Scenes and Silver Linings from Labor’s Crack-Up

On Thursday just after noon the convention hall at Navy Pier was mostly deserted, delegates to the national convention of the AFL-CIO having wheeled themselves and their suitcases out after the formal conclusion of proceedings, down the escalator and out to waiting shuttle busses. In the vastness John Sweeney smiled for one last photograph, then trudged away alone, having won the presidency unopposed the day before but lost a unified labor institution. A few stragglers, mostly members of the AFL’s Central Labor Councils talked among themselves, anticipating the wrangle awaiting them when they return home to organizations that, at their best, represent what movement there is in the union movement. These are the local bodies where members of different unions meet each other, teach each other, help each other, where solidarity plays out (or should) in joint labor, community, political fights, and where the disaffiliation of the Teamsters and especially SEIU will be felt most acutely.

At their press conference at the beginning of the week James Hoffa and Andy Stern split off from the national federation but said they would continue paying dues to the state and local AFL-CIO bodies. It was a cynical gesture, tossing the ball in the other side’s court, daring Sweeney to bar their local unions’ participation in lower-tier federation bodies (as the AFL constitution requires) while expressing the hope that he would not go down the road of “exclusion”. Though excluding themselves and throwing up the beginnings of a rival federation in the Change to Win Coalition, they cloaked themselves in the robes of unity, sending a message to the ranks, who may have supported or opposed the break-up but had no vote in determining it, that their local relationships with other unionists would continue undisturbed. If Sweeney invoked the constitution, as he did on Thursday, declaring, “We will not allow this federation to be turned into an open-shop operation” where unions can “pick and choose the places and terms of ‘partnership’ and support”, he could be cast as the iron fist, rejecting solidarity.

All week long representatives from the CLCs had been meeting, drawn together by their common conundrum. How do some of them survive if half their budgets now come from disaffiliated unions? How do they honor organizational integrity and working-class solidarity at the same time? How do they relate to friends and comrades from the disaffiliated? From the South, unionists only too familiar with the open shop, in which dues-paying is an individual prerogative and collective responsibility thereby denigrated, talked about tough love for the “dues objectors”, keeping up communication “to try to bring the brothers and sisters along” at the base but making it clear that things could not go on as usual. Teamsters and SEIUers could no longer hold office in a CLC, no longer have a vote, no longer participate in coordinated political action. From the North, there was more conciliatory talk, more open defiance of the federation leadership’s no-pay/no-play stance. From California, where SEIU represents a majority in a number of councils, the problem is less academic.

“People say ‘we’ve got to punish them’,” one California labor council president who saw 60 percent of his budget disappear with the split said, “but do we punish them by shooting ourself in the eye; do we punish them if by refusing their money we help them set up parallel organizations that are bigger than ours? Or do we provide leadership and a truer definition of solidarity?” None of this is simple. At their best, labor councils are not just AFL clubs; they are switching stations for class action, union and nonunion, labor and community. In Atlanta a few years ago the labor council was the spine of a campaign to maintain cheap prescriptions for poor people in the county hospital. In Seattle it was a center for mass action against the WTO. In Massachusetts’ North Shore it was a leader in the fight against the FTAA. In Cleveland it coordinated voting rights agitation in the city for the 2004 elections. In San Francisco it has been out front in the antiwar movement since 9/11.

All of those actions involved broad alliances, often with the quasi-independent Jobs With Justice (which, having no affiliation issues, should gain in importance in the current chaos). But unions and their federations are not community groups or sometime-coalitions or 501(c)(3)s. They depend on members and members’ dues. Theoretically anyway, they are as much of a threat because they are self-financed as because they are the only institutions in America whose chief function is to challenge capital at the basic level of production. Yet the national unions (including those who’ve just split) have never fully funded the local councils and state federations. That may be the result of politics: the local bodies’ leaders are seen, variously, as too radical, too conservative, too do-nothing, cozying up to local pols on the golf course. Or the result of indifference, or tight-waddery, or tactical considerations (withholding dues when you oppose the local leadership; affiliating in time for a council or state fed election, when you can throw the leader out).

