USA - A split from the AFL-CIO which has nothing to do with workers' interests

Nov/Dec 2005

Over the past period, Britain's union leaders have been trying to make up for the fall in membership and dues income by establishing increasingly large unions, through multi-way mergers.

The same "strategic turn" has been advocated for years, for the same reasons, by union leaders in the US. However, at the same time, some of these leaders used this drive to "renovate" US trade-unionism, as a springboard against the leadership of the confederation of US trade unions, the AFL-CIO. This resulted in a split this September, with the setting up of a rival union federation called "Change To Win".

In an article published in their journal (Class Stuggle - #49 - Nov-Dec 2005), the US Trotskyist group "The Spark" gave an assessment of this split. We reproduce below an edited version of this article.

"Today, we are here to rekindle the American dream, to once again have workers valued and rewarded in our country. The answer is one simple word... Union. That's right. Union. Unions are the antidote to everything that ails us.... Strategic, smart organising is our core principle - our North Star." With these words, Anna Burger, an SEIU vice-president, laid out the whole day's discussion at the founding convention of the Change to Win trade-union federation (CtW).

Meeting in St. Louis, on 27th September, officials from seven unions formally established the new trade-union federation, with a total membership of somewhere between 5 and 6m. Burger was designated as the federation's first chair, a position to be rotated among the unions involved. These unions were:

- the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT): a general trade union, originating historically from organising truck drivers, which claims 1.4m members.

- the Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA): based on construction, postal services and some sections of public services, which claims 800,000 members

- UNITE-HERE: the 400,000-strong merger between the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and the Hotel and Restaurant Employees International Union

- the Service Employees International Union (SEIU): the largest union in health, long-term care and property services (cleaning, security guards, etc..) and 2nd largest in public services. It claims 1.8m members.

- the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW): it claims 1.4m members organised in the food industry, retail, public services, health care.

- the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (UBC): it claims 520,000 members in skilled construction trades.

- the United Farm Workers (UFW): a mostly Californian-based union led by Cesar Chavez from the 1960s till his death in 1993.

At the time of this meeting, five of the seven unions had already disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO, while the Labourers and Farmworkers unions tried to straddle the fence, formally not leaving the old federation, but showing up as founding members of CtW.

The CtW meeting acted on a constitution and several pro-forma resolutions: about the Katrina disaster, offering, as Bush did, to set up "training centers" for workers left without a job and lots of words about the need for "diversity" in the leadership of the unions. But there was nothing, not even a peep, about the war in Iraq, nor about the attack on science in the schools, or the other political problems of the day which are facing the working class. Other than that, the unions devoted the whole time to speeches about the need to organise, interspersed with short examples of successful organising campaigns.

Almost every speaker bemoaned the deteriorating situation facing workers today. And everyone agreed that the major contributing factor is - in the words of another SEIU vice-president - "a trade-union movement dangerously close to being too small to matter."

Yes, the trade-union movement finds itself in a serious bind today, having lost members for a quarter of a century. Compared to 1954, when the proportion of organised workers peaked at 34.7%, this figure is now down to 12.5% and as little as 7.9% in the private sector. As to the number of union members, it reached a highpoint of 21m in 1979, and is now down to only 15.5m, of which 13m were in the AFL-CIO before the split.

In fact, the AFL-CIO's current leadership - John Sweeney, Richard Trumka and Linda Chavez-Thompson - when elected in 1995, made almost the same critique of the federation's operation and almost the same proposals as CtW does today. Sweeney & Co set a target to organise 1m workers a year for the next 20 years - the amount required to get the level of unionisation back to what it was in the 1950s. They restructured the organising department and announced they would spend 30% of the federation's budget on organising during the first two years and 20% a year thereafter. And they encouraged affiliated unions to do the same. On average, unions had been spending only 3% of their budgets on organising. Of course, with the AFL-CIO unions doing each their own thing, some increased organising, but some didn't.

The AFL-CIO unions' membership did not go down over the 9 years since the Sweeney leadership began to push organising - but it did not increase either and union density went on declining.

