AFL-CIO splits: business unionism in crisis - Jon Bekken

An article by Jon Bekken about the 2005 split in the AFL-CIO that eventually became the Change to Win (CtW) Federation. Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (September 2005).

Submitted by Juan Conatz on June 24, 2016

The AFL-CIO suffered a devastating split as it celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding July 25-28, with three unions representing nearly a third of its members quitting, and two others refusing to participate in its biennial convention. The Teamsters and Service Employees unions withdrew on the eve of the convention; the United Food and Commercial Workers quit the Federation as delegates were leaving Chicago.

The Change to Win Coalition kicked things off with a high-energy press conference packed with union staffers. The presidents of all six CWC unions - SEIU, Unite-HERE, Teamsters, UFCW, Laborers and United Farm Workers - spoke to an enthusiastic crowd, but the surface unity quickly dissolved when things got down to specifics. Four Coalition unions boycotted the AFL convention, two said they would participate. The officers were unwilling to say whether their unions would formally quit the AFL-CIO; the decisions trickled in over the next few days.

While CWC representatives said the split was over the need to "restructure" the Federation to focus resources on organizing, the closest thing to a specific illustration of differences on offer was when SEIU President Andy Stern contrasted the wording of the AFL leadership's and CWC's resolutions: where the AFL-CIO resolutions employed the word "should," the Coalition used the word "shall." Such momentous differences can not help but inspire a movement.

AFL-CIO officials, meanwhile, scrambled to hold things together in back rooms as a succession of politicians delivered stump speeches from the podium, chasing after what remains of a very lucrative gravy train.

There was no debate over the future of the labor movement, or over anything else of import. AFL officials agreed at the last minute to a resolution calling for the "rapid" withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq rather than face a floor fight. Rather than allow a contested election for officers, they cut a deal with veteran labor writer Harry Kelber in which he withdrew his candidacy in exchange for three minutes at the podium. (An attempt to rule him ineligible fizzled when Kelber produced records documenting his union membership.) Reports on the AFL's substantial stock portfolio took up time badly needed to develop a vision of unionism that recognizes the reality of the current class war. Politicians mouthed empty platitudes about unity while AFL-affiliated airline unions prepared to scab on the independent union representing Northwest mechanics.

Faced with the loss of $30 million a year because of the disaffiliation of the Service Employees, Teamsters and Food and Commercial Workers, delegates approved a 4 cent increase in the monthly per capita tax each international union pays the AFL-CIO. The convention also made permanent a special 8 cent per capita assessment earmarked for the AFL's political program. Much of this money will be used for the 2006 congressional and 2008 presidential elections.

Resolutions that had been proposed in an effort to placate CWC unions were also adopted, including establishing a more powerful Executive Committee dominated by the largest affiliates and creating Industry Coordinating Committees to oversee organizing targeting and set contract standards among unions in industry clusters.

Although the Coalition unions put forward a 10-point program they claimed would position the labor movement to rebuild its industrial power, in the end the debate collapsed into an argument over how much money unions should pay to support Federation activities. The larger unions that formed the Change to Win Coalition said the AFL-CIO should rebate half of their dues money to fund strategic campaigns to organize new members (not that the UFCW or Teamsters do much of that). AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said the federation should increase spending on organizing, and also spend even more on politicking. But neither advocated any fundamental change in how the AFL does business, even if they did hold very different views of who should run the operation.

Former United Auto Workers regional director Jerry Tucker noted "how shallow, myopic and unplugged from today's worker reality the so-called debate has remained... This has been a ping-pong match between guardians of a failed legacy - a faction fight to see who can best restore business unionism and labor's junior partnership with capital."

Leftists who've entertained visions of Change to Win as a scrappy ground-level organizing outfit should have been discomfited by Hoffa's talk of "staffing up" and professionalization of organizing (even if that might be a welcome contrast to the patronage hacks who have been in charge of the Teamsters' pitiful organizing attempts), but now that Change to Win has hired 55 public relations specialists and appointed as its executive director Greg Tarpinian, who's made a career of "consulting" for some of the Teamsters' most calcified old guard, it's hard to talk about challenging the status quo with a straight face.
Former AFL-CIO staffer Bill Fletcher notes that the entire debate misses the point: "Our unions suffer from a profound conservatism, a failure to recognize the kinds of changes that are going on... We have to be prepared to talk about something we've been afraid to say out loud - that capitalism is harmful to the health of workers. Something is fundamentally wrong with the priorities of this society, and we have to be courageous enough to say so."

Meanwhile, the business unions continue their collapse. Less than 8 percent of private sector workers are now unionized, and it seems unlikely that the UFCW's brand of minimum-wage unionism is going to inspire many workers to risk their jobs by unionizing. Neither side in this heated debate called for more internal democracy (something notoriously absent from the unions that dominate the Coalition), or offered any vision of how a just society should be organized. There was only the faintest hint of recognition of the need for international solidarity to confront an increasingly global economy.

There was a lot of talk about more independence from the Democrats on all sides, but the only concrete difference between the Coalition "reformers" and the AFL-CIO is that the "reformers" are giving more of their money to Republicans. Direct action and solidarity were not on the agenda, and for all the talk of the need to reform labor laws neither side appears to have given any thought to how to build a union movement that helps workers to organize on the job and defend their interests without the official recognition that is increasingly hard to get.

In short, it's business as usual at an AFL-CIO now much smaller than it was a month ago, while the Coalition unions are moving to launch a competing federation that, if anything, looks to be more boss-friendly than the one they have left.

The merger of the Congress of Industrial Organizations into the American Federation of Labor fifty years ago marked the end of an experiment in which business unions tried to adapt the tools forged by the IWW. In the process, they built unions in many sectors that were generally undemocratic but did deliver better wages and benefits in exchange for channeling workers' rebellion into safer (for the bosses) channels. With the merger, those unions that refused to surrender the vestiges of a broader social vision were left in the cold, and most soon collapsed or were absorbed into the business unions.
So workers have little reason to mourn today's split. But neither is there cause for celebration. Neither side in this bureaucratic struggle has anything to say to workers struggling to revive the labor movement.
Labor councils' rebellion

The Afl-CIO has backed down on orders to state and local labor councils to expel locals of the seceding unions. Sweeney acted in response to a growing rebellion from councils that would have been crippled by the expulsion order. Some suggested they might become independent rather than expel unions that, in many places, form the backbone of local labor councils.

Instead, the AFL is creating "solidarity charters" under which independent unions will be allowed to join labor councils if they pay a 10 percent "solidarity" surcharge. However, their members could not be elected to top office. It is unclear whether this compromise will be sufficient to quell the rebellion.

New labor federation forming

Three unions that withdrew from the AFL-CIO have announced plans to launch a new labor federation Sept. 27 in Cincinnati. The SEIU, Teamsters, and United Food and Commercial Workers are expected to participate. The Carpenters, which withdrew from the AFL-CIO in 2001, may also attend.
Three other Change to Win Coalition unions - the Farm Workers, Laborers, and Unite Here - remain in the AFL-CIO. Unite Here has been a leading Coalition member but is unlikely to quit the Federation, if only because its Amalgamated Bank relies heavily on union deposits and could be bankrupted if AFL unions withdrew their funds. The Communications Workers pulled $60 million earlier this year as a warning shot.

Some independent unions have expressed interest in the new grouping, but appear to be waiting to see how it develops.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (September 2005)

Originally posted: October 9, 2005 at