadership of President John J. Sweeney – the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Teamsters UNITE and the Laborers – want more of member unions dues to the AFL-CIO returned for expanded organizing and want more mergers among the 76 existing national unions.

Beyond what they call “restructuring”, it is remarkable what they are not demanding, other than new leadership this year from their own ranks. They are not focusing on the fundamental corporate attack on unions, workers and, via corporate globalization, the American economy itself. To be sure, these “rebel” unions do not see themselves as affected by WTO, NAFTA and the shipment of whole industries and jobs to authoritarian or dictatorial countries such as Mexico and China. SEIU represents service workers, retail, hospital and other jobs not easily shifted abroad.

But as long-time United Autoworkers’ reformer, Jerry Tucker declared, the insurgents’ declaration of Principles makes “only passing reference” to “the sustained destruction of decent jobs, the systematic forced reduction in wages, benefits and working conditions. And, little attention is paid to labor’s inability, or unwillingness, to collectively marshal its forces to confront management’s concerted aggression at the center of the crisis facing U.S. unions today.”

Indeed in a long profile-interview of SEIU’s president, Andrew Stern, in the New York Times magazine, there was no mention of the critical need for labor law reform to jettison the many obstacles to and opportunities for corporations and their union-busting law firms to smash any incipient organizing drive in factories or other large low-pay corporate workplaces like Wal-Mart.

In no other western country do such facile obstructions exist in law. In no other western country do the top executives of the largest corporations have compensation so massively larger than their workers.

In 2002, the CEOs were averaging $7400 per hour (apart from perks and benefits), while their workers were making anywhere from $6 to $26 per hour.

Tucker drives his point home this way: “Fifty years of business unionism, abetted by an evolving legal framework, have all but eliminated the most democratic of worker expressions, direct action. . . . .What’s also missing in today’s debate among the union heads is anger, a deep and resolute class-anger. . . Ours is a crisis with millions of victims. Those victims are being attacked by enemies – corporate and governmental – with a shared ideology. Labor should not shrink from condemning that ideology.”

The AFL-CIO has pressed their Democratic allies in Congress to sponsor the Employee Free Choice Act, designed to remove some of the unconscionable obstacles to collective bargaining drives. By April 2004, the bill had 179 sponsors in the House of Representatives and 31 in the Senate. Not bad. But did you ever hear Kerry (a sponsor) or Edwards give this bill any punctuation marks in their many speeches and debates? Have you heard any of those sponsors, other than Senator Ted Kennedy, go out of their way to highlight this legislation?

The Chamber of Commerce building in Washington is full of energetic anti-union officials. They are even plotting to further weaken an already anemic OSHA which is supposed to do something about the more than one thousand Americans who die from workplace diseases and trauma week after week. The AFL-CIO headquarters is almost next door. I have never heard of the AFL picketing the Chamber’s building, where its arrogant arch-adversaries are so immersed in their war on workers.

The bureaucratization of the labor movement has drained away the steam, the spirit, the grass roots militancy that characterized organized labor in the Nineteen Thirties and Forties. The late Tony Mazzocchi, who founded the Labor Party (visit thelaborparty.org) was keenly aware of this basic lethargy – a lassitude extended to organized labor’s automatic support, without heightened and insistent demands, of the Democratic Party.

A showdown may be coming between the insurgents and the Sweeney administration at the AFL-CIO Convention in late July. Already four of these dissident union presidents are demanding that the names of their members be deleted from the AFL-CIO’s grand computerized list of 13 million union men and women. These unions represent about a third of the total AFL-CIO 13 million plus households.

According to a union insider, the rebel unions do not have the votes to topple Sweeney. He estimates there are 4,578,867 per capita votes against Sweeney and 6,566,605 per capita votes for another term for the AFL-CIO leader.

If this is so, SEIU and other allied unions may bolt the labor Federation, further weakening the AFL-CIO in an age of corporate gigantism, corporate globalization and corporate government. 

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