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May 09, 2005

Sorting Labor's Laundry

Guest: cntodd

Its nice to see Brad Plumer, one of my favorite political bloggers, wondering today about the future of organized labor – something far under-discussed in left blogistan.

In particular, Plumer considers the on-going “Forsyte Sage-length” drama between the frustrated SEIU, et. al. and the paterfamilias of the clan, the AFL-CIO and its President, John Sweeny:

Still, things don't look good. The SEIU and other dissident unions aren't happy with the halfway changes that current federation president John Sweeney has just announced—namely, new industry Coordinating Committees, rebates for unions doing "serious" organizing, more money for solidarity with unions abroad, abolishing the International Affairs Department, etc.—and would prefer that Sweeney just stepped down.

Meanwhile, I wish some smart labor analyst could tell me which side's proposals would be "better" for organized labor, so that I could have the correct opinion about all this.

Plumer is certainly right that the situation is not so easy to sort out. The SEIU has threatened to pull out from the AFL-CIO if Stern’s reforms are not enacted and the Machinists have threatened to pull out if they are. In short, the SEIU led by Stern wants more money to go for new organizing and Sweeny and his defenders want to see more money spent on legislative activities. (That is the very quick and cheap version.)

Lots of great labor bloggers have weighed in on this issue. Worker safety expert Jordan Barab worries that Sweeny’s plan would force cutbacks in the Health and Safety Department of the AFL-CIO. Such cut backs would ultimately hurt organizing and union strength since workers depend upon unions for a safe and healthy working environment.

Jonathan Tasini, president of the Economic Future Group, argued forcefully that money being spent on legislation and campaigning by unions has provided little benefit in the last decades and would be better spent organizing new industries.

And Nathan Newman I think rightfully sums up the entire issue:

While there's no doubt federal labor law changes would assist organizing, that's just not going to happen any time soon in the face of GOP filibusters. There is a chicken-and-egg problem for labor: labor's numbers have decreased, so their political power has declined, which means they can't change the law without expanding their membership numbers. Dramatic labor law changes will be the result of an upsurge in new worker organizing, not the cause of it.

You may imagine that I am a bit partial to Stern's proposals.

Of course, the issue of organizing vs. politicking is just one side to the present debate, but I think it’s the most important one.

[X-posted at Freiheit und Wissen]


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Just surfing the blogs while I digest my lunch. Thought I'd contribute after cleaning my fingers. I am a staffer at a small dept of the AFLCIO. I'm not in the high altitude talks but my bosses are regularly. Unfortunately the short answer is more than the "Sweeney way" or the "Stern way." The AFL-CIO is the institutional center of a federation of the international unions who contribute funding to the center. The major complaint of the dissidents is that they send the money, they send the people, they send the information and the center staff takes and takes and takes and gives nothing but orders. The center has gotten it backwards: the authority of the center flows from the representation of the collective interests of the international unions. Instead it is democratic centralism writ large. That's why taking away the mailing lists and the 'refund' on dues hurts the center so much and indicates there is a number of passive ways the unions can impact the center.
But that doesn't mean that Stern would correct that flaw. Many think that under Stern it would be just the same game with a new face. Stern operates his union the SEIU in the exact same vein of democratic centralism so he couldn't be a viable "reformist" federation president.
The only way out at this point is if Sweeney steps away 'for the good of the movement' and to avoid being the man who presided over a fissure of the AFLCIO at the 50th Anniversary convention. If Sweeney steps away, perhaps a compromise candidate like a Trumka or a Wilhelm or who knows, can claim the unity theme, agree to a smaller, more focused less-so-centralized AFLCIO and if successful can earn the trust of the international unions to ramp up to a larger Federation role.

nothing will change unless all union workers go on a general strike. workers need to shut down this country for a week or so. a general strike is long overdue anyway. we could include anti-war protesters and pro-choice supporters as well.

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