Is This Really an "Insurgency " to Shake Up the Labor Movement?

The day nears for the 50th national convention of the AFL-CIO, opening in Chicago on July 25. The meeting is being heralded as a possibly fateful encounter, in which forces of enlightenment and reaction will wrestle in momentous debate over the future of organized labor.

On the one side, so the story goes, we have the dynamic “organizing” unions with vivid blueprints for revitalization; on the other side, the dinosaur unions and leadership of the AFL-CIO, content with the status quo even as union membership dips to its lowest level in 70 years. We are primed for heated words and, perhaps, a turbulent exit by some of labor’s biggest players, who haven’t yet secured the votes to control the convention floor or to unseat John Sweeney as president of the 13 million-member labor federation.

It would be pleasant to set forth the impending showdown in Chicago as one in which the mutineers have a convincing plan for regenerating a labor movement, a plan made credible and compelling by their own past achievements. God knows, organized labor needs shaking up. The cliché is true: unions are in crisis. But an honesty equal to the crisis is not forthcoming.

Ten years ago, upon assuming leadership, Sweeney called on unions to organize but never forced a debate on what kind of unions workers were being organized into. Were they accountable to their members? Did they even know their members? As a minority force, could they collectively break with their fiefdom orientation and advance the interests of the broader working class?

Would they purge themselves of corruption, sexism, racism and arrogance? Would they adjust their leaderships and practices to organize blacks, immigrants, women and anyone in the growing unregulated economy?

Could they develop a disciplined, independent political strategy, not simply to elect politicians but to challenge the corporate state and leverage power?

Would they confront their own failings in order to act globally, to cooperate locally, to revive the strike as a weapon, to reverse an ugly course of sacrificing workers for short-term gain, to stop fleecing workers for a leader’s enrichment or manipulating them for a leader’s pride?

Would they help workers have real power on the job, in society, in the union?

The criticisms they have of the AFL’s top administrative staff and bureaucracy, the proposals they put forth for stronger rules preventing unions from bargaining down industry standards and stronger guidance for coordinated bargaining in industry sectors are mostly legitimate and have already triggered changes in the federation. It hasn’t mattered. Union leaders accustomed to the syntax of war seem determined to have one. And for what?

Whether reputed progressives or outright scoundrels the mutineers present no model of thoroughgoing positive change. If, together, they succeed in splitting the federation, they will be no closer to throwing down the challenge implicit in the questions that could not be asked ten years ago. Those are movement questions, and whatever emerges from the institutional coup or counter-coup about to be joined should not be confused with a labor movement.

Who are the swashbucklers who have claimed the spotlight so far? They are six union officials with little in common but their sex and race, hatred of some of the federation staff and leadership, and size of their memberships or egos. Representing five unions with about a third of the federation’s members, they have banded together under a program whose only live demands (because the only ones they uniformly agree on) are more power for themselves in an Executive Committee of select larger unions and a 50 percent rebate on the dues their unions pay to belong to the federation. Three of their executive councils have authorized these men to pull their unions out of the AFL-CIO whenever they see fit.

On June 15, the six held a press conference in Washington to announce a new name for themselves, the Change to Win Coalition, which may become a parallel federation in the event of an exodus in Chicago, and in any case throws up the institutional scaffolding for continuing cooperation and intra-federation rivalry in the spirit of “build it and they [meaning unions not currently part of this coalition of the willing] will come”.

The coalition’s leading men right now are:

* Andy Stern, president of SEIU, the nation’s biggest union, with 1.8 million members. Hailed as the most progressive and growth-oriented union, SEIU is the leader of the pack and, with plans laid since 2004, the most likely to leave the federation.

Yet for most of the past ten years that his former mentor, John Sweeney, has been president of the AFL-CIO, Stern has been instrumental in everything from the staffing of the organizing department, to the policy on immigration, to the effort to consolidate state and local labor bodies, to the endorsement of political candidates (spending $65 million of his poor members’ money, more than the total spent by the AFL, to try to elect John Kerry). One of Stern’s brains trust, Steve Lerner, had charge of the AFL’s failed strawberry campaign, its failed Las Vegas building trades campaign, and is married to the woman who headed the AFL’s ridiculously bloated and now dissolved field mobilization department.

At least part of SEIU’s growth over the years is attributable to deal-making, sometimes promising corporations help in lobbying state regulators in return for union recognition, or promising state governments workers at a discount. It added 70,000 Illinois child care and home health care workers over the past two years, thanks first to an internal AFL process that awarded SEIU jurisdiction over those workers, and then to a pact with Governor Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat elected in 2002 with the help of all of organized labor.