Much like Sweeney's old proposals

In fact, CtW's "new" proposals actually come out of a report publicly issued by the SEIU in 2003 under the title, "An immodest proposal: remodelling the House of Labour."

Referring to the 1995 changes in the AFL-CIO, the "immodest proposal" concluded: "Organising won the debate - everybody agrees unions need to organise. The only problem is that unions aren't organising.... Much of the trade-union movement believes that the continued failure to organise and grow is due to unions not trying hard enough." With this it disagreed, saying, "the majority of unions are too weak to organise and win."

Perhaps the unions are weak, but the proposals made ignore the underlying political problem behind the decline of the unions, which is the willingness of the trade-union bureaucracy to put the interests of the bosses before the interests of the workers. There was no discussion about this problem, only technical recipes.

The SIEU report's main proposal is this: "Labor needs to evolve from 66 amalgamated international unions with multiple overlapping jurisdictions into a small number of large sectoral unions with the resources, focus, capacity and self-interest to grow and win for workers in their sectors." To this end, it proposed that small unions be merged into bigger ones - specifying 10 to 15 as the optimal number of resulting unions, approximating the different broad "sectors" of the economy. It argued that 1 or 2 major unions should be given the sole responsibility to lead organising campaigns as well as to bargain for contracts in each sector. It also proposed that individual unions should move to merge their own local bodies into much larger ones in order to conserve resources for organising.

Finally, this report advocated that organised labour should make a "strategic" choice of where to put its resources. "In the short term, the diversity and sheer size of the US economy allows unions to target segments where competition is primarily driven by domestic and local labour markets" - i.e., service industries, state and education employment, transport and construction. As for manufacturing, where "international competition... drives down wages and shifts production abroad," it implicitly suggested to wait for the rest of the world to organise. "In the long run, this can only be addressed by increasing density and strengthening the trade-union movement internationally." This was giving up any attempt to defend workers in big companies supposedly "hit" by foreign competition, thereby substantiating the idea that it would not be responsible for unions to cut the profits of US bosses so long as bosses in other countries are not forced to do the same thing.

Starting from the summer of 2003, this report's proposals were put forward as a kind of program by the presidents of SEIU, HERE and UNITE (which later merged), as well as the Labourers' and Carpenters' unions, which had already quit the AFL-CIO in 2001. Calling themselves the New Unity Partnership, they resorted to buzzwords coming out of corporate focus groups: organised labour must "restructure" to face new realities, and individual unions need to "increase their market share" or "density." In place of that good old union word, "solidarity," they talked about "value-added integration." Eventually, this grouping was joined by the presidents of the UFCW and finally of the Teamsters.

While they circulated their proposals among the top union bureaucrats, these proposals were never put to the ranks of the unions, not even in the unions whose leaders had made them. And no discussion was organised around the issues.

Finally, in February 2005, the "partnership" presented their 10 concrete proposals to "restructure" the AFL-CIO to an Executive Council meeting, looking toward the upcoming July convention. To these, they added a demand that each union which spent at least 10% of its budget - with a $2m minimum - on recruitment, would have its per-capita dues payments to the AFL-CIO cut by half.

The Sweeney leadership effectively agreed with almost all the restructuring proposals - which it was already pushing for anyway. But it was obviously not going to agree to a 50% reduction of payments to the federation. As for the 40 smallest unions, which account for only 20% of the federation's membership, most would have been hard-pressed to reach the $2m minimum and they saw the proposal as an attempt to force them out of business.

It is hard to say whether the dues proposal was first advanced as a bargaining chip in an attempt to unseat John Sweeney. In any case, on the day before the convention, 4 unions announced they would boycott it. And on opening day, the SEIU's and Teamsters' presidents announced they were disaffiliating their unions from the AFL-CIO. The UFCW and UNITE-HERE waited until the convention was over to make a similar announcement. Thus, on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1955 merger between the AFL and the CIO, the federation split in two.

