The New Unity Partnership, A Manifest Destiny for Labor

Since unions are supposed to be organizations of workers, we at CounterPunch thought the members might like the opportunity to review a document cobbled up by five union presidents outlining big plans to spend the workers’ money, consolidate their unions and revamp institutional labor — whether by breaking with the AFL-CIO or destroying it and remaking it in the image of this particular gang of five is not entirely clear. Members aren’t likely to get this opportunity through any formal union channels. Published here with an assist from Carpenters for a Democratic Union, the draft program of the New Unity Partnership, or, less alluringly, NUP, is long on the language of management theory (“growth”, “density”, “market share”) and short on such fuddy-duddy concepts as “class”, “worker participation”, “social movements” or “democracy”.

That is hardly unusual for union bureaucrats. The twist here is that the NUP project is trading on the progressive credentials of SEIU’s Andy Stern, HERE’s John Wilhelm , UNITE’s Bruce Raynor and, to a lesser extent, the Laborers’ Terry O’Sullivan to present itself as the vanguard of militant unionism, holding aloft the banner “Organize or Die!”, a rather ugly slogan formulated by their rather ugly partner, the right-wing president of the Carpenters union, Doug McCarron.

As outlined in the document, in press interviews and in internal papers, these five raise the familiar alarum about union decline and, as a solution, envision a drastic restructuring of institutional labor, taking the sixty-six unions currently in the AFL and merging them into twelve to fifteen mega-unions, forged along industry lines and operating according to a “strategic growth plan”. The plan would be approved at the top and advanced through the provinces with the help of a similarly restructured network of state labor federations and local labor councils, whose presidents would be figureheads and whose real power would be wielded by “chief operating officers”, appointed by and serving at the behest of the national leadership. The current messy, sometimes corrupt, sometimes vibrant system of elections and local control would go out the window. The Organizing Department would be renamed the Strategic Growth Department, and the document lists every segment of the federation that bears a name that actually has some relationship to human concerns–policy, education, health and safety, civil and human rights–under the column headed “Reduce/Eliminate or Refocus”. Seventy-seven percent of all resources would go toward organizing and most of the rest to politics, both of which would be single-mindedly focussed on growth. The culture, traditions and history of faltering unions that, under this plan, didn’t get to keep their names and colors and identifying insignia as part of the chosen twelve or fifteen would be swept away, the clutter of old days. The workers, many of whom rightly or wrongly perceive the union’s relevance in just such things, would be no more than the dues units they already too often are, though every once in a while they’d be herded onto buses, dressed in identical T-shirts and “mobilized” for some purpose decreed from the top.

The document, curious in that it lays out on an agenda specific to these unions and simultaneously foresees a new federation streamlined in their image, places all its bets on the concept of power through density. That is, the greater the percentage of workers unionized in a given sector of the economy (health care, construction, tourism, etc.), the greater the union’s market share, hence its power to set wages and conditions. It’s meant to be a model, and the four presidents still in the federation say they are not pulling out, not yet. The idea, as Stern told Business Week, is “build it and they will come”, though just where the United Mine Workers, say, or public sector workers faced with private outsourcing and government repression would have to go is unclear.

From its first page the NUP plan discloses the corporatist bent of its creators:

Multi-Union Growth Partnership

1. Private Sector–The Partnership will be for private sector growth only
2. Sector Designation(s)–Each union will be assigned a unique occupation and/or and [sic] industry sector(s) to concentrate its growth efforts.
3. Capacity–Unions will demonstrate the capacity to organize through historical efforts and current resource allocation.
4. Strategic Growth Plans–Each union will have an approved strategic growth plan.
5. Unite Effort Common Employer [sic]–Unions will establish plans, to unite its [sic] bargaining and/or growth efforts for common employers or common industry sectors.
6. Capital Strategies–Create a joint capital strategies program for growth
7. Politics–Develop common political efforts for growth–meet jointly with Congressional leadership to discuss growth goals–meet jointly with moderate Republicans–meet with Karl Rove -?

