On Thursday, the Change to Win unions released twenty resolutions they're submitting for votes at the AFL-CIO's convention at the end of this month. Echoing the dissidents' May platform, these amendments would commit the Federation to rebate dues to unions prioritizing new organizing, empower it to demand accountability from unions which aren't and facilitate strategic mergers, and strengthen the power of the most populous unions with the AFL-CIO's decision-making structure. They would commit the federation to aggressively promote internal diversity, international solidarity, and responsible budgeting. They would commit the federation to foster cooperation and the maintenance of bargaining standards within industries and solidarity across the movement in fighting for retirement security, universal healthcare, and global justice. And in defiance of the threats Sweeney's issued should the dissidents split off, one of their resolutions would open central labor councils to the participation of non-AFL-CIO unions. Given that Sweeney has the votes locked down for re-election (though a few are speculating he could still be pressured into bowing out), the debate and voting over these resolutions is likely to be the greatest flashpoint for controversy at the federation's most contentious convention in a decade. And what happens to these resolutions will be crucial to determining whether the dissidents continue to pursue their agenda for change through the federation or whether they make a break. As the Change to Win unions consider their next move, they've been joined last week by the Carpenters, who formally affiliated with Change to Win four years after themselves splitting off from the AFL-CIO over similar concerns. The Change to Win dissidents have played a key role in keeping the pressure on to stop Sweeney from forcing the Carpenters out of participation in the federation's Building and Construction Trades Department, and the Carpenters were players in the New Unity Partnership as well. Their affiliation is no surprise, but it does help to further swell the new coalition and puts front and center the model of a union which has experienced success since breaking away from the AFL-CIO. The real coup for the dissidents would be pulling in the National Education Association (NEA). All of this friction, though certainly tense, has the potential to transform a movement and a set of organizations sorely in need of it, and turn around the decline in American union membership which has steadily pulled the efficacy of the broader left down with it. But don't take it from me - take it from the prestigious anti-union law firm Morgan Lewis:
If the Coalition’s members follow through on their threats to disaffiliate from the Federation later this year, employers can expect an increased interest in union organizing. This could be especially true for the nation’s largest non-union employers. For employers with existing unionized workforces, this means increased pressure to execute some form of neutrality and card-check recognition agreement. For employers with unions from both competing factions at their facilities, competition for better wages, benefits and other terms and conditions of employment is likely...the raiding between AFL and CIO constituent unions that occurred prior to 1955 will now play out between Coalition's members and those remaining loyal to the Federation. The last several years have seen a significant increase in the amount of collaboration between U.S.-based unions and their international counterparts. That collaboration could increase significantly. Finally, more union mergers should be forthcoming.


Blogger David said...

After nearly two years of being “out” of the organized Labor movement and never having achieved more than “local” ranking within it, it might not seem that I am particularly well suited to comment on the deplorable state of Labor in America, recently brought into such sharp focus by the threatened break up of the AFL-CIO. I am certainly no Sweeny, Stern, or Hofia. My perspective is only that of one of countless freeborn warriors who have carried the Union standard in equally countless front line battles “in plant” and at the local union level.

Quite frankly, I find the debate over whether Unions should spend more on political action or on more aggressive organizing completely irrelevant even as America Labor finds itself up to its neck in an economic quicksand that threatens to extinguish it completely. Effective organizing is very difficult under current legal conditions no matter how much money you have at your disposal. The law, and its lopsided enforcement, is simply stacked against us. But changing these legal conditions means we must have the numbers that only very aggressive organizing can hope to provide. Thus it is a chicken vs. egg argument, with endless possibilities for point and counter-point, but utterly useless in sustaining Labor in the international economy that has emerged. Moreover, this argument does not at all take into account what I regard as the greatest cause of Labor’s decline, the great compromise of the 1930s that gave Labor legal recognition, but forbid it from seeing to it that Union companies were effectively managed to last for generations, not mere decades. Once Taftt-Hartley came along in 1947, the writing was on the wall, over the long haul, the economic elite could simply let union shops die off by not reinvesting in them. This strategy has been brutally effective, and for many years now, in spite of all our organizing efforts, a state of affairs has existed in which we cannot even hope to keep up with our losses due to plant-closings, downsizing, outsourcing and general attrition.

