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Analysis

Debates Shake the Labor Movement:

End of the Sweeney Era
by Joe Iosbaker |
June 1, 2009
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Headshot of John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO
Above:
John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO
Andy Stern, president of SEIU and leader of opposition movement in AFL-CIO
Photo montage of 4 big strikes
Right:
Andy Stern, president of SEIU and leader of opposition movement within the AFL-CIO
Left:
Unions with the class struggle at the center. From upper left: Staley workers in Decatur, IL; 1937 Flint, MI sit-down strike; UMWA miners at Pittston, WV; Local P-9 in Austin, MN. Fight Back! photo illustration by Steff Yorek (Fight Back! News/Illustration by Steff Yorek)

Ten years ago, John Sweeney was elected president of the AFL-CIO. Supporters of his New Voices slate rallied to oust the stale leadership of his predecessor, Lane Kirkland. Under Kirkland, workers had seen 20 years of declining wages, benefits and working conditions. For 20 years, attacks by the capitalists had come down, and the defenses put up by the unions failed to turn them back. In fact, most unions hadn’t fought at all.

Of course, there were always workers willing to fight. Those workers were excited that a new period in labor was being ushered in by Sweeney’s rise to power. Sweeney promised to turn things around. He called for organizing millions of new workers into unions and getting workers to register and vote so that the politicians couldn’t ignore unions. He also called for building coalitions and taking action against abusive bosses. Where Kirkland wanted to build bridges with management, Sweeney said, “I’d rather block bridges than build bridges.”

Today, the Sweeney/New Voices period is coming to an end. Judged by the goals that were declared at the outset - to end the decline in wages, benefits and working conditions for U.S. workers and to turn around the decline in the membership and influence of unions here - Sweeneyism has failed. Less than 8% of private sector workers are in unions and only 12% of employed workers overall. While many new workers have joined unions, the union leaders have not been able to stop the de-unionization of manufacturing.

Reform Proposals Spark Debate

By now, everyone in the AFL-CIO agrees that there is a crisis, and that the unions must organize new members faster or die. A new debate has emerged in the federation in response to a proposal for drastic changes. The reform proposal comes from union leaders who believe the decline in labor can be stopped (despite the Republican Party’s domination in politics today), but only if unions change their structure and strategy, merging to create bigger unions in each part of the economy.

The defenders of the current set-up say the answer is more political efforts. They want to increase money spent on supporting Democrats running for office, in hopes of getting changes in labor law that would make it easier to get union recognition in organizing drives.

You could say that the old leadership emphasizes changing the external environment, while the challengers see changes to the internal workings of labor as a key to labor revival.

The two sides can’t be described as left vs. right. Each side has some correct ideas and some wrong ones.

The reformers see an entrenched group of union ‘fiefdoms’ that are resisting change. The defenders have criticized the upstarts as arrogant and undemocratic. The charge of being undemocratic comes from the old leadership saying that individual unions must have autonomy about where to organize and whether to merge or not. Also, lower level officials who are supporters of the current state of the Federation defend some of its structures, especially local labor councils, civil rights caucuses and departments, and the expanded executive board, which includes more union officials that are Black, Latino and women.

The reformers include some of the more liberal unions: SEIU, UNITE-HERE (garment and textile workers and hotel workers) and the Laborers, but they also include the pro-Bush Carpenters and the notoriously corrupt Teamsters.

The defenders include president Sweeney, AFSCME (American Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees), the USW (recent merger of Steelworkers and PACE, the Paper and Chemical workers) and the Machinists.

Sweeney’s main antagonist in the debate, Andy Stern, like Sweeney himself, comes out of SEIU, my own union. It makes sense that it would fall to Stern to challenge Sweeney, who preceded him as president of SEIU, as SEIU has been the most successful union in the country in the last decade. They have grown more and added more new union members than any other union in many years.

This debate is intense. SEIU has said it will leave the AFL-CIO if there isn’t reform along the lines proposed.

It is exciting that there is a debate going on. When a rank-and-file worker says, “The union leaders have failed us,” it is commonplace for serious union activists to dismiss it as cynicism. When frustrated unionists declare, “Union officials are in bed with management,” the standard response is, “What choice do they have but to make concessions?”

But when a president of a union of 1.8 million workers says, “[The AFL-CIO] has no enforceable standards to stop a union from conspiring with employers to keep another stronger union out - or from negotiating contracts with lower pay and standards than members of another union have spent a lifetime establishing,” this reinforces what militant unionists have argued. The fact is that most leaders of the international unions in the U.S. see themselves as partners with management. As the corporations and politicians have demanded concessions, most union leaders have gone along, ‘conspiring with employers.’

What’s Missing from the Debate: Class Struggle Unionism

There are big problems with President Stern’s “New Strength Unity” plan. A lot has been written about his arrogance and about union democracy having no role in the big plan. Also missing is a commitment to the national struggles of African Americans, Chicanos and other oppressed nationality peoples against racism and oppression. Another argument has been made in some places that organizing in the service industry isn’t the same as organizing in basic industry, because service industries don’t face production moving away or out of the country.

