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AFSCME and SEIU to consolidate efforts in face of anti-labor attacks

By David Hoskins |
May 9, 2016
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Washington, D.C. - Two of the largest and most influential labor unions in the U.S. have announced plans to substantially consolidate their work. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) are actively considering a joint resolution that would build strategic collaboration between the two unions, up to and including a potential merger.

SEIU and AFSCME have a combined 3.6 million members between them, mostly in the public sector but with a strong presence in the private health care and property service industries as well. Their merger would create the largest labor union in the country. The National Education Association, with its 2.9 million members, is currently the country’s largest union.

The joint resolution under consideration would build collaboration at every organizational level. Coordinated work would occur in the following key areas: joint goal setting and strategic planning, joint bargaining and representation where SEIU and AFSCME share a common employer, coordinated bargaining across shared industries, joint political and legislative activity, and collaborative organizing in targeted sectors and regions.

The resolution explicitly states that consideration of an institutional merger that would formally unite the strengths of both unions to create a new entity will be explored.

Consolidation comes amid extreme anti-labor assault

The consolidation of organizing, representational and political work between SEIU and AFSCME does not occur in a vacuum. Rather, it is a response to more than five years of the most extreme and coordinated anti-labor assault in recent memory.

This newest period of assault was unleashed with a vengeance in Wisconsin in 2011 when that state’s governor, Scott Walker, pushed through a bill that stripped most public workers of their collective bargaining rights, despite massive resistance from workers and students in the streets. As a result, Wisconsin public worker net wages have dropped as employee contributions to health insurance and retirement have gone up. Public sector unions with a strong base in the state (such as AFSCME) have seen their membership rolls decline and their strength depleted.

Wisconsin was just one front of a coordinated state and national level attack on collective bargaining rights. While the brunt of the attacks in recent years has been felt by public sector workers, union members in the private sector have also sustained hits.

For example, Michigan approved a public and private-sector ‘right to work’ law in 2012 that does nothing to actually guarantee anyone a right to a job. It does allow nonunion employees in a unionized workplace to have a free ride where they receive all of the benefits of a union, including negotiated wages and benefits, but do not have to contribute any dues to cover the cost of this representation. The result of this ‘right to work’ legislation was that in 2014, the first full year that the law was in effect, union membership in Michigan dropped from 633,000 to 585,000 even as total employment grew, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Other states have tried to curtail collective bargaining for public sector workers, including Ohio, where voters overturned the 2011 restrictions on public sector collective bargaining in a referendum that same year; 61% of voters said no to the restrictions.

A series of court cases challenging public sector collective bargaining have been another prong in the coordinated assault on labor. Two of the most high-profile cases have been Harris v. Quinn and Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, both of which made their way to the Supreme Court and threaten public sector trade unionism in the United States.

In Harris v. Quinn, a five to four right-wing majority on the Supreme Court ruled that unions could no longer collect fair share fees to cover the cost of representation from nonunion public employees who did not wish to join the union. While the case was specific to SEIU home care workers in Illinois, the Supreme Court decision opened the door to declare most independent providers as quasi-public employees subject to a nationalized ‘right to work’ scheme. This will starve public sector unions of much needed resources and result in lower public union density in the long run.

The Friedrichs case potentially posed an even graver threat to public sector unions. It challenged fair share fees for all public sector employees. Thousands of labor contracts covering millions of public workers would be affected if all fair share fees were eliminated. Following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the threat of Friedrichs was put off temporarily as a four-to-four Supreme Court tie meant that a lower court ruling in favor of fair share fees was upheld. The plaintiffs in Friedrichs have already called for the case to be reheard by the Supreme Court as soon as a new justice is confirmed.

The state assaults, mainly coordinated by right-wing Republican governors and conservative legislatures, and national challenges to longstanding public sector dues practices represent substantial attacks on the labor movement. The consolidation of work between SEIU and AFSCME is an attempt by two of the country’s largest public sector trade unions to weather the storm and navigate these attacks on labor from a position of strength.

Only militancy can reverse labor’s decline

Increased solidarity in the form of consolidated work and coordinated strategies between SEIU and AFSCME is not a bad thing. In fact, to most it is a welcome reversal to some of the divisions that occurred within the house of labor when SEIU led several other unions out of the national labor federation known as the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) in 2005 to form a competing national federation known as Change to Win. Many of the initial Change to Win labor unions have since returned to the AFL-CIO fold.

The joint SEIU and AFSCME resolution reads in part, “Together, SEIU and AFSCME are unstoppable unions that never quit. We have the strength to achieve social and economic justice for all working people. Together, we can unite to turn back the well-funded special interests who have rigged the economy in favor of the wealthy few at the expense of the rest of us. If we do not take on this work, who will? If not now, when?”

The progressive optimism in those words is encouraging. Indeed, unions do have the strength to achieve social and economic justice, because the working class has the power to do so.

However, a lack of coordination between hardworking unions is not the greatest subjective factor holding back the labor movement from winning social and economic justice for all in this country. Free riders who refuse to pay their fair share of union dues are not the greatest threat to the labor movement either.

A more significant impediment to unions in this country achieving greater victory for workers is a lack of class struggle unionism. Too often, class collaborationist thinking dominates the leadership of organized labor.

The desire to cut a deal and maintain friendly relationships with the boss and elected officials often prevails over a genuine class struggle where trade union leadership puts the interests of the working class above every other consideration. As a result of this class collaboration, the primary strategic leverage of workers - the right to shut down production and withhold labor in the form of a sustained strike- is typically taken off of the table.

The attacks on labor can best be fought by activating a militant minority of the most class struggle-oriented rank-and-file union members, building the class consciousness of all union members and leaders, and developing a program for class struggle that puts the strike back on the table as a strategy for achieving working-class victories and growing the labor movement.

If the consolidation of work between SEIU and AFSCME is simply a way for trade union leadership to more efficiently carry out some of the failed programs of yesterday, a historic opportunity for labor to regain its footing will have been lost. But if it opens up the space for militant strategies and rank-and-file leadership, then it will represent a step forward for organized labor and the class struggle in this country.