In late 2003, I lost reelection to the position of president and business manager of a 1300 member, 18 bargaining unit, local union. My own plant had closed in 2002, one of three lost by the Local in this “2001” recession that seems to have no end. Thus I had no place to go and was thrown back into the merciless labor market that offers workers so few real opportunities these days, particularly for a former union activist who has a well earned repulation for being “troublesome”. I was forced into a reevaluation mode, reconsidering all the things I had believe in, and given so much of myself fighting for.

I had seen so much. I had anguished over how to even effectively enforce contracts and provide effective membership service given the severe financial constraints that had plagued my local, like so many other unions, for many years. I had watched companies buy plants to gain access to markets and then simply close the associated manufacturing centers. As Business Agent I was legally helpless when one such company found a binding loophole in the retiree health care plan, negotiated years prior with the former owner, which allowed them to simply terminate the already pathetic retiree health reimbursements had that these workers had managed to secure through collective bargaining. To this company, it was just good business, the human cost was meaningless. But to several retirees, with existing medical conditions, trying to live on $900 a month pension and pay for medicine it was a terrible and sinister act of a greedy corporation with no appreciation for human life or loyal service.

I have listened to honor-less senior executives from a company give a “20 year commitment” to moving a plant to a Total Quality system of management, in order to gain no more than a short term stock boost on Wall Street before they quietly abandoned the “program” a mere two years later, giving every worker and local labor leader who had applied themselves to making these “teams” work, a resounding slap in the face. I have watched, again helpless, as a giant international company ‘bought” my former employer shortly after the 2000 strike, keeping the same upper managerial team, and then preceded to close the first four plants out on strike within the next two years, including their flagship plant. It is perhaps noteworthy that all were in “right to work” states and that one of the primary issues of the strike was the company’s union busting activities, particularly in the South. Such retaliations are not suppose to happen under the protections of Federal Law to unions who find it necessary to engage in economic combat with companies, but we all know they do very frequently. It is only one of many of the transgressions against the Spirit (and often the Letter) of the law in which the corporations regularly engage. In a global economy with international corporations whose annual budgets dwarf the GNPs of small nations, it easy to thumb your nose at the Labor Relations Act, particularly now that the Republican foxes are watching the hen house.

I still do not believe that Labor has completely lost the hearts of the People despite the many examples of membership apathy that may be cited by virtually any union leader. Much of this is only the pace and segmentation of modern life. In their core beliefs most workers yet believe in the principles we have so long championed. It is only that they are more realistic than the average, hard-headed, idealist that union leaders tend to be. They know that Labor is losing this fight and it saddens them deeply, but much like us, they simply don’t know what can be done about it. In the face of this reality it is hard for them to put too much faith in us.

Clearly if Labor is to reemerge as guiding force in post-industrial economic development, then new strategies and tactics will be required. The first, and perhaps the most painful, step is realizing that we cannot possibly prevail by restricting our activities to organizing, collective bargaining, contract enforcement and political action. To act solely within the confines of the Labor Relations Act is to quietly concede to the fact that this corporate friendly body of law will eventually lead to the extinction of all unions save possibly a few skill trade unions.

My deliberations on these questions, have lead me back to historic assumptions made in the day of Samuel Gompers and Eugene Debbs. The underlying cause of contemporary Labor’s current problems rests here. In the great compromise that gave unions legal recognition and companies the right to manage (or mismanage) their business in order to prevent Debb’s “Marxist” ideology from sweeping through America’s factories. At the time, at the height of the “Red” scare, it must have seemed like a reasonable concession. Only now, 70 years later, do we fully understand the cost of that compromise. It has meant that Unionized companies were free not to reinvest in updated equipment and training. It has meant that investment dollars could be put elsewhere, often in foreign or economically depressed domestic areas, where lower wages could be paid and the expectations of workers for a company were much lower. It has meant that American companies have been able to preserve their multi-layered chiefdom structures, with three times the number of managers as their Asian and European counterparts, all at tremendous economic cost. It has meant that although many companies have toyed with TQM, Six Sigma, Quality Circles and related concepts, very few if any have been able to get beyond their “control issues” to actually let these vastly improved workplace management systems flower. In short, it has meant thousands and thousands of WARN Act notices and literally millions and millions of lost union jobs.

