Interview: On Holiday
Unions: One Day Longer
Industrial: Never Mind the Bollocks
Politics: Spun Out
Economics: If the Grog Don't Get You ....
History: Taking a Stand
International: The Split
Legal: Pushing the Friendship
Poetry: Simple Subtractions
Review: Sydney Trashed
The Locker Room
AFL-CIO Not The Only War
We Love Morris
A Readers Suggestion
By chance I found myself at the 2005 AFL-CIO pre-conference and convention, for a timely but not pretty moment in US union history. For the previous year and a half, key organising unions, including the SEIU and UNITE HERE had been pushing for structural changes in the AFL to give it the power to pressure its affiliates to organise. Recently these two unions had been joined by unlikely allies in the Teamsters, Foodworkers and Carpenters. In Dec 2004 they released a Unity Partnership document outlining a program of changes including mergers, industry organising and rebates for unions who had committed 'seriously' to organising. And the word split had been bandied about in plenty of US press.
So, never one to snub a political drama I took a few days off from my field work in Chicago to attend both the pre-Convention conference on Organising and Diversity and the 4 Day Convention. And what a sight it was. Organised labor; the biggest union movement in the world concentrating its energy for one week in order to rip itself apart.
Before the formalities began, I attended a pre-Convention, 'whip 'em up' pro-Sweeny rally. It was odd as an outsider to be flung into a polarised environment. I was the only one without my tribally-branded union shirt. Everyone had a different coloured shirt, all made especially with 'pro-Sweeny' insignias. AFSCME in Green, CWA in red, Steelworkers in Blue ... etc. Above the stage in the 1500 seat room was a big sign saying "United to Win" (as opposed to "Change to Win). Then there were the speeches. Generally the rhetoric was kept subtle - saying things like 'we need to be united' etc. But the most surprising comment came from Linda Chavez-Thompson. Early on in her speech she started off a call back - saying something to which everyone collectively responds. She said, 'there are some enemies of the labor movement in the country.' Then she listed several, 'like the Chamber of Commerce' and everyone went boo. And the right to work committee. Boo. George Bush. Boo. Walmart ... boo , and then she said 'the Change to Win Coalition' and everyone said BOOO. Certainly a fairly strong statement, no matter how angry the split makes you feel!
Within hours of the Sweeny rally we found out that the Change to Win Coalition (the newly constituted union Federation, consisting of the Unity Partnership unions), were going to boycott the convention. Days later the Coalition announced would set up a formal staffed office and have a Convention of their own in September. It's a pity that union members were not exposed to a debate about the merit of the two proposals. Instead, the debate was contained to white, old, men in secret backrooms. But, perhaps it means that a reunion may be possible. A blood match on the floor would not have assisted in building positive relationships between the two camps.
In the first few days of the Convention an interesting rhetorical tension sprung up that defined the 'two camps.' The frame is no longer about servicing versus organising. These days everyone is for organising. Today the semantic war is between political action versus organising. And of course the frustration as on observer is that it is a false debate. Of course effective political action occurs when more workers are organised. But the debate has been commodified into a question of contrasting resource commitments. Sweeny wants to prioritise money for politics, legislative change and to defend the Kerry campaign; Stern is pushing for a list of commitments that support organising. But to me the frustrating thing is the narrowness of each side. You need to both organise more workers and influence and change the marco political environment. They question is not the merits of those objectives, but HOW you achieve those two goals together. But that sort of detail tends to be lost in the division created between the two objectives.
The SEIU have used the history of the CIO split as a key reason for why a split now can bring greater accelerated growth in the movement. The argument is that the CIO's separation from the AFL in the mid-30s allowed for focused organising, and similarly splitting now can allow organising to rapidly take off. Yet there is another less famous split in the AFL-CIO. This one was in 1968 and occured when the UAW and the Teamsters split from the AFL-CIO because of conservativism and incompetence. Those unions formed the American Labor Alliance and argued for more organizing in the south and in growing industries. The UAW split did not increase the size of the movement, and 10 years later the UAW returned. It will be interesting to see which pattern of history - CIO or ALA - most accurately describes the next period of union action in the US.