This convention was the first to pay concerted attention to the local and state bodies, mandating full affiliation, setting new benchmarks for action, passing a dues increase to assist those hurt most by the defections. It seems also to have been the first where representatives of these bodies organized themselves, commiserating, exchanging experiences, discussing strategy and planting the seeds for an informal confederation of CLCs to keep the conversation going. If they solve the money problem-and repeatedly it was noted that there would be no money problem if the AFL’s remaining 55 unions paid full dues at the lower tiers-the best of those bodies, having to re-imagine class solidarity in light of structural crack-up, could provide a silver lining to organized labor’s present dark day.

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Discussion involving these state and local bodies provided about the only reality check on a convention seemingly determined to press on as if nothing unusual had occurred. “The 10,000 pound elephant in the room is that we do have problems”, one delegate commented to me, “but no one wants to talk about them because under the circumstances, when so many people feel betrayed, to raise problems seems disloyal.” Thursday morning, after inviting some unscripted talk from the CLCs and state feds, Sweeney cut it off after about half a dozen comments. “Now we have to get back to the business of the convention”, he said, as if labor on the cusp of tearing itself apart wasn’t the convention’s business. As it happened, the business that followed was business: a report on labor’s leveraging of its stockholdings, a presentation on high-road versus low-road capitalism, much chatter on organized labor’s role as capital’s conscience, as steward of CEO performance and accountability.

Earlier in the week Jerry Tucker, a founder of the New Directions rank and file movement in the UAW in the 1980s who is now retired and was in Chicago filing dispatches for Monthly Review’s website , remarked that, stylistic differences notwithstanding, the top leadership of the AFL and Change to Win seem locked in a fight over who will control business unionism. Stern has been forthright about seeing unions as a partner for business, and it’s only by smoke and mirrors that Change to Win appears to be about something else, a labor movement. At their press conference Stern and Hoffa didn’t mention their memberships and could not have been expected to say anything about workplace or union democracy, given their history. At the convention I met a retired member of one of their coalition partners, UFCW, named Brian King, who told me a funny-sad story about how he’d once drafted a five-page proposal for a rank and file organizing committee to UFCW Local 1001 in Seattle, said committee to engage in unionization drives and also to plan a summer picnic for current members. He said he was barred from the local executive council meeting that discussed it, denied a copy of the minutes, accused of being “a rank-and-fileist” and treated like “a poison pill”. The proposal went nowhere.

At least Sweeney paid lip service to the membership and to democracy throughout the convention, something that could not be said when he first became president, in 1995. As with the increased emphasis on diversity, which I mentioned in my last dispatch, he spoke of those things because he was forced to. For at least a year these have been themes in the critique of the Stern Gang coming from rank and filers and others. For the same reason he couldn’t talk about democracy in 1995, he had to now: pressure from constituencies he needs.

Leftists who’ve entertained visions of Change to Win as a scrappy ground-level organizing outfit would have been discomfited by Hoffa’s talk of “staffing up” and professionalization of organizing, but now that Change to Win has hired 55 public relations specialists and appointed as its executive director Greg Tarpinian, a lifetime flack who’s made a career of “consulting” for some of the Teamsters’ most calcified old guard, it’s hard to talk about any of this challenging the status quo with a straight face.

Likewise on politics. Molly Ivins had a terrifically silly column the other day saying that the AFL was in trouble because it tied its fortunes to the Democratic Party (stop the presses!), and declaring herself for the Change to Win crowd because somehow it hasn’t. Hoffa has attacked Sweeney for “throwing money” at politicians (the AFL spends a small fortune on member mobilization and get-out-the-vote efforts but does not give money to candidates), and Stern has voiced his frustration with the Democrats (though his union spent $20 million more than the whole federation did to try to elect Kerry, and pressganged thousands of its members in the effort). Ivins finds something novel in this bluster, but it’s all the rage in labor to tar the Democrats. Several delegates took to the mikes at the convention to do just that, and on the last day the leadership distributed a list of the 15 Democrats who’d voted for CAFTA and against whom it vowed electoral retribution.

