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New Unity Partnership and the AFL-CIO

by staff |
February 2, 2004
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At the top levels of the labor bureaucracy in Washington D.C., a debate is raging about the future of the labor movement. Underlying the debate is the failure of the top labor officials to stop the decline of organized labor. When John Sweeney was elected president of the AFL-CIO in 1995, he pledged to increase organizing. Since then, despite a push to organize, the percent of union members organized has dropped.

This debate by a small handful of union bureaucrats intends to shape the direction of the workers’ movement for years to come. Left out of the debate are the millions of rank-and-file workers, shops stewards and local union activists.

In September 2003, Business Week published a surprising article about the formation of a group gathered together by top union officials called the New Unity Partnership. This handful of officials includes the leaders of the Carpenters, SEIU, Unite, HERE, and the Laborers. They are also flirting with Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters.

One the surface, the New Unity Partnership is an odd grouping of the more liberal elements of the labor bureaucracy and the pro-Bush Carpenter’s leadership. What unites them is what they see as a lack of progress of the AFL-CIO in reorienting itself towards organizing. They favor the restructuring of the AFL-CIO, more resources towards organizing, and an agreement among unions to organize in industrial sectors.

In pushing for more organizing, they are correct. And the AFL-CIO certainly needs an intensified shake-up.

However, what also unites the New Unity Partnership is the fact that they are among the more top-down, staff-driven unions in the AFL-CIO. The Carpenters, under President Doug McCarron, are engaged in a campaign to destroy the autonomy of local unions. SEIU is known in the labor movement for its reliance on a staff driven model.

Not surprisingly, the reorganization of the AFL-CIO being pushed by the New Unity Partnership is a very staff and officer-driven process. As pointed out by critics, including an excellent piece by the Association of Union Democracy (available on the web at, this top down approach will not rebuild the labor movement.

Elements of the restructuring favored by this group are already taking place in the labor movement. Central labor councils - many of which don’t do much, but at least as rank-and-file grassroots organizations have the potential to do more - are being consolidated out of existence. Much in the same way, the Carpenters under McCarron are attacking local union autonomy. In Minnesota, for example, a reorganization called the New Alliance concentrated power into the hands of the paid staff of the state’s largest international unions and consolidated local central labor bodies into new staff-driven regional structures. Adding more layers of union bureaucracy will not create a fighting labor movement.

The problems with the New Unity Partnership, however, run much deeper than the lack of commitment to union democracy. The heart of their program lacks a commitment to class struggle unionism. They narrowly see the way forward for the labor movement as simply increasing the market density of organized workers in a given sector.

What the labor movement needs to do, and which the New Unity Partnership cannot offer, is to develop fighting unions - unions that break beyond the bonds of the current ways of doing things and engage in serious fights against the bosses. More organized workers are a good thing, but in and of itself more organization will not produce class struggle unionism.

In the 1980s unions like UFCW Local P9 at Hormel in Austin, Minnesota engaged in a fierce class-on-class fight against concessions. In the process they battled their international union and the company, but got supports from grassroots labor activists across the country. In the 1990s the Staley workers in Decatur, Illinois and the Detroit Newspapers strikers engaged in bitter strikes against their employers. In each of these cases, fights led by workers who came out of the plants were, to varying degrees, sold out by union officers thousands of miles away in Washington D.C.

Any plan for the renewal of the labor movement which is based on consolidating power and decision-making in the folks least likely to fight - the highly paid, comfortable labor bureaucrats in Washington D.C. - is bound to fail.