But mainly what’s missing from Stern’s proposal is class struggle.

In a Jan. 30 New York Times piece, “The New Boss,” Matt Bai wrote this about Stern:

“He came to embrace a philosophy that ran counter to the most basic assumptions of the besieged labor movement: the popular image of greedy corporations that want to treat their workers like slaves, Stern believed, was in most cases just wrong. ‘What was good for G.M. ended up being good for the country,’ Stern says.”

In various articles and speeches, Stern explains his belief that corporations should accept unions because unionization will aid them in their business plans.

This is wrong. It is wrong historically - taking the G.M. example, it took a fighting workers movement at General Motors to win basic advances for workers there. Even when G.M. was at its peak in the post-war era, when the ruling class was honoring a social pact with big labor, working in auto factories still shortened workers lives and made the bosses wealthy while the worker’s family earned a decent living - nothing more.

Stern is wrong strategically. He negates the old adage in the trade union movement that, “What management gives with a teaspoon, they take away with a shovel.” In fact, in the recent period, the working class has been on the defensive, engaging in sporadic and limited battles against a sharpened employer onslaught. The temporary acceptance of unions by some employers can’t be seen as anything more than a concession to certain strengths in specific markets.

Stern is wrong fundamentally. The future holds nothing but more struggle between workers and the ruling class. The way forward for the labor movement isn’t ‘market density.’ The way forward, as it has been in every historical advance for workers, is class-struggle unionism. Those unions which in the last decade or two have started down this road, however fleetingly, such as the Staley workers, the Detroit newspaper workers in the mid-1990s, the mineworkers at Pittston coal in the early 1990s, and Local P9 at Hormel in the 1980s, have shown us the path to a renewed labor movement. In these examples, the workers fought all-out, militant battles against the bosses. They rallied workers across the land to support them. Without these kinds of tactics, and even going further, like stopping production, there’s no hope of turning back the attacks on us.

Class struggle unionism means broadening the outlook and demands of the unions - a return to solidarity unionism. That means organizing and mobilizing the membership to fight management and support other struggles. Our demands and our slogans should reflect class demands. We should draw as sharply as possible the lines between the workers and the bosses in our work. Hormel, Pittston, and Staley - these are the models we need to emulate.

Transform the Unions

There are some who say that the debates in the AFL-CIO are not important. Some class struggle unionists [like Tom Laney, a militant from the United Auto Workers - see letter to editor] argue for unionists to leave the AFL-CIO unions or start new unions that are founded on class struggle, not class collaboration.

To them, I’d point out another ten-year anniversary this year. In February 1995, the Staley workers of Decatur, Illinois charged into the AFL-CIO executive meeting in Bal Harbor, Florida. They were there to ask why the hell the richest union federation in the world couldn’t help them defeat a corporation from Britain that was destroying their lives. Their protest got them on the front page of the New York Times. The Staley workers, members of the Paperworkers union, together with other striking workers from Decatur (Rubber Workers at Bridgestone and UAW workers from Caterpillar), exposed Kirkland, and helped to compel him from office. This helped open the way for Sweeney to come to power later that year.

A militant minority of rank-and-file workers learned a key lesson from the War Zone of Decatur. By getting the masses of workers involved in an all-out battle for their felt and urgent needs, we build a fighting workers’ movement that can transform the unions.

The Staley workers took advantage of the debates among labor leaders to advance their cause. We should do the same. The developments in labor create better conditions for building a fighting workers movement. New organizing is positive. Market density will, to a degree, help workers bargain and union leaders that want new members have to take a fighting pose at times.

And as mentioned above, the debates bring out the failures of the labor bureaucrats and get many more involved in debating which way forward. For sure, the current debate doesn’t go far enough, and doesn’t involve the masses of current union members, let alone the majority of workers not yet in a union. We should help spread the debate.

A Fighting Workers’ Movement

Workers and our allies who want to see the cause of the unions advance remember the old song, “Solidarity Forever.” At many labor rallies, this is dusted off. Many know the first verse, which raises the banner of power through a union. Like many old songs, far fewer people know the second verse:

Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite -
Who would lash us into slavery and would crush us with his might?
Is there anything left to us but to organize and fight -
For the union makes us strong.


We face a “greedy parasite” that proves every day he is willing to “crush us with his might.”

What the labor movement needs is to develop fighting unions - unions that break beyond the bounds of the current ways of doing things and engage in all-out fights against the bosses. Like the founders of the CIO in the 1930s, we need militant picket lines, sit-downs and class-on-class battles. Like the Staley workers ten years ago, we need to unite with the reformers in the labor leadership, while pushing forward rank-and-file struggle and organization toward our strategic goal of transforming the unions. To John Sweeney and Andy Stern, we say, “Yes, let’s organize, but organize to fight.”

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