What were the issues that divided them? Who knew? Who could figure it out when the Sweeney leadership and the CtW coalition seemed to have no differences, except on the dues rebate issue. No wonder this supposedly momentous action went by practically unnoticed among the union rank-and-file. Besides, in typically bureaucratic fashion, the CtW officials didn't bother to organise a discussion about the supposed issues nor about their secession plans - not even within the CtW unions themselves, and not even among most of the local activists who do the day-to-day work of these unions. The decision to leave, just like the various restructuring proposals, was made bureaucratically, and barely, if at all, communicated to the ranks afterwards.

If mergers could only lead to organising...

In fact, merging unions is an old AFL-CIO strategy. Sweeney himself has presided over 31 mergers between national unions since he took office in 1996. Going back further, the 135 member unions which formed the AFL-CIO in 1955, have subsequently merged into only 57, including those in CtW.

These mergers did not lead to more organising nor boost union density. Neither did they lead to industry-wide bargaining. The only industries where bargaining was done in a somewhat unified fashion were those like auto, steel, and rubber, which had been organised by the mass upsurge of the 1930s. In reality, mergers were little more than a bureaucratic way for the unions to face the problem of falling dues income caused by their continuing membership decline.

But the CtW coalition says it wants mergers not only to economise on overheads, but also to "rationalise" the membership, so that unions can focus their energies and resources on one or two main sectors of the economy.

The irony of this proposal is that most of the CtW unions are the very ones which cover the most diverse segments of the working class. The Teamsters is the model of a union that tries to organise in any sector it can, today representing workers in airlines, laundries, beverages, building materials, construction, dairies, railroads, public services, warehouses, car hauliers, freight, graphic arts, food processing, bakeries, motion pictures, newspapers, package express, port workers - as just a small sample. And Hoffa made a point to say they do not intend to give up any of their many branches.

The SEIU started out essentially as a union of janitors and other service workers in office buildings. From 1974 to 1984, it took in 22 different unions. Over the next decade alone, it absorbed 57 local and state employee associations and it merged with unions representing guards, jewellery workers, hospital workers, federal government employees; police officers; clericals in universities and colleges, railroad firemen and oilers; production workers in the leather, plastics and novelty industries.

The UFCW, has doubled in size over the last 30 years, but that increase is more than accounted for by mergers. Starting as a union of grocery store clerks, the UFCW merged with unions representing meat cutters, barbers, packinghouse workers, truck drivers and warehouse workers, retail and wholesale store workers, as well as insurance agents, clericals in insurance companies, garment workers, textile workers, chemical workers, distillery workers, among others.

As for HERE and UNITE - whose merger took place during the period when the CtW unions were pushing the AFL-CIO to restructure according to sector - where is the "sectoral" fit between service workers in hotels and restaurants and production workers in garment and textile? But their merger did, almost, make up for the enormous membership losses suffered, particularly by UNITE.

If mergers could lead to organising, these unions should by now have shown some big results. However, with the exception of the SEIU, the main result of all these mergers was only to allow them to maintain, or almost maintain, their membership figures. But then their aim was never to reinforce workers - they don't give a damn about that. They only wanted to solve the unions' financial problems due to declining membership and, therefore, income. At this, they succeeded - but workers gained no advantage from it. In other words, the CtW unions were no different from the rest of the AFL-CIO.

Of course, divisions inside the working class go against the workers' interests. But what's even worse are union policies that call on workers to defend the interests of their own bosses - which can only cause divisions in workers' ranks. In any case, the formal unification of groups of workers does nothing to help them defend their own interests and can even be used against them.

What's in it for workers?

The CtW coalition has proposed that unions should trade members in order to align them according to their "sector." In fact, of all the proposals, this is the one that most smacks of the bureaucratic view that workers are nothing but pawns to be moved around at will by clever and, perhaps, benevolent union leaders. If, in the end, these unions did little regarding this question - other than make a kind of demonstrative three-way switch of several hundred workers between the SEIU, UNITE-HERE and the UFCW - it was not out of deference to the membership. The leaders of these unions, just like in all the AFL-CIO unions, were determined to protect their fiefdoms. In August, a writer for The Nation pointed out that the Teamsters are organised in "every industry" and asked Hoffa whether he was willing to change that. "Absolutely not," answered Hoffa, adding, "We would not give up members."

