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Without a Real Debate, How Will Workers Unite After Labor Has Split?

by Laura Gordon |
October 1, 2005
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Laura Gordon is President of the Western North Carolina Central Labor Council and delegate to the 50th AFL-CIO Convention.

Over a year ago I became aware of Andy Stern’s proposals for change within the AFL-CIO. At first I thought this was a good thing - to have discussion in the labor movement about our direction. For example, under both Sweeney and Stern there has long been a call to the international unions to put more resources into organizing. What seemed lacking was an examination of how organizing campaigns had been done in the past and what needed to be changed.

In North Carolina we tried to have a general discussion, but without real substance to the issues. The discussion stalled at the need for democracy and anger at Stern’s proposal for forced mergers between unions. The discussion that I wanted never happened, because there was nothing concrete in the SEIU proposal, other than the forced mergers, for people to latch onto and talk about.

As the months passed, other unions joined with Stern: UNITE HERE, the Laborers and the Carpenters. The Carpenters had already disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO and had a history of raiding other unions, collaborating with management and having a top down, corrupt leadership. When they came on board, some of us really began questioning what was going on. The sense of unease increased with the inclusion of the Teamsters.

Even coming to Chicago, I was hoping there’d be some kind of discussion, and there just wasn’t at all. The Change to Win Coalition (CTW) had submitted a number of resolutions, but when the CTW unions decided to boycott, that ended any hope for discussion. Without another side, the convention was dominated by anger at the CTW for splitting the labor movement and increased support for Sweeney to keep the labor movement together.

In talking with many other delegates it was very unclear what the differences were between the Sweeney camp and the CTW Coalition. There certainly didn’t seem to be the ‘irreconcilable’ differences stated by Stern that would cause a split. At the Convention there was much talk of why this unholy alliance and how much of a coalition was it really? The general sense was that each union had their own agenda, with the bottom line being money, power and ego.

The Central Labor Councils: CLCs

What was most positive to me from all of the convention were the rank-and-file members of the CLCs getting together every night to discuss what was happening. The councils had become much more active since the 1995 Convention. When Sweeney first came to power in 1995, plans were laid to build up the CLCs. For a while this happened. In our small council, we are all volunteers, so we really benefited from staff from Washington helping to set up programs, figure out budgets and plan educational events.

There were national conferences of CLCs. We were recognized for what we are - the grassroots of the AFL-CIO. But over time, the emphasis shifted from organizing and education of union members to ‘politics’ - Democratic Party politics.

Where the split will be felt most sharply is within the Central Labor Councils. They will be hurt by the disaffiliation of per capita dues but more hurt by the loss of members who are working together on organizing campaigns, living wage campaigns, campaigns to Save Social Security etc.

The disaffiliated unions (including now the United Food and Commercial Workers) stated that they wanted to remain involved in state federations and CLCs. Sweeney looked like the bad guy by saying that those unions can not be involved in CLCs. A resolution was passed by the remaining Executive Board to up their dues and give a portion of that increase to the state federations and CLCs most affected by the disaffiliating unions (read: “AFL-CIO wants to make it easier for those bodies not to take money from the disaffiliates.”). On the last day of the Convention the E-Board and Sweeney made it very clear, in a letter and remarks that, “You are either in or you’re out.”

The really bad part will be the raiding of other unions for their members; this has a history between SEIU and AFSCME in particular, where they have both fought over the same bargaining units. So much for ‘new’ organizing. This raiding only weakens the solidarity of the labor movement. At the convention it was announced that SEIU has already begun raiding an AFSCME unit in California, which in turn was payback for AFSCME raiding an SEIU unit in Illinois.

Small councils like Western North Carolina, big councils and state feds and rank-and-file workers in the whole country have a common experience of having been left out of the equation by the top officials. Now we are going to have to cope with this new situation. How will we unite labor when we’re no longer in one federation? How will we stop raiding? If there’s a strike, delegates at the convention pledged, “We’re union members, we’ll support any union on strike.” But if there’s no federation affiliation between two unions at an employer, will members of one federation cross the other’s picket lines?

Labor Unity in the Councils

I think that people in the CLCs are determined to stick together. Pressure is on the internationals to allow, if not affiliation, at least participation with the labor councils. We want the money, but we also want members. Some locals send a check in every month, but they don’t send anybody as delegates. You have money, but what can you do without people?