Unity and the prospects of renewed struggle

This year’s annual AFL-CIO convention brought the first major split in organized labor since the 1955 merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Days before the July 25-28 event, four of the country’s largest unions announced they would boycott the convention. On the opening day, the Service Employees and the Teamsters disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO. Those unions represent more than 3 million members. The Food and Commercial Workers, a union of 1.4 million members, left four days later. The clothing and hotel workers union UNITE-HERE may also decide to leave the federation soon.

These unions and three others are members of the “Change to Win Coalition,” which was formally announced on June 15. The coalition is made up of the SEIU, the Teamsters, the Food and Commercial Workers, UNITE-HERE, the Laborers, the Carpenters, and the Farm Workers. In all, Change to Win represents six million members, some 40 percent of the total former AFL-CIO membership. The coalition’s central figure is SEIU president Andrew Stern.

Labor movement on the defensive

Change to Win’s stated goal is to “coordinate strategies to help millions more workers form unions in their industries.” They propose to do this by restructuring the union movement and focusing more resources on organizing.

The split in the AFL-CIO and creation of Change to Win comes at a time of decline in the U.S. labor movement. Union membership has been steadily declining as a percentage of the total workforce, to its current level of 12 percent—8 percent in the private sector. The number of strikes is at a historic low. In 2004, there were only 2,300 union elections, where unorganized workers get to vote for union representation, compared to close to 8,000 per year in the 1970s. (Chicago Tribune, June 26, 2005)

Workers face enormous challenges, threats and intimidation whenever they try to organize. But that doesn’t mean that workers don’t want to join unions. The steep erosion of labor laws and the lack of militant organizing and fight back in the labor movement have made it extremely difficult to do so. Employers spend billions of dollars per year to keep unions out of their businesses. Yet a recent poll found that 57 million workers who aren’t in a union would join one if they could. (Unionvoice.org, March 30, 2005)

Will the split in the labor movement enhance workers’ chances at organizing? The answer remains to be seen.

But the origins of the divide are telling. The split largely involved a tactical debate on the future of the labor movement among the top leaderships of both sides—with Stern and Teamsters’ president James Hoffa, Jr. on one side, and John Sweeney and other AFL-CIO leaders on the other.

While differences among the leadership may have forced a split, there are many factors involved. One of the most important is the different economic sectors that the unions represent. Change to Win is predominantly based on the service sector, which is expanding, whereas the unions that remain in the AFL-CIO are largely based on the stagnant or declining industrial and public sectors of the economy.

This factor will become increasingly important in the years to come as capitalist globalization and rapid privatization continues. Over the past 30 years, the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy—due in part to the rapid rise in technological development—has caused the loss of millions of high-skilled and semi-skilled jobs and replaced them with lower-skilled, more service oriented work. Many service sector jobs are less vulnerable to outsourcing—jobs in sectors like trucking, janitorial, hospitals, supermarkets, and so on.

Although Change to Win claims it will focus more on organizing workers than on political campaign contributions, the coalition does not represent a break from the class collaborationist politics that has dominated the U.S. labor movement throughout its history. During the 2004 elections, SEIU devoted $65 million to John Kerry’s presidential campaign, compared to the $45 million spent by the AFL-CIO.

Stern views greater union membership as the eventual basis for a more permanent and strengthened relationship with the Democratic Party. Statements from other Change to Win members about regaining labor’s “political independence” do not mean that they seek to break with the capitalist ruling class. Quite the opposite—it means that they want a free hand to back “labor friendly” Republican or Democratic candidates as they see fit. The Carpenters union leader, Doug McCarron, has a cozy relationship with the Bush administration. He brags about his visits with George W. Bush on Air Force One.

Unity on what basis?

The AFL-CIO leadership, along with many progressives inside and outside of the labor movement, decried the split as a blow to labor’s “unity” when the movement is at its most vulnerable. John Sweeney called the split a “grievous insult” and said it would hurt workers already buffeted by globalization and anti-union forces in Congress.

There has been no real unity—that is, unity on a class basis—in the labor movement in recent years. Unity for Sweeney and the AFL-CIO leaders has consisted of lining up behind the Democratic Party to advance labor’s goals. Its leaders have always collaborated with the capitalists in both domestic and foreign policy arenas. Accepting money from the CIA-run National Endowment for Democracy and partnering with and funding corrupt, pro-imperialist foreign union federations have been recurrent symptoms of the interpenetration of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy and the U.S. State Department.