The one place where lots of "member trading" has gone on has been inside the unions themselves, particularly inside the Carpenters and the SEIU. The Carpenters have, in effect, done away with locals, merging them into much broader regional councils, whose officers were chosen not by the membership, but appointed by the Carpenters' leadership.

The SEIU, by contrast, has split up locals and merged them, to form units which are both larger geographically and more focused in one sector. Arguing that such vast, far-flung locals make it easier to keep up "industry standards" in wages, benefits, etc., the SEIU in California first separated health care workers from the janitors with whom they had been organised in a Los Angeles local; then it merged them with health care workers from northern California, making up, finally, the Health Care West local, covering 160,000 workers in over 300 different workplaces. While the officials of these vast new locals are still formally elected by workers - who have no contact with them at all - the people who run the smaller, truly local units, are no longer elected, but appointed staff reps. In most cases, they are people who not only never worked in that workplace, but generally, not even in a hospital. Then there's Local 1, that used to be only Chicago janitors. It now covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Missouri.

According to reports filed with the government covering 2004, there were 28 SEIU locals, whose total membership was more than one million, that is over half the membership. These giant locals did not come into existence under pressure from the membership, nor did they negotiate contracts "maintaining industry standards" once they were built. Far from it. Separate contracts are negotiated and, while the SEIU may claim it is "maintaining" standards by bringing them all under one local, in fact it negotiates widely varying wage rates. For example, in a far-flung California local in 2002, some janitors made barely over the minium wage while others were making $9.10 - hardly "a living wage" either! Furthermore, the better paid janitors had some kind of pension and health coverage while the others had none. The SEIU justifies this differential by claiming that building owners outside downtown Los Angeles "cannot afford" to pay the "better" rates. "Maintaining standards"? If so, it's only the lowest standards, the ones that allow the bosses to make the level of profit they want!

Furthermore, these mergers were imposed on the locals, in many cases by the national office taking over the locals and putting them into receiverships. So, for instance, over 8 years, the SEIU imposed receiverships on 40 of its locals.

"Efficiencies" might come out of these mergers - but even that is doubtful, since what has been built is a heavily bureaucratic structure. And most of this consolidation was done without the agreement of the local memberships, or even against their wishes. More to the point, such a dispersed local is much more easily controlled by the top of the union, with members having much less knowledge of what goes on and much less say, including whether a strike is called or ended. In short, such "locals" sideline union members from the daily life of the union.

A case in point was the 2002 Boston janitors strike, which supposedly involved 12,000 workers, but was ended by a vote of less than 800 members. When SEIU organiser Jill Hurst was asked by Labour Notes why most janitors did not take part in the strike, she said that the union leadership did not ask them to! In fact, this was one of the locals that had been put into receivership.

Whatever these locals are, they certainly aren't a training ground for the ranks of the unions, nor for those who might aspire to be union activists. In fact, more and more, these unions are run by paid staff, hired from outside the unions, often from student or other petty-bourgeois milieus, people who have little sense of the daily life of the working class, and could not care less about the real solidarity that workers are capable of.

How to organise a new "sector" - SEIU style

The SEIU has been promoted as a showpiece for CtW, because it has been able to organise enough new members to increase its size, without counting what it got from mergers - although by how much is not clear.

SEIU has signed contracts with a variety of industries or governmental units in recent years, covering large numbers of workers. For example, over the past nine years, it has bragged about organising 20,000 home health care workers in Illinois, and another 120,000 in California; as well as tens of thousands of home childcare workers in California. These cases involved agreements between the SEIU and a "friendly" politician. The union worked out an agreement with some governors. In return for carrying out very big election campaigns on their behalf, the union got access to these workers - who could then be signed up - and negotiated in advance the terms of work and payment for workers who weren't yet signed up into the union - and, in most cases, did not even know it existed. Newly-unionised workers had no real say in the matter, partly due to the atomised nature of their work (working in individuals' homes or in their own homes, they had no work life with other workers, no union life). But, in many cases, after the formality of a vote, they were put under a dues check-off system.

