“This is how it ends: with a bang and whimper”, CounterPuncher Lee Sustar muttered to me during the press conference yesterday in which James Hoffa of the Teamsters and Andy Stern of SEIU announced their unions were disaffiliating from the AFL-CIO. The bang was the plain fact of the pull-out, which leaves the labor federation $20 million a year poorer and a few million members lighter.
The whimper was everything else. The AFL-CIO is splitting, without a punch-out, a meaningful debate or an argument worthy of the expressed pain of rank-and-file activists and local labor leaders whose unions remain in the federation and who are confronting for the first time what labor’s internal war will mean when they get back home.
“We’re making history, bad history”, a building trades unionist from Connecticut told me. Said Charlie Fleming from Atlanta, bleakly, “This is going to destroy my labor council.”
No big ideas were at stake here, no matters of principle. At that same press conference Stern said his dispute with the AFL-CIO came down to the difference between “should” and “shall” the one representing the consensus approach to change taken by federation president John Sweeney and the other the bully-boy approach of the dissident Change-to-Win faction. “Change” itself seems to have entered the realm of the purely symbolic, unmoored from such matters as the relations between labor and capital, class solidarity, class warfare, capital flight, the things that affect workers every day.
SEIU, the Teamsters and two of their allies, UNITE HERE and the UFCW, came to Chicago only to announce, on Sunday, that they were boycotting the 50th national convention of the AFL-CIO. “The time for debate is over”, they said– before there had ever been any debate beyond their own websites and in “the building”, as AFL-CIO hq in Washington DC is known. The 939 delegates who registered for the convention held in Chicago’s cavernous Navy Pier would get no chance to evaluate proposals, only peruse letters slipped furtively under their hotel room doors by Change to Win squads imparting the news that a few union presidents had decided things without bothering to consult them.
The letter says these presidents realized the convention would be stage-managed and “our proposals would not be adopted”. Unable to win, they decided to walk. They were right about the stage-managing, but they’ve known about that for as long as they’ve been in organized labor. The difference is that some of them once knew how to win (Stern was a vital player when Sweeney took control of the federation in 1995); this time they had neither the organization nor the patience nor the care to try. They came to Chicago anyway, spending their members’ money many of those members poor workers with no clear purpose beyond lassoing the substantial press corps mustered and agog to see labor tear itself apart. It won’t surprise anyone if before the week is out UNITE HERE and UFCW announce their disaffiliation, one by one, at separate press conferences, “like a hostage a day, just to drag out the pain”, as one labor council president confided to me bitterly.
Sweeney too once knew how to win, so for all the rhetoric of renewal coming from both sides, the scent of failure rises all around. The convention itself began as some kind of somnambulist exercise. Though the word schism had been on every lip, the actual scene was sedate. It was as if we were back in 1997 when hopes were high. The American flag was raised, anthems sung and a prayer said over the delegates by Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Paprocki urging them to defend workers, poor people and “unborn babies”. Maybe he was making the point that the unborn at least have some fiery organizations strenuously defending their interests.
In the darkened hall the politicians came and went: Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, John Edwards. In this ceremonial context every claim the dissidents made, disingenuously, about some fundamental difference between the two sides’ attitudes about politics, denial, contentment with the status quo, seemed to acquire substantive though undeserved status. Looming for at least a year had been the biggest split in organized labor since the 1930s, and Sweeney’s closest advisers seemed not to have thought very hard about the struggle for hearts, minds and media spin. After the disaffiliations were announced in the SEIU Local 1 offices in the Hyatt Regency complex a few blocks away, Sweeney conveyed the news to the delegates in the convention hall, noting that he, a lifelong member of SEIU, now has a new affiliation, with the Office and Professional Employees Union, a move necessary for him to continue as president of the federation.
There were a few boos from the delegates but no tonic of honest anger. Some on the federation staff said no one wanted to get ruffled in front of the press; instead, they looked numb. Then they rolled on Ted Kennedy.
With the chiefs of both sides saying next to nothing of substance, people have begun to ask what might fill the vacuum created by each. The one interesting moment of the convention’s first day came over a couple of resolutions concerning diversity. One gives additional slots on the federation’s governing bodies to black, female, gay, Latin and Asian representatives; the other mandates that by the next convention each delegation will have to represent the racial and gender make-up of a union’s membership.
These changes involve more than cosmetics because of how they came about. Over the past few months of top-tier to-ing and fro-ing over labor’s future, the AFL’s constituency groups, especially the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, began to insist that the domination of the discussion by older white men indicated problems with organized labor’s leadership, focus and priorities more than any matters of internal scaffolding or dues structure. That the AFL has taken this seriously and that Sweeney highlighted the federation’s failures on this front suggest that in some sense labor authenticity is being thought out on the terrain of race, sex, ethnicity.
This is no small thing for unions where the division between members and leaders cuts strong along the color or sex line, and where organizing, promotion and agenda choices are defined accordingly. And no small thing on a day when a couple of white guys Stern and Hoffa grabbed the headlines and the mantle of union reformation, talking about workers as little more than victims or commodities. This change in tone and substantive emphasis came by dint of union activists at the base. Contrast this to the top-of-the-tree pr maneuver by the Change-to-Win coalition when they triumphantly proclaimed the recruitment to their ranks of Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers. Suddenly the air was fragrant with the hallowed name of Cesar Chavez. But the actual farm workers had even less say in the matter of what their president was up to than all the other members of the dissident unions.
JOANN WYPIJEWSKI, a regular CounterPunch contributor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org