That final question mark leaves room for much speculation, but the rest of item No. 7 is redolent with the politics of the deal. And the deal, as history shows, is a dead end–for progressive change, for the prospects of labor in a larger social movement, for the long-term interests of the working class and of unions. Typically the deal was made between union bureaucrats and Democratic leaders, goodies thrown to unions in return for not upsetting the racist balance within the party, for not striking in war time, for not meddling in fundamental questions of the economy, for helping to prosecute the cold war and so on. The radical innovation here is to kowtow to Republicans, specifically to the most antiunion administration in memory. There’s something desperate about the idea, something left too long to boil in an overheated imagination, oblivious to real-world dynamics. One imagines the five hastening to the longed-for meeting with Karl Rove. What might they get, these petitioners in a position of weakness and disunity? Labor law reform? An end to right-to-work laws? Immigration reform with protection of civil liberties? A ratcheting of wages and conditions up, not down? In the grand far-away, George Meany had power, and still he leveraged it against the needs and interests of all those groups with whom organized labor has finally, slowly started making alliances: blacks, Latinos, women, poor people, gay people, environmentalists, community organizations, international unionists.

This section bears the hoofprint of the Carpenters’ McCarron, who pulled out of the AFL in 2001and has feted George W. at two Labor Day picnics. A cheap date, he got a visit on Air Force One. Along with the Teamsters’ president, James Hoffa, whom the NUPsters are heavily courting, he is the Republicans’ favorite labor leader. At a recent fundraising dinner for the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, McCarron and Hoffa both purchased tables. So did the other NUPsters, except UNITE’s Raynor. In the midst of Clinton’s betrayals, all of these unions had vowed to steer a more independent course in politics. “Independent” has turned out to mean “Republican-friendly”. So far in the scramble for the Democratic presidential nomination, the Teamsters and Laborers have endorsed that towering party nonconformist, Richard Gephardt.

Why then is the New Unity Partnership being hailed in some quarters as the “progressive” alternative to John Sweeney? The answer is complicated, not least because the AFL-CIO is a lot of the things the NUPsters say it is: tradition-bound, bureaucratic, slow to change, hard to change. Like any federated institution–like the UN, for that matter–it is a collection of entities, all headed by individuals with their own quirks and interests and power bases. When Sweeney took office in 1995 many in labor and on its left/liberal fringes had inflated hopes: a million new members a year, a bold political program, a vigorous international agenda detached from cold war imperatives, cities alive with workers and others in militant coalition, a born-again institution poised to jumpstart a born-again mass movement.

Of course, all of that was never possible. To begin with, the falling rate of profit, the global economy and continued loss of manufacturing, the growing casualization of work, the rise of low-wage behemoths like Wal-Mart, posed unprecedented challenges. Second, labor was at a low ebb not only in popular opinion but among its own members. And, apart from the fallacy that institutions are capable of generating movement, there is the nature of the institution itself. Even with fortuitous circumstances and the best will in the world, Sweeney could no more compel affiliated unions to organize, mobilize, clean up and become beacons of radical resistance than Kofi Annan could compel Saddam Hussein to play nice, or George Bush to abandon dreams of world domination. Nor could he force local labor bodies, the state feds and central labor councils, to get with the program if their elected officials were, as so often, time-serving members of the building trades disinclined to the New Voices. That’s the downside of elected leadership. The upside, which some of the NUPsters who want to get rid of it are well aware, is that in the even darker days before Sweeney, such leadership made it possible to put up a fight locally when that wasn’t on the agenda of Lane Kirkland; indeed, the central labor councils were critical to Sweeney’s victory over the old guard. Now Sweeney is the old guard, a lame duck until suddenly on September 18, amid the din of New Unity noises, he announced that he would not retire in 2005, as expected, but would seek re-election.