There's nothing new about unions giving electoral support in the hope of getting favourable treatment, although they have often failed to get what they wanted. What is different here is that the union gave the governors much more than that. In effect, it acted as a kind of trade-union contractor. Union activists of an earlier age might have called them "company unions"!

The deal that the SEIU made with the association of nursing homes in California, after similar deals in Florida and Texas, was even more revealing. The SEIU got free access to all nursing homes in the association. In return, it agreed to try to lobby legislators to pass legislation that would have exempted nursing homes from liability for patients who had been abused or negligently treated. An SEIU representative even justified this by insisting cynically that if the nursing homes did not have to pay out so much money in legal damages, they would hire more workers and pay them more, and therefore the level of care would go up.

The SEIU was not the only union to make such deals. HERE made a similar deal with the big hotel and casino companies in Las Vegas. The union agreed to lower wages and benefits in the hotels that had already been organised, in exchange for being given access to workers in the unorganised hotels.

What are these unions doing? At best, they are acting as middlemen - offering to take the workers on as their clients in the way a law firm would do, while regulating terms of employment, etc. for the bosses. In reality, they are selling out the workers for the sake of their own interests as union apparatuses.

In fact, they take the long-standing class collaborationism of the existing unions to new heights. The UAW, for example, agreed to terms of wages and work which were worse than the standard DaimlerChrysler contract, for a plant in Dundee (Michigan), which had not even been built yet and whose workforce was still to be hired. In return, the company agreed to give the UAW "access" to the future workforce - another way for the company to say what legally they could not say, i.e. that it agreed de facto in advance to recognise the union. There were days when the big 3 car companies granted union recognition and the extension of the existing contract into new plants as a recognition of the strength of the union and of the working class. Today, the union apparatuses have to pay for this kind of "gift" by betraying workers' interests.

Union as "good partners" for the bosses

In fact, there is no real difference between the AFL-CIO and CtW in the policies they advocate, nor in the organising drives they carry out. Stern, the SEIU president and his co-leaders only justify the deals they make in more blatant terms.

In an interview on CNBC-TV shortly after the split, Stern said: "we need to build a new, dynamic, modern, flexible, innovative, trade-union movement that can be good partners with our employer." Explaining what this means concretely, he went on to say that in order to have a cooperative arrangement between management, trade-union and the government, the unions need to "be able to speak with a single voice, not just for employers in a company, but in an industry.... So we need to change our focus, consolidate our strength, have unions that are big enough and strong enough to be good partners with the industry, not individual employers."

In other words, the point of all this consolidation is not to organise workers to fight their bosses, it is to have enough strength to be invited to the bosses' table. Undoubtedly, the bosses are more willing to sit down with those union "entrepreneurs" who have already tamed the workers within the straitjacket of these "new," "dynamic," and "modern" structures.

The SEIU is certainly proposing nothing new when it offers to be a partner with the bosses or help them improve their competitive position. The UAW went down the same road in 1979 and 1980, when it argued for car workers agree to concessions in existing contracts in order to "save" some of the biggest US companies. It is also the same argument that has just been used by all the unions in the airline industry, by the steel union - as one steel company after another used the bankruptcy courts to dump pensions and medical benefits, only to come zooming back as very profitable companies - and by government workers' unions around the country, even as local and national governments hand over still more tax breaks to every company that comes knocking on their doors. And it is the same argument being made right now by the UAW facing new demands from GM. All of them know only one tune with one note: "We have to help out our struggling company - or city."

But Stern has raised that note to a new pitch. In that CNBC-TV interview, he laid it all out: "Our trade-union movement was built around an industrial economy back in the 1930s. It was sort of a class struggle kind of unionism, but workers in today's economy are not looking for unions to cause problems; they're looking for them to solve them, and this means just like Ireland where business and trade-union and government all began to work together, we need team America to really work together if we're going to reward American workers' work, and to make sure that they still can live the American dream."

