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AFL-CIO Splits As The Crisis Deepens in Business Unionism

Disclaimer - The following article is reposted here because it is an issue with some relevance to the IWW.  The views of the author and the publisher do not necessarily agree with those of the IWW and vice versa.

It is ironic that on the same week that the AFL-CIO was breaking up and both wings of the split were arguing about the need to organize new workers, the Hearst owned San Francisco Chronicle, represented by both the CWA-Newspaper Guild Media Workers and IBT 853 Teamster drivers, had taken or were taking major concessions.

These union officials were telling their members they needed to give up union classifications, take cuts in vacations and wages and even agree to cross the picket lines of other unions, even unions at The Chronicle, if they were to

In the same week as well, James Hoffa Jr., president of the IBT at the Change To Win grouping was telling the press, "Striking workers, no matter what union they belong to, can always count on the Teamsters for support and assistance. We will never waiver as defenders of America¹s working families. Let me be clear, our coalition will not allow corporate America to pit one union against another to the detriment of our members or their families."

The present epidemic of "concession bargaining" from the airlines to the auto industry however, was not even an issue - either at the AFL-CIO convention or at the press conferences of "Change To Win". Instead, the focus was on organizing the unorganized. The split also took place during the same week that 15 labor-supported Democrats from around the country voted with Bush to pass the CAFTA agreement. Some of these same AFL-CIO leaders, like IAFF firefighters General President Harold Schaitberger, had only weeks before raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for these very politicians, only to be kicked in the face. Yet despite the brazen contempt for the trade unions on this issue of CAFTA, both the AFL-CIO and the Change To Win coalition refused to say they would not only not support these pro-CAFTA politicians but that they would run independent labor candidates against them. Finally, right in Chicago where this convention was taking place, a two-year strike continues at the Congress Hotel by the Unite-HERE union hotel workers. If anything shows the political inability of the labor movement to mobilize its members and shut down these union busters, the continuing Congress Hotel strike shows the reality. Despite having hundreds of thousands of union members in Chicago, the AFL-CIO, including both wings fighting for control, have been unable to break the back of this union buster in their own backyard.

Lack of Democracy?

It was also a strange twist in the break-up of the AFL-CIO, that both factions now charge that the other is "undemocratic". The "Change To Win" faction led by the SEIU, Teamsters, UFCW, UBC, Unite-HERE, UFWA, LIUNA and the AFL-CIO leadership now primarily led by AFSCME and the CWA both charge that the other did not want a democratic debate about what ails the US labor movement. These accusations are strange indeed coming from unions with the exception of the IBT that do not even allow their rank and file to elect their international presidents. No international union within the AFL-CIO has ever proposed or even suggested that the president and top officers of the AFL-CIO should themselves be directly elected by the rank and file of those international unions - yet they now complain about the lack of democracy.

In fact, at the last SEIU convention, President Andy Stern had personally prevented a resolution from SEIU Local 509 for the direct election of the president from even coming to the convention floor. John Wilhelm and other leaders of "Change to Win" declared that the debate was over in the AFL-CIO and that it would have been pointless to be on the floor of the convention. When asked if the rank and file of his and other unions were aware of the debate, he claimed that the Unite-HERE members had an extensive discussion about the issues and his membership supported the Unite-HERE leadership in leaving the AFL-CIO.

The corporate transformation of US unions is systemic. In nearly all US unions, business agents and other full time officials are appointed and the rank and file membership pays for a centralized operation in which rank and file power is limited and suppressed. Only ILWU Local 10 in San Francisco has a two year limit in office with yearly elections for its officers. This would be a revolution within both wings of the AFL-CIO and would help break up the bureaucratic monopoly that presently exists in most union locals and internationals.

The real face of the "democratic" AFL-CIO was exposed however in the efforts of long time 91-year-old labor journalist Harry Kelber ( to run for the AFL-CIO executive board. Under the constitution of the AFL-CIO, a rank and file member from the AFL-CIO can run for office but he must be nominated from a delegate at the floor. Harry was able to get some labor council officers to nominate him, but he received a letter from national CWA Secretary Treasurer Barbara Esterling that they did not have him as a registered member. Prepared as usual, Harry had a letter from his local stating that he was paid up through December 2005 and he had cancelled checks to show for it.

