WASHINGTON — The AFL-CIO’s loss of two large unions this week hit Democrats and the labor federation hard. But this move by the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) may not hurt Democrats as much as they fear. And large employers are unlikely to get a reprieve from union attacks.
Teamsters President James P. Hoffa and SEIU President Andrew Stern, who announced on Monday July 25 that their unions were disaffiliating from the AFL-CIO, claim that the federation, under the direction of John Sweeney, has squandered efforts to expand union membership in favor of electoral political activity, nearly all on behalf of Democrats. The split seems to be about the fundamental question: What should be organized labor’s core mission? In fact, it is about union strategy.
While Hoffa and Stern claim that Sweeney has focused excessively on politics, their own unions haven’t been shy about political activity. During the 2004 election cycle, SEIU gave out $2,284,875 in campaign contributions, with 87 percent going to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That is down from the union’s $6 million-plus efforts in 2000 to elect Al Gore and in 2002 to give Democrats control of Congress. The Teamsters’ contributions also dropped off, from $3,119,140 in 2000, to $2,544,643 in 2002, and to $2,147,127 in 2004.
The drop-off may be due to a realization that, for unions, politics just isn’t working. Thus, The Change to Win Coalition — a group of dissident unions that includes the Teamsters, SEIU, and five other unions — seeks to shift focus from politics to growing membership.
Yet does anyone seriously expect any of the dissident unions to stop politicking for Democrats? And the union split is unlikely to get employers any reprieve from aggressive union tactics, which, in some cases, might get worse.
Hoffa and Stern’s claim that Sweeney has neglected organizing sounds innocuous enough: Unions’ main mission should be to represent their members and seek to attract new ones, not canvass for politicians. But the Teamsters’ and SEIU’s tactics are not intended so much to attract workers but to beat employers into submission.
FOR SWEENEY, SEIU’S SPLIT from the federation is a major blow, not only because Sweeney headed SEIU before he took over the AFL-CIO, but because Sweeney has long championed Stern’s own favored organizing strategy: corporate campaigns. Corporate campaigns seek to unionize not employees, but employers, under the threat: Let us unionize your workforce or we will destroy your reputation.
Corporate campaigns are multi-faceted political and public relations campaigns that target a specific employer or group of employers. Tactics include feeding allegations of company wrongdoing to the news media, contacting stockholders to deride management and the company’s financial health, filing complaints with regulatory agencies, and good old-fashioned picketing. Adopting and refining a strategy envisioned by the 1960s New Left, unions enlist allies, including religious and environmental groups, to carry their message without the taint of the union’s self-interested motives.
One of SEIU’s most notorious corporate campaigns targeted Catholic Healthcare West (CHW), the largest non-profit private hospital system in California, founded in 1986 by the Sisters of Mercy. Launched in 1997, the campaign culminated in a contract placing 9,000 employees at 20 hospitals across California under SEIU representation. Yes, SEIU prevailed against a bunch of nuns!
How did SEIU do it? Obnoxious, aggressive tactics may be one reason. This campaign included a series of one- and two-day work stoppages at CHW hospitals, accompanied by noisy outdoor demonstrations. Doctors and patients complained about the noise from picketers, who chanted slogans and beat on drums, and about the smell of barbecue coming from the picket line.
Then there are the Teamsters’ tactics. On July 25, the same day the Teamsters left the AFL-CIO, Hoffa announced that the union would try again to unionize the trucking company Overnite Corporation, whose employees have resisted unionization in the past, even in the face of a violent strike that included more than 50 shootings against the company’s trucks or drivers.
Finally, for all of Hoffa’s and Stern’s complaining about Sweeney’s excessive focus on politics, their goal of membership expansion is apparently tied to…politics. The Change to Win Coalition, on its website, states that “we do not believe working people can win consistently on political issues until many more workers are in unions.” And just what kind of “winning” do they refer to? “[W]e note that an in increase in union density in the state of Ohio, for example, from 16% to 26% would have put John Kerry in the White House.”
Further, there is little reason to expect the Teamster and SEIU political spigots to run dry. As early as May 16, 2005, SEIU had given out $133,000 for the 2006 election cycle, while the Teamsters had given $168,300, with 88 and 75 percent, respectively, going to Democrats.
SEIU President Stern says he wants to bring his union into the 21st century. To do that, Stern, Hoffa, and their Coalition to Win colleagues will need to try a different approach besides bullying tactics and unswerving loyalty to the Democratic Party.
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