What American dream? It has long ago turned into a nightmare for large sections of the working class and other poor layers of the population - precisely because this class struggle that Stern says is outmoded has been raging full-speed ahead, but it has only been waged by the bosses against workers.

Stern and company don't even pretend they are leading the struggles of the workers. They say openly that this is a thing of the past. They proudly defend close collaboration with the bosses. And they do so in the language of the bosses, going so far as to ape their stupid business school jargon and pseudo-New Age rhetoric.

Workers have no reason to put their hopes in this new federation, any more than in the old one. The CtW's approach has nothing to do with defending the interests of the working class. They are as bureaucratic as the AFL-CIO union leaders, they want to please the bosses just as much, perhaps even more. They are just as eager to control the workers. And, as far as unity is concerned, they may argue for it, but they walked out of the old house of labour, slamming the door on those left behind, for no reason other than the interests of their own apparatuses.

Building on the capacity of the working class to fight

The capitalist press was quick to compare this split from the AFL-CIO with the split of the early CIO from the AFL in the 1930s.

The comparison couldn't be more mistaken. The 1930s was marked by vast a mobilisation of the working class, which pushed parts of the union bureaucracy to take some action in order not to be made completely irrelevant. One of the founders of the CIO, Typographical Union president Charles Howard, reminded the AFL Executive Council that workers were organising and if the AFL didn't open its doors to them, they would organise under "some other leadership" - which was exactly what workers were doing, under the leadership of communists and socialists.

In the distant 1930s that Stern derides, most workers were not in unions at all - just like today, in fact, worse than today, because the mass production industries were practically not organised at all. Nonetheless, workers managed to carry out a vast wave of strikes, building unions in company after company, industry after industry. Their aim was not to build small little local unions, but neither was it to build unions by "sector". They were organising the CIO - which became a watchword in much the same way that the IWW had been a watchword for earlier generations of workers - meaning one big organisation for the whole working class, built by the struggles of workers in their own local organisations. And it was these local organisations, through which the militants of that generation passed, which shaped and educated them, producing some of the most devoted leaders and best fighters of their class.

The bureaucrats of the existing unions, led by John L. Lewis, fought to reduce these struggles into sectors or even smaller divisions. The merger of the CIO with the AFL in 1955 was the event marking their achievement of this aim, aided by the witch hunt against communists and other militants who had led these earlier struggles.

A real unification of the working class in this country will require a new wave of struggles - against the very corporations and government entities with whom Stern wishes to set up even closer ties, and against or despite the bureaucrats like Stern who would tie the workers to their bosses.

For the working class to have the organisations it really needs, there need to be working class militants who understand that there is a class struggle going on and that the working class has to fight, not just be victimised by it. This means people who, like many of the militants of the 1930s, understand that unions are not enough, that they are not the "antidote to everything that ails us" - to use Burger's words - and that the working class must raise questions like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and must oppose such wars for what they are, wars of imperialist conquest and not just simply "mishaps" caused by a lying president. This is one of the key questions of our time.

But the AFL-CIO could not bring itself to denounce the war in this fashion. And the CtW is too worried about presenting a "unified" face to say anything at all. It is significant that the people leading these federations and the unions in them will not clearly condemn these wars that are being fought to defend the interests of US companies - wars that cost the US population dearly.

It is vital for the working class to have its own policy to counterpose to that of the capitalist class, whether it be at plant level or in the sphere of general politics. It is impossible to consistently fight for the day-to-day demands of the working class without being prepared to challenge the capitalists over the way they rule society. It is necessary to reject the logic of this system, with its competition and drive for profit.

Sooner or later new working class organisations will emerge - whether they come out of the existing unions, out of workers fighting against these unions' leaderships or out of working class struggles which will make these unions irrelevant. These struggles will be led by people who put their trust in the ability of the working class to build its own organisations in order to wage its own struggles.