When this reporter at the press conference questioned Trumka, he said that the CWA had told him that Kelber was not eligible because the CWA did not have him as a member. They later relented and allowed Kelber to speak at the end of the convention for 3 minutes if he withdrew his nomination for the executive board. The whole point by Trumka Company was to prevent any real debate or even statements by the executive board candidates about where they stood - and Harry was the gumming up the works.

At a previous Executive Council meeting at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, Sweeney and Trumka had forced Kelber to move to another hotel and charged he was a "security risk". The fear by these "leaders" of Harry Kelber shows everything you need to know about what workers in this country are dealing with. It is also telling that when John Sweeney came to the presidency he rattled off threats that he would block the bridges of the cities if that's what it took to organize; yet in this divisive split in the AFL-CIO no such threats against capitalist America are even being issued. As labor leader and UBC millwright Mike Griffin has said, the only blockade that Sweeney would lead of a bridge would be if his limousine broke down on a bridge.

Behind the rhetoric, accusations and counter-accusations by the AFL-CIO and the "Change to Win" faction is the fact that neither grouping has been able to articulate a serious strategy or plan to deal with the near complete deregulation of the economy supported by the Democrats, the growing privatization drive and the increasing ability of international capital to outsource not only most industrial jobs but high tech and professional jobs like X-Ray techs, architects and the growing list of service industry jobs.

One of the glaring examples is the issue of national healthcare. Neither grouping has clearly called for single payer national healthcare that would eliminate the insurance companies and the control by the drug companies of the US healthcare system. Instead they propose piecemeal changes to a bankrupt medical system through pressure on the corporate-controlled Congress. Hundreds of thousands of workers are now having to forego wage increases in order to pay for continuing healthcare coverage yet no plan was presented or discussed to unite the entire working class for national healthcare.

Causes of the Split

One of the most immediate and significant causes of the split is the failure of the AFL-CIO's plan to place Democrats in the White House and Congress in the elections and then to get them to vote against CAFTA and other anti-labor policies. After spending more than $200 million on Kerry and the Democrats they have nothing to show for it. Andy Stern even hinted early on, that a defeat of Kerry and the Democrats in the 2004 elections might be a good thing for labor in shaking up the AFL-CIO bureaucracy. He had probably already decided that it was time to get out of the AFL-CIO and Kerry's loss would help push more unions towards his position. It was left to Jessie Jackson to tell the remaining delegates at the AFL-CIO convention that they cannot let the Democratic Leadership Council control the Democratic Party.

The failure of any union within either the AFL-CIO or the Change to Win grouping to raise the need for a democratic political party of labor again shows that underneath the veneer this is still business unionism and the pro-capitalist politics of Gomperism. The policies of deregulation, privatization and free trade have been implemented not only by Republicans but union supported Democrats. The SEIU has also argued that the failure to get more Democrats elected means that more money should go into organizing to build support for the unionization of Wal-Mart and other major non union operations.

Yet the SEIU has played no significant role in supporting any organizing drive outside of public workers. When workers in the San Francisco Bay Area picketed the non-union construction of a Wal-Mart in Oakland, no SEIU staff or stewards were on the line. If the SEIU, UNITE-HERE, UFCW mobilize their members nationally to organize together and use their power to target national union busters this will be a first. At the same time this was possible to do within the AFL-CIO - to blame the AFL-CIO for the failure to do so does not hold water.

The split of the AFL-CIO also now means that plans for "industrial type" organizing will only involve those unions within one or another faction and not any united plan. This sectarian approach makes a united organizing campaign of the entire working class increasingly unlikely. Even with open union busting now being the order of the day in the U.S.A., there was very little talk of taking on the union busters and government head on to stop it. At a conference of the Labor Action Coalition ( the Sunday before the convention, part of the discussion centered around the lessons of the 1934 general strike in Minneapolis and the general strike in San Francisco. One of the lessons of those struggles is that in order to be successful the working class had to shut down the cities in mass working class action that challenged not only corporate power but also the power of the state.

