Economy & Trade, Headlines, Labour, North America

LABOUR-US: Union Rift Leaves Rank-and-File in the Dark

Katherine Stapp

NEW YORK, Jul 26 2005 (IPS) - The worst schism in the U.S. labour movement since the 1930s has come largely from the top down, with little input from the millions of workers who make up the rank-and-file membership, say sources both inside and outside the debate.

On Monday, the powerful Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which together boast more than three million members and generate 20 million dollars in annual dues, abandoned the country’s biggest umbrella union, the American Federation of Labour-Council of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO).

“This was not an easy or happy decision,” Andrew Stern, president of the SEIU, said in a statement that cast a pall over the start of the AFL-CIO’s four-day annual convention in Chicago, and the 50th anniversary of the union – which itself divided in 1935 and then reformed 20 years later.

“It represents… a recognition that we are in the midst of the most rapid transformative moment in economic history, and workers are suffering,” he said.

Stern, Teamsters president James Hoffa and other critics have long accused the AFL-CIO leadership of spending too much money on lobbying and political campaigns – overwhelmingly in support of the opposition Democratic Party – at the expense of building bigger unions that have the clout to bargain with global corporations.

They cite the decline of private-sector union membership in the United States from 35 percent in the 1950s to eight percent today, and portray the AFL-CIO as a dinosaur that has failed to react to seismic economic and demographic shifts, like the mass outsourcing of manufacturing jobs and a swelling part-time workforce.

But some union leaders believe the dispute mostly reflects a power struggle in labour’s highest echelons, and fails to address core issues most relevant to the grassroots membership.

For example, although African American workers make up 30 percent of the federation’s membership, the struggle against racism is not viewed by either camp as a major source of labour’s crisis, says Clarence Thomas, an official with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10, which is sticking with the AFL-CIO.

“No matter how legitimate some of the complaints are, this did not come from the rank-and-file,” Thomas told IPS. “And they are now being forced to take sides in a matter that they have not weighed in on.”

In a joint statement issued at an AFL-CIO-sponsored summit on diversity last week, Thomas and Saladin Muhammad, the national chair of Black Workers for Justice, argue that the problems of racism and sexism “are fundamental to the lack of rank-and-file union democracy and to labour’s weakness in organising the unorganised, especially in the U.S. South.”

Like the defectors, the statement criticises “increased support and funding for the Democratic Party as an alternative to a rank-and-file fight-back movement based in national and international labour solidarity.” However, Thomas believes “the split is coming at an inopportune time.”

“A divided movement right now is susceptible to greater attacks,” he said. “We have to be mindful of the fact that the corporate offensive from (former U.S. president) Ronald Reagan to George Bush has been about breaking up unions. It’s economic class warfare in America.”

Some who attended pre-conference events said many delegates appeared confused over what exactly had just happened.

“People were giving all kinds of answers,” said Helena Worthen, a professor at the Institute of Labour and Industrial Relations in Chicago. “It’s support-the-Democrats versus support organising; it’s a personal battle that has spun out of control; it’s all about money.”

“There seemed to be no clear understanding of what any good reasons for the split might be. Many people said things like, ‘We’re at war with Iraq; why aren’t we fighting about that?’ When they talked about how it would affect them, they shook their heads.”

Four other unions have now aligned themselves with the dissident Change to Win Coalition – the Labourers’ International of North America; UNITE HERE, representing apparel, restaurant and hotel employees; the United Food and Commercial Workers International; and the United Farm Workers – although they have not yet formally left the AFL-CIO.

“It’s probable that the muscle of this new coalition may very well produce some big wins,” Worthen predicted. “It’s as if Andy Stern and the others have said, ‘Well, it’s a war, let’s act as if we’re in a war,’ and is turning his organisation from a crowd into an army.”

“But what this war definitely is not about is rank-and-file input,” she added. “When I have talked with union members about these changes as they came down the road, the primary issue for these workers was democracy. They want to know, would these changes open up their unions to more democracy, or less?”

“These disaffiliations and the structural changes proposed by Stern, et al will probably result in less democracy, and that will in the long run create even more serious long-term challenges for the labour movement, or at least this part of it,” Worthen said.

Projects that have been years in the making would likely be abandoned, and central labour councils and regional bodies are going to be in a “terrible crisis”, she said.

Others are applauding the move as long overdue.

“How did it come to pass that the American labour movement is now more about protecting 250,000-dollar pay packages for airline pilots than making sure that janitors and farm workers and chicken processors earn a living wage?” asked Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein.

“And what should be said about a labour movement that asks Americans to block trade with developing countries that don’t honour labour rights – but sat by as Americans were systematically stripped of their right to form unions at home?”

Thomas, who is also chair of the Million Worker March Movement, said it was still unclear how the split would play out at the local level, and hoped that it might ultimately spur trade unionists to become more progressive and militant.

“We’re not backing down; we’re going to continue to do what we’re doing. We need rank-and-file unity right now,” he said. “Just because there is struggle at the top does not reflect what’s going on at the bottom.”

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