It was on the third day of the Convention that the anger and tension generated by the split vented on conference floor. The vehicle for the debate was a series of motions that called for Constitutional Amendments to increase affiliation fees to Central Labor Councils. There are about 300 Central Labor Councils in cities and states around the country. The fear is that these Councils will have a financial crisis with the dissafiliations. Discussion about this is complex. It is hard to tell what might happen, as it seems that affiliation and disaffiliation will be an issue for locals and SEIU may not disaffilate in all places. Others say that the SEIU may not be invited back into CLCs - it is hard to know what will happen, but this motion was to abate a possible finanical crisis. In launching the debate the Constitutional Committee pulled no punches in explaining that the reason for these motions was caused by the 'shameful disaffiliations' by SEIU and Teamsters.
And then did the anger fly. One delegate got up and said 'when those outside the house of labor come to my Central Labor Council and ask for help - I will say NO.' Another said, that we need this resolution because of there is a 'fear of poaching by the SEIU and Teamsters' so they will need more money to fight back. The angriest response was from an AFSCME delegate. He announced to the conference that there was 'raiding already going on.' Certainly, there had already been a whisper campaign about 'raiding in Southern California' - now the conference heard. The argument was that AFSCME Homecare workers are re-negotiating a contract and the SEIU is also involved. In the past the AFL was a space for resolving disputes between competing unions. So this delegate explained, AFSCME had written to the AFL to resolve the dispute. And then the delegate held up a letter from Andy Stern that said that because the SEIU was no longer a member of the AFL that he was not bound by AFL dispute resolution processes. I don't know the detail of this story - of course - it sounds pretty bad, but most poaching stories sound bad from either side. But know this - this delegate's speech received a STANDING OVATION. There is a lot of anger in this room, and these tales are spuring on the anger.
It is also important to put this particular fight between the SEIU and AFSCME into perspective - a key tension in the whole split is between AFSCME and SEIU. AFSCME is the public sector union, representing people like state employees, public service and often privatised public sector workers. Clearly there is an overlap in constitencies between them and the SEIU who represent private sector (often publicly subsidised) service workers. And there is a history of 'union competition' between them, a long history that predates the convention. Then, to complicate it further, the current President of AFSCME is the annointed next leader of the AFL. And, one of the key demands pushed by the SEIU was that the AFSCME president NOT be the next AFL President. So it is a tense relationship.
It was then interesting to watch the division then spiral out of control during the afternoon's debate. The anger that had begun from the stage grew louder and more passionate on the floor. Nothing highlighted this better than when there was a motion about mergers. Now mergers were also on the list of the Change to WIn Coalition (yes - thats right - amalgamations are a popular cause here). The Stern camp urged for forced mergers (you know like the old Accord compulsory amalagamations!). The Sweeny camp wanted to urge where appropriate. So the conference voted on this issue of urging' amalgamations. The last speaker got up and got angry saying - 'we shouldn't support those SEIU demands, we shouldn't support any of those reforms, we should vote this down and tell them that they can't tell us what to do.' He got (again) a massive applause. Most surprising then, was on the voices the Chair's motion was rolled; rolled by a conference floor holding so much anger about SEIU/Teamsters that they wanted to roll anything that looked like reform. The members fell (only briefly) out of control of the leaders - the anger from the stage had created a monster in the mob. Of course, the leaders then took control and had a standing vote with each of the leaders on the stage showing where 'they stood on the issue' (literally, cause the stage stands over the crowd) and the members generally followed suit.
The anger then got louder still on another structural motion - this time to reduce the size of the Governing Council to 41 (ie. just reducing the Governing Council by the numbers of SEIU/Teamster/etc members who had left it). This debate was even more depressing - cause the room started turning on each other. A bunch of small unions got up and demanded a different structure - one where they were represented -cause after all 'they didn't leave the federation', 'they were loyal ' and so they should get to have a Federation member on the stage. And on it went. Its not a constructive time for the US Labor Movement.
But in the midst of all this tension a great thing happened. The US Union Movement voted to 'bring the troops home as quickly as possible'. This is radical. The AFL did not oppose the Vietnam War, and now they are standing with a growing movement of mainstream Americans calling for an end to the occupation and an end to the privatisation of Iraq.
The AFL-CIO and its renegade Federation Change to Win are set for a tough road ahead. It is an aggressively hostile political environment, a cold climate for staging a radical new strategy. There is no Roosevelt and friendly labor laws in sight, nor is there a radical rank and file lead labor insurgency. Yet with density collapsing in the US it is time for radical action. No matter what, it is testing times ahead.
Amanda Tattersall is a Doctoral Candidate in Work and Organisation Studies. She is in Chicago compiling field work for her PhD on Community Unionism. She is also an officer at Unions NSW. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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