Special Report

Labor’s Family Feud

Think money, not politics, and the possibility of reconciliation.

By 8.11.05

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The AFL-CIO, as most people by now have heard, is traveling a good deal lighter these days. Two of its largest unions, the Teamsters (1.4 million members) and the Service Employees International Union (1.8 million workers), in absentia, had announced on the first day of the labor federation's 50th anniversary convention in Chicago during July 25-28 their intention to exit. By the end of the week, the 1.4 million-member United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) also had departed.

This represents some serious bleeding. These unions had combined for about 35 percent of the 13 million workers belonging to AFL-CIO affiliates.

The differences in this family feud don't have much to do with politics. The breakaway faction, known as the Change to Win Coalition, has no more use for "right-wing Republicans" than do the loyalists. SEIU President Andrew Stern, for example, is a ferocious opponent of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), recently passed by the House by a razor-thin 217-215 margin. He's acknowledged spending at least $65 million to elect Democrats during the 2004 election cycle.

The AFL-CIO and Change to Win share similar goals. They just have different ideas about how to attain them. And the "how" part is distinctly related to money.

When the Teamsters and the SEIU left the AFL-CIO, they took $18.1 million of the AFL-CIO's $96 million in annual dues-based revenues with them. The attrition of the UFCW and the likely attrition of the 450,000-member UNITE HERE (a merger last year of textile, hotel and restaurant workers) will reduce operating cash further. If the 800,000-member Laborers depart -- a distinct possibility -- things could get downright ugly at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington. Already, the federation has had to lay off more than 100 employees.

Dissenters think the AFL-CIO has been acting too much as an adjunct of the Democratic Party and too little as an organizer of workers. Unless labor finds a way to reverse its declining share of U.S. workers, they argue, its political activism may be doomed to irrelevancy.

The numbers would appear to support this concern. The proportion of all non-farm workers belonging to unions stood at 24 percent in 1973, but fell to 20 percent in 1983 and further to 12.5 percent in 2004. In the private sector, membership stood at a mere 8 percent in 2004, compared to 35 percent in 1955, the year of the AFL-CIO merger. A recent Zogby poll has revealed that only 16 percent of non-member workers would definitely join a union.

In the long run, the AFL-CIO's schism may be just the ticket to raise those percentages. This organization, remember, owes its very existence to an earlier schism. In 1935, a group of unions, led by Mine Workers President John L. Lewis, formed a dissident faction within the American Federation of Labor. The unions in this new Congress of Industrial Organizations not returning to the fold were expelled a few years later. The CIO, free to pursue its preferred strategy of direct confrontation, changed the course of labor history. Using the sit-down strike, they organized large numbers of workers in the rubber, steel, auto and other mass-production industries. The AFL-CIO merger effectively consolidated the CIO's gains.

The rupture this past late July already has AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who'd headed the SEIU before taking over federation leadership a decade ago, talking like a dissenter. "We will begin building the new power we need by approving a huge shift of AFL-CIO resources into organizing so we can ratchet up strategic campaigns aimed at the likes of Wal-Mart, Comcast, Clear Channel, and Toyota," he told the convention.

Like members of a dysfunctional family, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win in due time may reconcile. Money is a trump card, and every union knows that membership means money for lobbying and political donations as well as for organizing. Through federally granted monopoly privileges, organized labor is assured of plenty of dues revenues to support its fights. And if the mood in Chicago was any indication of things to come, fights are what the unions are counting on.

Carl F. Horowitz is director of the Organized Labor Accountability Project at the Falls Church, Virginia-based National Legal and Policy Center.

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