Not one union or representative from either grouping even hinted that this was the kind of action that was required in order to go on the offensive. While Stern talked about the importance of this historic split he refused to point out that the massive union organizing drives of the 1930¹s and the split between John L. Lewis and AFL president Green was not over simply whether there should be industrial organizing but whether this organizing would directly challenge capitalist rule for union recognition. When Stern was questioned at Monday¹s press conference about whether the AFL-CIO was prepared to move to the mass mobilizations that took place in the 1930's he was quick to quash any such notion. "It is a global and not a local economy, and we¹re not so unwise as to fail to recognize that this is not the 1930's anymore."

In Los Angeles after winning unionization of janitors through mass marches and mobilizations, Sweeney and his supporters crushed a rank and file opposition that wanted to continue the fight on the job. Their business union strategy meant that the fight against the bosses should not continue on the shop floor once the workers had won a contract. Sweeney put the local in trusteeship and helped destroy a rank and file opposition called the Multi-Racial Alliance that had been a leading force in organizing the local in the first place and had won all positions on the Executive Board.

PR Unionism

The idea of Stern and many who support him is that the way the organized labor movement will survive is through PR gimmicks. In a Jan 30, 2005 article by Matt Balin in the NY Times, the writer talks about the "feel" of the SEIU:

"In some respects, the S.E.I.U. now feels very much like a Fortune 500 Company. In the lobby of its headquarters, a flat-screen TV plays an endless video of smiling members along with inspirational quotes from Stern, as if he were Jack Welch or Bill Gates. The union sold more than $1 million worth of purple merchandise through its gift catalog last year, including watches, sports bras, temporary tattoos and its very own line of jeans. (The catalog itself features poetry from members and their children paying tribute to the union, along with recipes like Andy Stern's Chocolate Cake with Peanut-Butter Frosting.

Among his (Stern's) friends and allies he counts at least two billionaires: the financier George Soros and the philanthropist Eli Broad, who is talking with Stern about ideas to reform Los Angeles schools. Stern was one of the founding members of America Coming Together, the largest private get-out-the-vote effort ever assembled. His top political aide, Anna Burger, who is the S.E.I.U.'s secretary treasurer, recently took a seat on the board of the Democracy Alliance, a network of wealthy liberal donors. How Stern wields this influence -- and his union's money --can have a real impact on the direction of the

Stern, like his predecessor Sweeney when he was president of the SEIU,has based his vision on "labor-management collaboration" deals. The union has worked with corporations like Kaiser to stop workers' power on the job and he has merged local after local into statewide organizations in which centralized bureaucrats run the union top down like the corporations they mimic. In California, they have worked with nursing home bosses to stop homecare patients from suing over bad care and they have signed contracts with Kaiser call-center workers to provide financial bonuses if they turn patients away from doctors.

New Proposals?

One of the reasons that these AFL-CIO bureaucrats are so infuriated by this new formation, besides the competition, is that their programs are very similar. In fact, the AFL-CIO formally accepted many of the proposals of the "Change To Win" grouping. What was put forward by both groupings, was new organizational schemes that organizing could be done using business unionist structures and the present reliance by both camps on labor-management collaboration. IBT president Hoffa again and again mentioned that he wanted his $10 million back from the AFL-CIO but there was no specific plan about what to do with this additional money. He and Stern promised that $5 million of it would go into the organization of a new federation, which might include the Carpenters and NEA. This new federation would also represent a significant threat to the AFL-CIO if it included the UFCW and UNITE-HERE. No plans however, were laid out by either side for serious political education of the rank and file about the nature of the capitalist economy, the history of labor and a labor media strategy to challenge the anti-labor corporate media.