What’s ironic is that all of the five but McCarron have been on the Executive Council of the AFL, and thus responsible for its direction, for years. Four of the five preside over unions that, despite major overhauls, have not yet straightened out their own houses from Mob rule (HERE and the Laborers) or are regarded with suspicion by certain classes of workers because of past practices (the Carpenters and UNITE). SEIU, with 1.3 million members, is the biggest, most powerful union in the federation, and Stern was important in engineering Sweeney’s 1995 victory. They are cozying up to Hoffa, never anyone’s idea of a reformer, whose union, despite its historic association with truckers, has shown no interest in sectoral purity. Their liaison to Hoffa is the oily Greg Tarpinian, listed on the NUP document as potential staff, a former Communist who saw the light when Hoffa and Teamsters hoary bosses started shoveling him cash to help them knock out Ron Carey. I’ll never forget a party Hoffa threw in a New York hotel room a few years ago after Tarpinian’s Labor Research Association held a fundraiser honoring him. Tarpinian was crooning about “leftists for Hoffa” and the great man’s visions for leading a fighting labor movement while upstairs squirrelly guys in cheap suits were hitching up their pants, hurrying out of bedrooms in disarray, past attractive young Latinas who, in modified bedroom scuffs and casual street wear, definitely weren’t their dates.

Everything about this partnership is puzzling. The names Wilhelm, O’Sullivan and Raynor had been batted around for some time as possible successors to Sweeney and, on the face of it, their priorities have been his. With Stern, they were the most insistent forces that led the federation to change its policy on immigrants, who form a huge portion of their core membership–hotel and restaurant workers (HERE), laborers (LIUNA), garment and laundry workers (UNITE), janitors and health care workers (SEIU)–and of the population they seek to organize. One of the federation’s biggest projects this fall was HERE’s cross-country Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, which the AFL supplied with money, staff and coordination. The federation’s biggest single organizing priority, proclaimed ceaselessly and heavily bolstered with money and staff, is the nationwide Cintas laundry campaign, involving UNITE and the Teamsters. (A further irony in that this campaign, so dependent on federation support, was identified by Business Week’s rather toadying reporter, Aaron Bernstein, as the kind of organizing we’re likely to see “if the partnership gets off the ground”.) And the federation’s longest-running moral preoccupation, the right to organize, is the same one the NUPsters proclaim. Back in 1997 Sweeney’s first organizing director, Richard Bensinger, held conferences all over the country that were part doomsday scenario, part revival meeting, in which he preached the gospel that the fight for labor rights had to be the new civil rights movement. AFL HQ is still heavily pushing that, and another strategy of action will kick off on December 10 in conjunction with the community-labor coalition Jobs With Justice, but the NUP document lists this as if it were a new idea. Bensinger, meanwhile, is now with NUP, also included in the document as potential staff.

Bensinger was always particularly good at massaging the press–Bernstein is one of his boys–and particularly good at trying to steer progressive journalists toward writing love letters about “my guys”, the “organizing unions”, and heaping sewage upon the heads of union dinosaurs. It wasn’t surprising, then, that Harold Meyerson of the American Prospect wrote a fawning piece on the NUP, much circulated over the Internet, titled “Organize or Die”. The funny thing is that Bensinger used to affect to care about such things as democracy, social movement orientation, etc. Now he is flacking for the progressive credentials of a partnership whose most blustery exponent, McCarron, told an association of employers, “We’re serious about reorganizing the industry. We’re serious about customer service.” By that formulation, the union is a business, the workers servants, but as a slogan “Serve or Die” might be a difficult sell. Union carpenters have had no say in the NUP venture (neither have any rank and file), just as they had no say in the matter of their union’s exit from the AFL and have almost no say in the way their union is run. They don’t elect their leaders; most of them don’t even get to vote on their contracts. McCarron has stripped their locals of power, investing authority in regional councils, most of whose leadership he has manipulated into place.

This is a template for the NUP, but it would be a mistake to credit it all to McCarron. The actual document appeared in two different fonts, one seeming to have come directly from the laptop of SEIU strategist Steve Lerner, whose earlier confidential paper on “Reorganizing and Rebuilding the Labor Movement” contains some of the same material. Lerner, too, has fatted off various AFL calves before now turning in an apparent attempt to slay the mother cow. He was a central player in one of the Sweeney team’s first splashy, and disastrous, organizing campaigns, in support of the United Farm Workers, focussing on the strawberry workers of California. I’ll never forget the kick-off rally in Watsonville in 1997. It was huge and vibrating with the rhythms of Mexico and street-level America, just the kind of thing leftists hoping for a resurgence of labor as the spark for a broader movement were waiting for. Back then, too, everyone was talking “Organize!”, “Mobilize!” “Si se puede!” Lerner’s wife, Marilyn Schneiderman, had become the AFL’s director of field mobilization, a position she still holds, though the NUP would eliminate her department. The field mobe staff metastasized, as did the strawberry campaign staff in Watsonville–the infusions of money and people, organizers!, blinding the strategists to what was most important. They didn’t understand the fields, didn’t understand the workers, didn’t understand the power of history. In the end their inspiring rally and go-go efforts were worse than nothing. The more money Lerner’s team got and the more energy it expended, the more it seemed to prove employers’ claims over the long, bumpy run of the UFW that See, the union doesn’t belong to the workers; it’s an outsiders’ thing.