The problem is that, whether it’s the AFL or the Stern Gang talking, the limits of thinkable thought on politics runs from loyalty to the Democrats to support for Republicans who support “working family values”. What those values are is left necessarily vague, as the working woman who may need an abortion, or the working couple that may be deprived of civil rights because of gayness, or the working family whose kids are targeted by police don’t land at the top of either party’s priority list. For Stern, who gave $500,000 to the Republican Governors Association in the last election cycle, it would seem that right to work legislation, the open shop, would qualify as a working family value. It was left to Jesse Jackson, addressing the convention, to raise the issue of independent politics, by which he meant mass pressure politics, “jumping on the third rail, where the juice is”.

Ivins sees the Democrats’ anxiety over labor’s divorce as evidence of Change to Win’s fearless independence. But of course they’re anxious; the party’s only ground operations in recent years have been courtesy of unions, most effectively mustered by labor councils. With the split this will change. As a matter of federal election law, AFL-CIO representatives can canvass only AFL-member homes, meaning door-knocking maps will have to be redrawn: knock at this door, and this one, skip that one, knock here, skip there, and so on. Likewise, legally SEIU and the Teamsters will have to limit canvassing to their members. The result will be a loss of efficiency, which could translate into a loss of votes. The 527s, which draw volunteers from all over and which Stern has spoken highly of, don’t have the same constraints, or the same effectiveness. Simply in terms of mechanics, it is pretty amazing that while less than 13 percent of American workers are in unions, one in four voters is a union member. Would that there were a mission and a vision to leverage that voting power.

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And now for some bits of good news. Historic news. On Tuesday, July 26, the AFL-CIO convention did something organized labor had never done before: it opposed a war during wartime, and called for the withdrawal of American troops. The resolution opposing the war in Iraq was not the best or the most fluent. Cobbled from 18 resolutions that had been offered for consideration, it read as if it were written by at least as many hands. The remarkable thing about those resolutions? Not one that had been submitted for the convention’s consideration supported the war. Not one was solely a simple statement supporting the troops. All called for withdrawal, the only difference being over timing. All came from Central Labor Councils.

The resolution that was slated to make it to the floor called for withdrawal “as soon as possible”. This angered the driving forces within institutional labor against the war, US Labor Against the War and Pride at Work, who argued that it was essentially the Bush position. After a flurry of organized interventions they got the final resolution to be introduced calling for American troops to be withdrawn “rapidly”. It seemed a small thing, this semantic victory, until you consider the historic magnitude. From the floor, no one spoke against the resolution: not the building trades; not Tom Buffenbarger of the Machinists, who after 9/11 called for “vengeance”, not justice; not the American Federation of Teachers, which has typically held high the flame of intervention. Speaking for the resolution, Henry Nicholas, president of AFSCME’s 1199P, told the story of his son, who has been deployed to Iraq four times already.

“My son is a nervous wreck right now, but he’s on the list to go back. We need to say that America’s sons and daughters have to come home now”, he said. And then concluded: “In my 45 years in the labor movement, this is my proudest moment being a union member, because this is the first time we had the courage to stand up and say, Enough is enough.”

Later that evening in question time during a panel discussion with Iraqi trade unionists, a sturdy anti-imperialist, Fred Hirsch, vice president of Plumbers and Fitters Local 393 out of San Jose, California, informed the Iraqis that there is to be a national march against the war in Washington on September 24. Did they think, he wondered, that it would be appropriate for organized labor to send contingents to that march in light of the resolution just passed? Yes, they replied. And would they as Iraqi trade unionists write a letter to the union presidents of America urging such participation? Yes, again, certainly. In that moment the organizing potential of the resolution was made plain. One can almost hear the cringe of union presidents who let it sail through. The next thing you know someone will be asking them to defend the civil rights of gay people, the logical outcome of another surprising resolution that the convention passed, opposing the federal marriage amendment.

JOANN WYPIJEWSKI writes on labor and politics for CounterPunch. Read her previous dispatches from Chicago: Is This Really an “Insurgency” to Shake Up the Labor Movement? and Fission and Fizzle in Chicago: SEIU and Teamsters Quit the AFL. 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.