Neither the Sweeney nor the Stern grouping had any idea or plans to develop a labor media strategy. When a reporter from a capitalist newspaper asked Richard Trumka at a press conference how the unions planned to get their message out, Trumka declared that that would be up to the reporters at the meeting. When John Wilhelm of the Unite-HERE union was asked about plans for a labor media strategy, he said "We haven't formulated such a strategy" but that the best voices should be the rank and file. The question is how to get those voices out when the media is controlled by the same union busters and the robber barons that run America. Even the Wall Street Journal noted this failure of a new vision on 7/28/05 when they wrote "What John Sweeney and Andrew Stern have put forth for the new vision of the labor movement is the difference between Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi, but the labor movement is tired of soft drinks." says a healthcare worker."

Another battle brewing in both camps is the anger by workers of color, particularly Black workers who have seen increasing racist attacks on the job and in the community but who note the failure of the trade unions to openly fight these attacks. Throughout the country, racist discrimination still takes place at many union operations such as UPS and DHL and in the hotel industry, yet the unions have refused to go on the offensive against these attacks. Even the issue of "hanging nooses" being put up at construction sites, hospitals and shops was a non-issue at the AFL-CIO.

Positive Effects of Breakup

The split has however already had some positive effects. The AFL-CIO, while spending millions on Democratic Party hacks, has refused to provide serious funds to the labor councils throughout the country or to truly independent labor media and labor cultural work. Local council delegates demand to know how the Internationals that run the AFL-CIO would prevent possible bankruptcies and collapse of these central and state labor bodies. The Sweeney leadership proposed to push the Internationals to pay for all their members to join local and state councils and pay per capita for all their members but this would still leave a large gap in states like California and in large cities like Chicago where the SEIU have hundreds of thousands of members. They are now planning to order the removal of all SEIU and IBT officials from central labor councils and state feds around the country. How this will "help" them in their new "organizing" drives is highly debatable. Some labor council delegates at the convention sought to begin the construction of an independent network not run by the top officials of the AFL-CIO.

Exclusion of Non-AFL-CIO Unions In Labor Councils and State Federations

In the UK, the history of the Trades Councils was an independent formation that later led to the formation of the Trades Union Congress. The TUC in the last five years has sought to shut down the independence of the Trades Councils. In the US most regional union activity is organized and supported by the trades councils and if they refused to remove the unions that have left the AFL-CIO from their councils it would be a test of the ability of the top AFL CIO bureaucrats to keep control. At present, some Carpenters locals and even some NEA and UTU locals have been able to continue to be members of the Madison, Wisconsin labor council but the Sweeney leadership with the support of AFSCME and the CWA now say that they will remove all non-AFL-CIO affiliates.

These unions however have generally never involved all their possible members in becoming delegates or participating in the labor councils. Instead this was left to the paid business agents and other staff. If these AFL-CIO councils are to survive they will have to actually get their members involved and participating in these councils. Workers should fight for elected delegates from all locals instead of appointed delegates. They should call on the labor councils to reject the orders from the AFL-CIO tops to purge the councils. The growing debate among trade unionists in the US about where labor is going is also an important and historic opportunity to examine the roots of the crisis of corporate unionism that dominates labor in the US.

At the same time, the break-up of the AFL-CIO will make it increasingly difficult to silence activists and labor militants who are calling for a strategy based on independent mobilizing and organization of working people. If the internationals in the AFL-CIO are not able to maintain these labor councils and state bodies, and the Change to Win grouping actually builds a competing federation throughout the country, they could seriously challenge the power of the AFL-CIO and its very survival. The ability of the UNITE-HERE and the UFCW to defend themselves when they leave the AFL-CIO will also depend on whether the SEIU, Teamsters, UFCW and LIUNA are prepared to mobilize their members on the picket lines when these workers are forced out on strike or locked out. This will be another test on the streets for Stern and Hoffa.

