“In politics, as in religion, we have less charity for those who believe in half of our creed than for those that deny the whole of it.”
—Charles Caleb Colton
It is being reported that the first, tentative steps have been taken in a process that may lead, ultimately, to the reunification of organized labor’s two “competing” national federations—the AFL-CIO, and Change to Win (CtW).
In 2005, in a dramatic affront to union solidarity, CtW broke away from the AFL-CIO, despite determined efforts by labor activists, progressive commentators, and Democratic politicians to keep them on the farm.
Established in 1955 (when the American Federation of Labor merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations), the AFL-CIO is the largest and most influential labor federation ever to exist. Even with the seven big-time unions leaving it to join CtW, the Federation still has 56 unions and over 10 million members. George Meany was its first president.
Yet, in spite of the Federation’s high profile and influence, seven mutineers defiantly chose to break away and form their own coalition, arguing that it was not only time for a “change,” but that the House of Labor had revealed itself to be too unimaginative and ineffectual to continue to run the show.
The seven who split off were: the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (UNITE HERE), the United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC), the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), the United Food and Commercial Workers (UCFW), the United Farm Workers (UFW) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT). [note: while the UBC joined the CtW, it didn’t, technically, join the mutiny, having left the AFL-CIO on their own, in 2001]
The issue fueling the breakaway was the AFL-CIO’s lack of success in organizing, of bringing in much needed new union members. And the key contributing factor in that regard—the final straw, so to speak—was the AFL-CIO’s failure to organize a single Wal-Mart store (with nearly 4,000 to choose from), despite a prodigious, expensive, and well-publicized recruiting effort. Believing it could do better, CtW set off on its own.
Still, this was more than a simple policy dispute. Like all palace coups, there was considerable behind-the-scenes maneuvering and intrigue. The then (and current) president of the AFL-CIO was John Sweeney, who has served for 13 years. The man who led the mutiny against Sweeney was one Andrew Stern, president of the SEIU. And Sweeney himself was a former president of the SEIU. So, intersecting histories, simmering resentments, and unbridled ambition played a part in this, as well.
In the three and a half years since the breakaway, CtW found out a couple of things. First, they realized they hadn’t gained anything appreciable by setting off on their own, that remaining united had certain inherent advantages, and that the “whole” can, in fact, be greater than the sum of its parts. Second, they found out that organizing was harder than they thought.
David Bonior, a former congressman and one of Obama’s early Secretary of Labor candidates, has been shepherding these reunification talks. According to reports, among the issues being addressed are: how the Federation will be modified, who will lead it, how the leadership role itself will be structured (it’s been suggested, without much support, that the president’s job be rotated), and what the name of the reunified organization should be.
Apparently, there are some die-hard CtW’ers who vowed never to return to any entity called the “AFL-CIO,” and want the Federation’s name changed. On that score, those folks need to be reminded that “brand name” recognition is a precious commodity.
Also (and this is subjective), when it comes to assigning names to organizations, the group who coined “Change to Win” should be taken out behind the woodshed and whacked. In this era of glib seminar-speak, that name sounds like the product of an unholy coupling of a self-help author and Human Resource manager.
By any reckoning, the reunification of these two labor federations is welcome news. Clearly, the AFL-CIO is far from perfect. Maybe it’s a battleship in an age of speed boats. Undeniably, it is subject to those same bureaucratic diseases that infect any large, unwieldy organization, and, like bureaucracies everywhere, is stubbornly resistant to change. But, flawed or not, it remains labor’s most viable entity.
As for Change to Win, give them credit for trying to reinvigorate and redirect the American labor movement.
The reunification is far from a done deal. There’s lots of potential drama still incubating. One person the AFL-CIO is touting for president (to replace Sweeney, who’s 74 years old and won’t be seeking re-election) is Richard Trumka, formerly of the United Mine Workers and currently the AFL-CIO’s Secretary-Treasurer.
While Trumka is a respected officer, and is reported to be lobbying energetically for the job, CtW hard-liners are opposed to him. They want a new face in there, someone they see as less inbred, less beholden to the Old Guard, someone not so closely associated with “business as usual.” On the other hand, as former mutineers who sheepishly paddled back to the boat, CtW can’t expect to call the shots.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Larva Boy,” “Borneo Bob”) and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org