Of course, employers play dirty, but when workers are convinced by Chicano foremen leading an anti-union drive that they are more representative, that they are the hometown team (as happened with the strawberry workers), even the brainiest organizer ought to ask, What went wrong? Similarly, back in the early nineties one of the most galvanizing organizing efforts, SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles, took a surprising turn after workers signed on with the union and then mistakenly thought it was theirs. John Sweeney was president of SEIU at the time, and Andy Stern the architect of the janitors campaign. They stopped traffic and blocked bridges; they won, and hopeful leftists, with visions of movement a-dance in their head, thought, This might be it! How it came to pass that when the newly organized janitors had a chance to vote on the make-up of their local they repudiated almost the entire sitting leadership is not a simple story, but no one seemed interested in answers involving the workers’ will. Sweeney put the local under trusteeship, and Stern’s tenure as SEIU president has been marked by the creation of giant locals, statewide locals, multi-state locals, locals that belong less to the workers than to the staff.

It is hard not to be impressed by SEIU staff. They tend to be young, educated, tireless, possessed of a knowledge of movement history, labor and left political history far beyond their years. It seems they are more often than not smart white men with middle-class roots, but that could be my bias. They are known for an all-consuming dedication that isn’t likely to be envied by SEIU janitors or orderlies trying to find time for the kids and the bills and a little rest. They work for a union that has signed up half a million new members in the past few years and that is not content simply to weigh union revenues against expenses and leave it at that. SEIU seems to be on a mission from God, and that is part of the problem.

In the NUP document the gloomy portrait of the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy and labor’s failure to address that shift echoes Lerner’s earlier paper. The choice is clear: “make history by fundamentally changingSto respond to today’s employers, orSpreside over organized labor’s continued decline”. The favored reference is to the CIO, whose “bold leaders found the AFL structure inadequate” when mass-production industries changed the shape and organization of work. At a party recently a fervent young SEIU staff guy argued to a friend of mine that SEIU itself could be the new CIO, but the NUP is a partnership, so grandiosity is tempered: SEIU and the other four horsemen could be the new CIO.

A few things are missing from the NUPsters’ analysis.

Their strategy doesn’t address the complexities of the new economy any more than anyone else’s. The shift from high-wage manufacturing to low-wage services is only part of the picture. These unions represent low-wage work in industries that can’t move offshore (UNITE has pretty much given up on organizing garment and textile workers). As a plan without pretensions to do any more than coordinate actions among themselves–say, to organize tall buildings in an urban core, which carpenters and laborers help build, which maids, restaurant and retail workers, janitors, custodians and doormen service, and whose dirty rugs and linen industrial laundry workers clean–it might be fine. But there still are manufacturing workers in America, more than 5 million of them unionized, and about their problems the plan is mute. For the average worker who asks, “What happens if they move my job?” the NUPsters have no more of an answer than the AFL-CIO. And now that calling centers, high-tech work, research and development, are being moved off shore, things aren’t even as straightforward as the manufacturing/services binary suggests. In thirteen pages of their document there’s exactly one sentence on developing “long-term strategies with union members in other countries who work for the same employers or industries”. How this might be conceptualized when workers in Honduras and Nicaragua are making wage concessions to keep production from moving to China is anyone’s guess. There’s not a word about prison labor, now building furniture and taking reservations, among other things, here in the US and elsewhere. Nothing about the explosion in casual labor, the extension of social relations between worker, labor contractor and employer that once pertained only in farm work and is now common in garment work, tourism, construction, cleaning, you name it. It’s not even clear the NUPsters have an answer to so conventional, if brutish, an employer as Wal-Mart, which is rich, repressive and totally unconcerned about maintaining a stable labor force. How do you organize a company that has 700,000 new people churning through it each year, representing an annual turnover rate of 70 percent? The point is not that the NUPsters should have figured all of this out, just that their arrogance in the absence of having done so is rather breathtaking.