Politically, the result of the split will also lead to stronger "left" positions of both factions. Following the split the AFL-CIO passed a resolution for the rapid withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and the only opposition to this resolution on the floor was from the AFT, the teachers' union. On Monday at a meeting of the US Labor Against The War, Gene Bruskin, one of the key organizers and an official with the national AFL-CIO, announced that the leadership was seeking to prevent a discussion of the resolutions by preventing a debate until the closing day of the convention. This would have certainly killed any chance of getting the resolution passed. It also showed the contempt the national leaderships of the unions had toward democracy. Unions including AFSCME, CWA and others representing millions of workers had voted to call for immediate withdrawal from Iraq and now the leadership was planning to kill any debate or action. This reporter pointed this out and called for a press release by USLAW. While this was not done, apparently CWA Vice President Larry Cohen, who will be taking over the CWA in August 2005 from Morton Bahr, convinced Sweeney and company that they better allow the debate or face a bitter backlash. The Sweeney leadership relented and agreed to an amendment calling for the "rapid" withdrawal of US troops. At the same time the resolution called on other countries to train troops to run Iraq.

The split of the AFL-CIO concretely means that the monolith positions and control of the bureaucracy has been weakened. The danger, which they clearly saw, was that the very people they were seeking to keep around them might start arguing to join the rebellion. Also, USLAW had brought two Iraqi unionists to the convention who argued that the US occupation was contributing to sectarianism and terrorism and that the Iraqi workers had to solve the problem of the terrorists themselves.

Additionally during Jesse Jackson's speech, the strongest response came when he called for the US to withdraw from Iraq. Jackson received a standing ovation. When the resolution came up at the convention, the spotlight and cameras were all trained on the two Iraqi unionists, showing that there was leadership support for the resolution. AFT International Affairs Director David N. Dorn complained that USLAW had brought only Iraqi unionists to the US who were opposed to the US occupation and for immediate withdrawal. USLAW, in their victory statement, declared "The AFL-CIO has a proud history of solidarity with worker movements around the world in their opposition to tyranny." This played into the hands of those National Endowment for Democracy (NED)supporters within the AFL-CIO fighting to stop the exposure of the open collaboration by the AFL-CIO international operations with the CIA and US multi-nationals. It also covered up the bloody hands of Sweeney and those in the AFL-CIO who have done the bidding of the US government in its international operations.

AFL-CIO Continues To Support Imperial Interventions Through NED

The resolution challening the collaboration of the AFL-CIO with the US State Department did not fare so well. It was called the "Building Unity and Trust Among Workers Worldwide" resolution. This resolution, backed by the California AFL-CIO and many labor councils around the country, called for an opening of the books of the international activities of the AFL-CIO, including its record in Chile and most recently Venezuela. It did not call for the ending of government funding of the Solidarity Center but only an examination of its role. The AFL-CIO "Solidarity Center" takes over $31 million a year from the NED and was actively involved in seeking to overthrow the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Unlike the anti-war resolution, the AFL-CIO Executive Council supported a resolution that openly supported taking US funds. "The Solidarity Center will continue to use public funding to support thebuilding of free and independent unions." It then went on to defend the CIA-orchestrated intervention in Venezuela. "In Venezuela, the Solidarity Center's programs reflect the AFL CIO's statement of support for the Chavez government's socially progressive domestic programs and its objection to Chavez's infringement of freedom of association. Since 1999, the Solidarity Center's programs in Venezuela have focused exclusively on collective bargaining, freedom of association and workers' rights in relation to trade. In response to a demand on the Confederacion de Trabajadores Veneazolano (CTV) by President Chavez, the Solidarity Center supported programs focused on the democratization and direct election process in Venezuelan unions. Funding for these programs has been rigidly managed and controlled and has included support for both non-CTV and pro-Chavez labor organizations."

Imagine the howls from these "labor leaders" if the Venezuelan government was funding efforts to democratize the AFL-CIO and the US trade unions. But as long as the US government is funding this it's ok according to those who run the "Solidarity Center". This support for the Solidarity Center was pushed by the chair of the convention, Gerald W. McEntee of AFSCME, now the leading union of the AFL-CIO. After lining up 5 speakers in favor of the AFL-CIO collaboration with the Solidarity Center, McEntee asked "Did I hear someone call for the question?." He then got one of his supporters to say yes and they shut down the debate without one speaker opposed to the executive council resolution. So much for "democracy" at the convention. The Secretary-Treasurer of AFSCME is none other than William Lucy. Lucy is also the chair of the International Affairs Committee of the AFL-CIO and also chair of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. He was also a major supporter in supporting Mary Francis Barry during the Pacifica Radio lockout. Despite the fact that this corporate power grab was aimed not only at the listeners but also the unions at Pacifica, Lucy supported the union busting by Barry. The fact that Lucy is now backing the AFL-CIO in its operations in Venezuela needs to be raised by trade unionists in AFSCME and the CBTU. Who does he represent?

