Interview: Under Fire
Politics: And the Winners Are ...
Economics: The Common Wealth
History: Walking for Justice
International: Deja Vu
Legal: The Rights Stuff
Review: That Cinderella Fella
Poetry: Is Howard Kidding?
The Locker Room
Age of Consent
Make Ads Not Law
Nice One, Workers!
Dog Eat Dog
Here, in a nutshell, is what the debate is all about: a number of unions in the USA's national trade union centre have reached the conclusion that without radical change, unions are finished.
Some of the leaders of those unions are political radicals, but others are not. In fact, one of the key leaders heads up an old-style, blue-collar union -- one which in the past has been as likely to back Republicans as Democrats.
The unions that choose to remain in the federation denounce those leaving as a bunch of splitters. United, our movement will be much stronger, they say.
But the "splitters" are not persuaded, break away, and found a new federation. America now has two national trade union centres.
The year is 1935. The "splitters" go on to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations -- the legendary CIO. Within a few years, under the incredibly difficult circumstances of the Great Depression, they manage to grow the American labour movement from 2 million to 10 million members.
Sectors which were thought to be impossible to organize, such as steel, are organized. Within a few years, getting a job in a unionized auto factory becomes a ticket to the middle class for many workers.
Two decades later, unions have become enormously powerful, with some 35% of the workforce unionized. And the CIO reconciles with the American Federation of Labor, merging to form the AFL-CIO in 1955.
This summer was meant to see a celebration of 50 years since the reunification of the American unions. Instead, it saw them split apart.
Some of the largest unions in the AFL-CIO, including the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the Service Employees International Union, walked out.
And this week in St. Louis, those unions together with UNITE HERE (the clothing and textile/hotel and restaurant workers), the farm workers, laborers and carpenters, met to launch a new federation called "Change to in".
The choice of St. Louis was an interesting one. Union density there is a whopping 22% -- and I say "whopping" because the average percentage of workers organized in unions in the United States is today around 8 per cent in the private sector. St. Louis is a union town. And "Change to Win" is setting out to turn the entire country into one big union town.
In an informal meeting with the press, Andy Stern, the dynamic leader of the SEIU -- the largest and fastest growing union in America, with 1.8 million members -- would not agree to set a goal for how many workers the new federation intended to organize. But his colleague Tom Woodruff, who was described as the architect of the SEIU's phenomenal success, was more forthcoming in his presentation to the convention.
Woodruff rattled off the figures, sector by sector, in the areas of the economy the Change to Win unions were targetting. The total number of workers in those sectors is around 50 million. The unions represent six million of them. According to Woodruff, the goal is nothing less than to attempt to organize the other 44 million workers.
That's all well and good, but as one says in America, you have to put
your money where your mouth is.
The Change to Win unions have decided to invest 75% of federation funds into direct organizing. They will be setting up strategic campaigns, and devoting the best organizers from each union, headed up by Woodruff, on focussed campaigns targetting big non-union employers.
The total amount the federation aims to invest in organizing each year is -- get this-- $750 million. That's three quarters of a billion US dollars.
Now, with that kind of money being invested and with proven professionals like Woodruff and the SEIU leading the way, they might even succeed in growing unions again in America.
But there is a price to be paid. The Change to Win unions are so totally focussed on building unions that they're less interested in the things that traditionally concerned national trade union centres, such as legislation and politics. In fact, they've made it clear that they're interested in backing politicians who make the job of organising unions easier. They say that they'll support Republicans if they have to, to grow the unions. Because from their point of view, without a strong labour movement, nothing else is possible.
The question isn't what unions should do. It's whether there are to be unions at all.
Of course you can't make a simple analogy between the birth of Change to Win this week and that of the CIO 70 years ago. But Bruce Raynor, the firebrand leader of UNITE HERE -- a successor to one of the key unions that founded the CIO -- did exactly that. He pointed out that back in the 1930s, the CIO transformed America by creating powerful unions where they had previously not existed. And he pointed to the union's current big campaign to unionize Cintas, a uniform company, as an example of the large scale organizing needed today.
Much of the conference was dominated by rank and file workers telling their stories. We learned about a bitter dispute at First Student, a British-owned school bus company which is perfectly willing to recognize unions in Europe, but refuses to do so in America. We heard about successes in the battle to organize DHL -- and need to challenge bastions of anti-unionism like Federal Express and Wal-Mart.
Critics said that the conference in St. Louis was a stage-managed affair, a dog-and-pony show, with no real democracy and little input from the rank and file of the unions. Maybe there was some of that too.
But I couldn't help but be moved when I heard a young black woman speak, a member of a Teamsters local from Gulfport, Mississippi. The minute she said where she was from, the room fell silent. Gulfport was perhaps the hardest hit part of the Gulf Coast when Katrina hit. She said how the day after the hurricane destroyed her family's home and lives, she didn't hear a word from her employers. She heard nothing from her government. But her union was right there, asking how they could help, providing necessary assistance.
"The Teamsters are my family," she told the conference. And she pledged to do everything she could to help her family now.
There is a genuine, urgent need for a reinvigorated trade union movement in America. Maybe -- just maybe -- Change to Win will succeed in creating one.
Eric Lee is the editor of LabourStart, http://www.labourstart.org
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