Obsessed with size and consolidation, SEIU is notable for the biggest, most geographically outstretched (therefore least participatory) locals, the most aggressive application of trusteeship (stripping power from an inordinate number of locals), and the heaviest reliance on national staff with no experience in the jobs or culture of the workers.

It is a union with a huge black, Latino and female membership ­ representatives of whom were arranged like altar bouquets round the dais on June 15, along with dark-skinned and female members of the other coalition partners for a more alluring portrait of labor’s future than six middle-aged white guys could have presented on their own. But SEIU is not invulnerable to fissures along these lines. Beyond frustration with the famous arrogance of the white-dominated national staff, members active in the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and other federation minority constituency groups are aware of those bodies’ deep disquiet over “insurgent” plans, which they regard as a retreat from inclusion.

When Stern got the go-ahead from his executive council to pull out of the federation, the bigger news was that Dennis Rivera and New York’s powerful, highly political 1199 abstained. Rivera had been ready to give his okay, but directors and rank-and-file representatives on the 1199 board thought otherwise. 1199 is the example SEIU vice president and Stern’s sometimes-uneasy black front man Gerry Hudson raises when he needs to assure leftish audiences of the conscious engagement of SEIU’s rank and file. The abstention underscores why it’s the rare example; no leader likes a power struggle. Outside 1199, it’s not difficult to find members of SEIU who have no idea what union they’re in. A couple of years ago random members of Local 32B-J in New York could tell me no more than the local number. An SEIU nursing home worker in Ohio whom I asked to name her union last year said simply, “AFL-CIO”.

* James P. Hoffa, president of the Teamsters, the nation’s biggest general union, representing everyone from truckers to warehousers to clerks to casino workers to nurses and public defenders. The Teamsters has 1.4 million members. Its most recent “organizing” leap was the acquisition through merger of 60,000 graphic communications workers. Before Hoffa joined the reformer chorus, general unionism was its bete noire; forced mergers and union reorganization along lines inimical to the Teamsters’ go-for-anything approach formed the centerpiece of its demands.

Hoffa’s own grasp of organizing is tenuous. He is close to the most reactionary and corrupt elements in the Teamsters. His most energetic political interventions have been to thump for Arctic drilling and to attack his own reform-minded members. Yet Hoffa was embraced by Stern when the former proposed the 50 percent dues rebate. Though it has been promoted as an incentive to organizing, the dues rebate is, in essence, a tax cut for the largest, richest unions. It is now the top “insurgent” demand, on which, they say, they will brook no compromise.

The Teamsters’ bold outlook? In 2008, they face the expiration of the UPS contract, and now UPS has paid over a billion dollars for the nonunion freight giant Overnite, which crushed the Teamsters in an ignominious three-year strike. The architects of the famous, successful UPS strike, which depended heavily on financial and foot soldier support from the AFL, are either no longer with the union or on Hoffa’s enemies list.

Hoffa’s brand of “aggressive organizing”, his coalition partners’ chief commandment, is best illustrated by his collaboration with Tyson Foods earlier this year to decertify his own union’s Local 556 in Pasco, Washington. The 1,500 meatpackers had been led by Maria Martinez, a co-chair of Teamsters for a Democratic Union. After a relentless campaign, in which workers were bombarded by literature bearing Hoffa’s attacks on the local leadership, threatened with plant closure and forced to vote twice, the workers capitulated. They are now among the 92 percent of private sector workers whom the Change to Win Coalition has dedicated itself to unionizing.

* Joe Hansen, president of the food and commercial workers (the UFCW, with 1.4 million members). Hansen is given to thundering in the press that “the status quo will not stand”, and in the spring wrote Sweeney a self-important letter hinting at disaffiliation. His executive council has given him authorization to pull out.

Hansen is intimate with the status quo, his reputation stamped in the mid-1980s when he was the UFCW leadership’s tool in destroying the strike and ultimately the union of meatpackers with Local P-9 at the Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota. “P-9” is one of those markers in labor history, emblem of both the courageous spirit of rank-and-file workers and the machinations of treacherous union leadership. Hansen, who’d plotted with strikebreakers, was made the trustee from which position he expelled the workers’ elected leaders, offered unconditional surrender to the company, and saw to it that none of the strikers ever returned to work.

His most notorious action was sandblasting a 16×80 foot mural that 100 workers had painted on a labor center wall, doing it himself with the other trustees after the Austin building trades refused, and erasing first the painted faces of the workers and then the slogan “Solidarity”.

Today UFCW is the exemplar of business unionism, making deals for new members, pushing two-tier contracts, pitting worker against worker where it isn’t ignoring them, clueless how to plan, never mind win, a strike as Southern California grocery workers learned bitterly after five months out, hapless in its approach to Wal-Mart (a campaign for which the coalition demands the AFL contribute $25 million).

* Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers, running a union of 800,000 members. Having never worked in the trades, Sullivan owes his job to patrimony, another feature, along with familiarity with the Mob, that he shares with Hoffa. The elder O’Sullivan had been secretary-treasurer of the union and close to the Coias, who ran the union like a fiefdom along with organized crime.

To avoid federal trusteeship, Arthur Coia Jr., then head of the Laborers, instituted an in-house clean-up crew with its own investigators, whom he appointed, ultimately stepping down as president in 2000 though not before insuring for himself a lifetime salary on the backs of some of the lowest paid workers in organized labor. O’Sullivan Jr. was part of the makeover, a young, educated non-Italian. He is eloquent on immigrant rights and the injustice of a globalization system that rewards the mobility of capital while punishing the mobility of workers, a nod to the many transnational workers in his membership and industry.

O’Sullivan has not asked his executive council for authorization to pull out, and harbors his own ambitions to lead the AFL-CIO but is covering all bases. Meanwhile, he can’t even clean up his own union. As recently as last year, the onetime acting chief of the FBI’s labor racketeering unit and a former internal investigator for the union, Ronald Fino, wrote to the U.S. Attorney in Chicago saying that Coia’s influence remains through his lackeys in the union and arguing that although action had been taken against some mobbed-up locals or district councils in Chicago, Buffalo, New York, and New Jersey, “the bare truth is this: the whole consent decree program has been a sham. A vehicle to remove Coia opponents and replace them with Coia loyalists, a vehicle where certain Genovese family controlled officials have been allowed to escape prosecution and allowed to strengthen their position.”

* Bruce Raynor and John Wilhelm, general president and chief of the hospitality division, respectively, of the merged UNITE HERE (apparel, laundry and hotel and restaurant workers), with 450,000 members. Like Stern, they are beloved by progressive labor academics and journalists and provided the necessary gloss of militancy and élan to the NUP. It’s trickier now, not only because they have been outdone in pure heft and bombast by coalition partners Hoffa and Hansen, but also because the recent enlistment of the already disaffiliated Brotherhood of Carpenters to the Change to Win Coalition has allowed reactionary or unattractive unions to outnumber putatively progressive ones among the “insurgents”.

But Raynor and Wilhelm, who both started out as political activists and organizers, haven’t got where they are without learning to accommodate thieves. Raynor never did declare war on the shakedown artists in UNITE’s garment locals, just as Wilhelm has not purged Mob influence from all of HERE. Raynor’s number two man at UNITE, Edgar Romney, presided over a domain of union shops in New York with some of the worst sweatshop conditions in America, where contracts weren’t upheld, labor standards were violated, and dues-paying members lost wages and overtime pay. Romney has just been named treasurer of the Change to Win Coalition.

The merger of UNITE and HERE was mostly a marriage of convenience. There’s nothing wrong with that except for the pretensions that these unions’ every move is guided by strategic vision for industrial density. Hemorrhaging members in the garment and textile trade and abandoning the nation’s sweatshops as a lost cause where it hadn’t already acceded to them, UNITE started organizing industrial laundries. It did a good job of it in Las Vegas, where those mainly serve the hotels, many of which have contracts with HERE.

But UNITE’s two-year effort to unionize the 17,000 workers at Cintas, an industrial cleaner and uniform rental provider, has so far come to grief, and needing to keep up its numbers, merger was the clearest option. UNITE, which has its own bank, the Amalgamated, brought resources to the marriage, and for Wilhelm, who all but declared his desire to unseat Sweeney as AFL chief, the assurance that his union, which is very impressive in some places, would be in friendly hands should he step up.

Now Raynor has received authorization from his executive council to pull out, but complications loom. Organizing national hotel chains, the meat of HERE’s business, has always required the support of everyone else in institutional labor to lean on politicians, to cancel conventions or otherwise withhold business. Then there’s the matter of all those union funds held on deposit at the Amalgamated Bank. CWArecently withdrew $50 million, a shot across the bow.

So, there are the men who proffer themselves labor’s salvation. The tragedy of it is that one could draw up nasty little portraits of just about all the other unions in the federation, which for now are backing Sweeney. Sweeney should not be running again, and Trumka, having lost his purchase on leadership, should not be in a position to succeed him. But first the NUP and now the coalition, without organizing a majority, without the slightest interest in unity or respect or movement as anything but a slogan, essentially put a gun to Sweeney’s head and said, “Make our day.” Having failed internally at the thing they’re supposed to know best -­ organizing for power – they are now reduced to posturing for it, huffing and puffing to blow the house down.

JOANN WYPIJEWSKI, a regular CounterPunch contributor, 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.