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DisUnion: AFL-CIO Schisms Over Organizing

Bennett Baumer Mar 17, 2005

Something odd is happening in the decades-staid AFL-CIO – a group of unions is challenging do-nothing unionism and the funneling of the labor federation’s millions into the Democratic Party.

Coming out of the labor federation’s March meeting in Las Vegas, a group of unions led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) argued that the AFL-CIO should place more resources into organizing the unorganized and create a leaner and more centralized labor movement.

The SEIU is making noise that they may leave the federation if reforms are not made.

Though not as defining as the 1935 labor meeting when John Lewis, the fiery industrial unionist, punched the conservative craft union leader William Hutcheson for refusing to organize unskilled factory workers, presidents from the SEIU and the large public sector union, AFSCME, cussed each other over the right to represent 49,000 child care workers in Illinois.

The SEIU argues that by re-organizing the AFL-CIO into unions with defined jurisdiction, this poaching would cease.

On his blog, SEIU President Andy Stern lambasted unions which opposed a Teamster proposal that echoed many of his union’s goals.

“Those who opposed this proposal do not want the union movement as a whole to have a strategy for uniting workers’ strength in each industry. They want their own unions to be free to divide workers by organizing in any sector. They don’t want to have to shift resources to helping workers organize.”

As a former organizer with a local affiliated with the SEIU, I personally saw multiple do-nothing union locals from other parent unions poach and attempt to make deals with management while workers were organizing with SEIU. However if the SEIU left the labor federation, poaching would increase as unions, freed of AFL-CIO internal guidelines could raid each other’s members.

Stern and his allies in other unions are dead-on about the need to organize the unorganized as unions represent only 7.9 percent of private sector workers. The AFLCIO’s decision to pour more money into lobbying and into the Democratic Party is the same strategy they have had for decades. And union membership has declined steadily for decades.

But the SEIU style of election-centered, staff-run organizing campaigns has its limitations without widespread worker upheaval. Even if unions could overcome obstacles thrown up by the pro-business National Labor Relations Board and double the number of workers they organize each year it would be the year 2036 before they regained the same weakened position they had in 1983 after President Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controllers union.

The personal toll of the SEIU style of organizing can be taxing. Organizers typically work 60 to 80-hour weeks away from home, and the “binge and purge” method of hiring young people leaves many good organizers disillusioned with the labor movement. The SEIU’s “wave program” brings in dozens of organizers each year though the union spits out just as many.

The future of the labor movement may be decided in the short term by staffers in the AFL-CIO’s larger unions; however, workers on the shop floor must be empowered to steer the labor movement and fight its battles. In the SEIU, we organized non-union workers into the union and won substantial economic increases in their lives. But the fight doesn’t stop there. Our union local didn’t have a political education department, or clear means for workers to express power in the daily workings of the union.

The SEIU-led reforms will mobilize members as bodies, but not their minds.