There was also no debate about the continuing support of the AFL-CIO for the purchase of Israeli bonds and support for the Histadrut and the apartheid wall being built in part with US tax dollars. A rank and file labor conference which took place days before the convention ( heard reports on the legalized state discrimination against Palestinian workers and how the AFL-CIO has collaborated with the supporters of Zionism to silence trade unionists who are critical of Israel. Recently the Association of University of Wisconsin Professionals (TAUWP) which is affiliated with the AFT passed a resolution calling for the divestment by Wisconsin of all companies that provide the Israeli Army with weapons, equipment, and supporting systems. This however never saw the light of day at the convention. The conference committed to launch a national campaign to take these initiatives into the entire labor movement and to begin an education campaign around these issues.

Shift To the Left?

It is likely however, that with the SEIU, a leading force in the "Change To Win" grouping and AFSCME, a leading force in the AFL-CIO, there will be a significant shift to the left in these federation's formal "positions". Whether this leads to any action will be up to those militants and activists in these unions and federations. The possible move by the California Nurses Association to join the AFL-CIO will also shift this federation to the left. The C.N.A. has been the most aggressive union in going after California Governor Schwarzenneger and in educating their members about the class nature of the US healthcare system. It is also engaged in a national campaign to organize nurses throughout the country and recently won 1700 nurses at Cook County in Chicago against a more conservative nurses association.

The need to organize better and to be more successful will also now pressure these groupings into action for their survival. Many members of AFL-CIO unions are angry at the failure of the AFL-CIO and their internationals to take on the bosses and in the past they have been locked into staying with the AFL-CIO. This new situation will potentially offer these workers the opportunity to leave and go with more militant unions. If this takes place there will be tremendous pressure on some unions to become more militant or lose great numbers of their members.

This is also a fear among some union activists of both camps that instead of organizing the millions of unorganized workers in the US, the SEIU, AFSCME, Carpenters and other unions will launch massive raids to poach the members of other unions. One of the most active unions in such practices is the UBC carpenters, whose president is Doug McCarron. McCarron has sent letters to the Sheetmetal Workers and Ironworkers that he will no longer be bound by any agreements not to raid. He has spent $19 million on a Las Vegas training center that is training not only carpenters but electricians, sheetmetal workers and iron workers. His plan is to offer contractors a multi-purpose union with a much lower pay scale than the rest of the skilled trades. McCarron has centralized the Carpenter's district councils with hand picked candidates and has forced concessions on carpenters even when construction was booming. His scheme to undercut the other skilled trades is creating tremendous anger in the building trades and Stern's effort to get the UBC to join this new "Change To Win" coalition will further drive these unions apart.

But this could have the opposite effect. The fear that workers can more easily throw out corrupt business unionists who have pushed concession contracts with two tiers and wage cuts may pragmatically force these unions to become more militant in defense of their members. If this takes place it could have a significant effect in changing the face of organized labor in the US which to this point has been virtually compliant with the needs of capitalist America. While Stern threatened the Democrats that he might support Republicans (he gave $500,000 to the Republicans Governors Organization in the last election cycle) if he did not get his way, there was no indication that this new federation would begin to run independent labor candidates against the capitalist politicians.

This is one of the enduring characteristics of post World War II US business trade unionism. While the capitalists openly seek to create a union-free environment and fire over 20,000 workers a year who are simply trying to organize, the US trade unions continue to support the same capitalist politicians and political economic system that makes working people the victims. This great chasm is growing as the systemic attack on the working class picks up speed and leaves a trail of destroyed unions and workers and their families in its wake.

A few members of the Labor Action Coalition ( picketing in front of the convention, highlighted their belief that the choice for the unions is to either fight corporate America or die. This is something that has yet to happen on the ground floor of the class struggle.