The CIO didn’t just happen because John L. Lewis marched his troops out of the AFL. Of course, the gang of five know this; at least Stern, Raynor and Wilhelm, all Ivy League grads well-versed in movement history, know it. But they appear to be moved now by a sense of destiny as products of the sixties and as organizers in a milieu too ready to accept the notion of the organizer as hero, by a feeling, expressed frequently in their speeches at AFL conventions, that it is their generational duty, their turn. “If not us, who?” Charitably, one could say they have a passionate impatience. The problem is that real change in this country has never happened because of a few smart guys. It took at least fifty years for workers to figure out industrial organizing. When it finally had lift-off it was as part of a mass movement. In the meantime locals developed, as the name implies, locally, through a combination of job actions, mutual aid, cultural activities, political education, party activity, target practice, newspapers, picnics, the warp and woof of life. When the famous “spurt” occurred in the 1930s, the workers’ organizations that emerged didn’t follow some checklist that a few national leaders had drawn up years before in closed meetings. They took the shape people needed them to take, and remained workers’ organizations truly only so long as people were on the move. While that was the case, the old AFL unions grew too, significantly, despite their structure. In the draft of his confidential paper, Lerner notes that “we can’t create a spurt or movement out of sheer will” but argues that institutional structure plays a critical role in creating the conditions for it. “If we could start from scratch”, he asks, “and weren’t handcuffed by history, tradition and protecting individual leaders [sic] domains, would we create a labor movement that is structured like this one?” Apart from anything else the question ignores the fact that in periods of upsurge, whenever people have slipped the handcuff of history they haven’t filed neatly into existing structures; they’ve created their own. In the next spurt, whatever the NUPsters hatch, they are likely to do the same.

Density does not automatically equal power, at least for workers. If it did, Mexican workers, mustered in the CTM, would have First World wages and conditions and would have successfully resisted the rise of maquiladoras, the looting of the private sector, the explosion of millionaires and the general misery. French workers, often toiling beside others affiliated with totally different unions in the same workplace, would be utterly disabled. Unions have to be more than columns of numbers, grouped by industry sector. One of SEIU’s biggest “organizing” coups recently came through a deal cut with Tenet Healthcare Services, the second-biggest for-profit hospital chain, recently mired in lawsuits, financial scandals, government investigations for fraud and unnecessary surgeries. Tenet called the deal, which also involves an AFSCME affiliate, a “strategic alliance”, a “powerful new partnership” to “achieve labor peace”. Workers in the forty-two hospitals involved could accept or reject the deal but had no hand in shaping it. The California Nurses Association, which had been organizing in a number of the hospitals, would be out of the game. A four-year contract was agreed upon even before the workers voted. SEIU’s pitch to workers has been all in the language of density, arguing the benefits to be accrued from belonging to the nation’s largest health-care union. The workers will get raises, but will they have power? Will patients have power? Is this “choice” the best choice? Drafted into an organization they did nothing to build, will workers care about it? If we can’t peg how institutional structure contributes to mass movement, we do know how it contributes, or not, to individual consciousness. We do know how things work when they work as monopolies. We know how they work absent class solidarity, rank-and-file participation, a broader sense of social engagement. Some SEIU staff say straight up, “This isn’t a workers’ organization. If it was left to the workers there wouldn’t be an organization.” In his paper, Lerner dispenses with the question of democracy saying, “It is too narrow to talk of union democracy only–the question of how a union is governed–we need to talk more broadly about how unions are strong enough locally and nationally to win economic justice and democracy for workers. If only 10% of workers in an industry are unionized it is impossible to have real union democracy because 90% of the workers are excluded.” This is clever, but, like the NUP, it shouldn’t masquerade as novel, progressive or a rosy-edged dawn for the working class.

JOANN WYPIJEWSKI, former managing editor of The Nation, writes about labor and politics for CounterPunch. She can be reached at:


JoAnn Wypijewski is the author of What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority & the Mess of Life.