I no longer believe that it is enough for us to win in the hearing room, at the bargaining table or even on the picket line. If we are to again make the corporations have healthy respect for us, we must move beyond the traditional scope of organized labor. We must, probably through parallel economic organizations necessary under existing law, resolve to organize ourselves into small to medium sized, employee-owned and operated businesses that are efficient enough to threaten the corporations where they are most vulnerable, in the marketplace. Only in this arena can we have significant enough control over the long-term job security of our People to allow them to once again believe Unions offer them a better future. We must show the world, and particularly the large numbers of small investors in now in mutual funds and the like, that American Labor can organize itself into companies that can meet the challenges of this new global economy. Moreover, we can do it without the massive waste, the office politics and the generally oppressive work environment, inherent to the contemporary large corporation.

Even in Labor’s traditional activities, we must find a way to correct the mistake than Samuel Gompers made all those years ago, in spite of the legal complexities that this tragic compromise will put before us as obstacles. Without the right to demand, with all our bargaining muscle, that union companies be reinvested in, upgraded, and effectively managed in light of current and future economic conditions and trends, we have no hope of treating the hemorrhage of lost jobs that has so depleted our membership rolls for decades. Even when new facilities are organized, the corporations simply apply the same general strategy, and within a decade or two, they too are gone.

Once Labor begins to do these things, to take on the awesome responsibility of actually managing the economic endeavors on which membership both contributes to and depends upon, then the average worker will again know that we can help them organize themselves to solve their own survival and quality of life problems. It is a radical thought to be sure, but I am convinced that there is a better way of organizing our companies to compete for generations, or even centuries, in the global economy. Such an approach will be based on devoted, talented and hardworking people working to solve their own industrial and human problems in companies equally devoted to them and the needs of their families. The tremendous economic savings that can come with the elimination of all the managerial dead weight and the corporate interference in production, easily makes such “team” managed companies highly viable economically, particularly if combined with very effective, do-it-yourself, “benefit” programs that meet all basic human needs while allowing the payment of low, but almost exclusively “disposable,” wages comparable with global pay scales. By such means, western nations like America can compete in the emerging global economy without subjecting fully half their populations to the appalling conditions of poverty that will prevail if the corporations have their way.

Thus, my musings have led me to a divergent path from the mainstream Labor movement. I will likely spend the rest of my life trying to build the ecologically-minded, diversified services, company I have described in A BETTER WAY: The Cultural Adaptations of A Modern, Rural Tribe (©2004). I know well that I am a man of only modest means, and as such, my chances of success are not at all great. Still, this too, is a yet another battle that must be fought in this long-term struggle to free our People from the evils of industrial economies. Therefore, I must do my best, if for no other reason than to find internal peace with my Maker.

It is certainly not that my heart is not yet with the Labor Movement. It is only that I would prefer to take one long shot at achieving something that may one day give our People hope for freedom from the dominance of the corporations, rather than fighting countless delaying battles to stave off for a little longer the inevitability of Labor’s eventual defeat at the hands of the corporate elite and their political allies.

Of course, I will always be allied to the Labor movement, at least for as long as it exists, and even afterwards, to the worker that will remain. My vote, my voice, my pen, indeed, if necessary, even my sword and life, will always be devoted to the same general cause of elevating the quality of life of the worker. It is my sincere hope that I am wrong about organized Labor’s future. Perhaps Labor will be able to transform itself into an effective social, political and ideological, force again. But I am certain that doing so must involve radical changes in Unions and Union leaders, themselves, in order to restore the workers’ Faith and to re-inspire, and re-harness, their boundless Spirit and Imagination.

7/27/2005 02:45:00 PM  

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