Most recently, the AFL-CIO helped the reactionary and corrupt Venezuelan Workers Confederation (CTV) launch severe attacks against the progressive government of Hugo Chávez. The CTV was instrumental in the U.S.-backed April 2002 attempted coup and the subsequent reactionary lockouts that crippled Venezuela’s national oil company.

AFL-CIO leaders also vie to outdo one another to support the racist, colonial-settler state of Israel against the Palestinian national liberation struggle. Sweeney was a main speaker at a large pro-Israel rally days after the horrific massacre of Palestinians at Jenin in 2002.

The advance of genuine political independence for labor—meaning a break with class collaborationism and ending support for imperialist policies abroad—would be a welcome development. Unfortunately, neither side in the split seems to be moving in that direction. It reflects disagreements over the best way to center organized labor in the Democratic Party’s orbit.

Nevertheless, the split may in fact weaken the traditional relationship between the Democratic Party leadership and organized labor.

A main Democratic Party “concession” to labor in the political arena has been enforcing protectionism in trade agreements and with U.S. industry. One of organized labor’s basic goals over the past 50 years has been to shield U.S. industry from foreign competition—a goal that is shared with certain sectors of U.S. big business at certain times. Protectionism and anti-communism have fueled the AFL-CIO’s long-standing, strident stance against China.

A weakened ability for the AFL-CIO to “deliver votes” for Democratic Party candidates could result in some Democratic Party politicians abandoning or lessening their traditional protectionist line and embracing a more open orientation toward the dominant sectors of the capitalist establishment that promote so-called “free trade.”

On July 28, the votes of 15 Democratic Congresspeople facilitated the narrow passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, a trade pact with five Central American countries and the Dominican Republic similar to NAFTA. Organized labor ardently opposed the agreement, but, like NAFTA, it passed anyway with support from the Democrats.

Mass upsurge of the 1930s

. Labor unity was forged in the class struggles of the 1930s.

Photo: Lambert/Archive Photos

Addressing the crisis in the labor movement cannot happen without a break from class collaborationism. Organizing more workers into unions would be an important first step forward for the labor movement. But labor’s political orientation is also important. Change to Win’s advocacy of greater organizing and increasing union membership does not address the ways that unions can do battle against the capitalist owners, either on the shop floor or in the political arena.

The coalition does not propose organized labor as the center of a class-wide struggle that addresses the concerns of the whole working class, organized and unorganized—health care, immigrant rights, the right to organize and more.

The crisis in the labor movement will not be resolved “from the top.” The maneuvers of union presidents cannot substitute for the action of rank-and-file union members.

Today’s situation is far from the days when the Committee for Industrial Organizations broke with American Federation of Labor leaders in 1935. That was a period of labor upsurge, when workers across the country were organizing themselves into militant, fighting unions. The rapid rise of left-led unions, huge strikes and rank-and-file workers’ movements inspired workers throughout the country.

Periods of advance for organized labor, like the 1930s, came at times of general class struggle. Legal and political gains flowed directly from intensified mass struggle, which organized millions of low-paid workers into unions within a few years.

Driven by poverty and bad working conditions, there were general strikes in San Francisco, Toledo, Ohio and Minneapolis in 1934. The strikes were led by socialists, communists and radical unionists who saw the struggle as part of a class-wide struggle against capitalism.

These battles gave way to large-scale organizing drives among the country’s industrial workers. The campaigns were characterized by militant rank-and-file action. A wave of sit-down strikes in 1936-37 brought droves of members into unions. Also in the 1930s, communist-led “red unions” organized Black and white workers into unions in the Jim Crow South.

The pitched struggles of the 1930s and the influence of communists within the labor movement were at the root of the concessions gained from the ruling class. It was the struggle “from below” that pushed the union leadership to adopt new structures better suited for growth and the realities of the struggle.

Today’s split is not taking place amid a massive workers’ upsurge. And neither side in the split is trying to deepen class consciousness among unionists or the working class as a whole. This will make organizing the unorganized even more difficult.

Opening for increased struggle

But the split in the labor movement may open some possibilities for rank-and-file activism and a revitalization of labor militancy. One or both sides may launch a bold organizing campaign in the near future. It is possible that Change to Win will announce such a campaign at its founding convention in Cincinnati this September.

Both Change to Win and the AFL-CIO face the challenge of launching bold campaigns to inspire the country’s unorganized workers.

Photo: Keith Dannemiller

The coalition has already hinted that it may target massive corporations like Cintas (a laundry and uniform company headquartered in Cincinnati), Wal-Mart, FedEx and Home Depot with multi-union organizing drives. The AFL-CIO also likely will announce a major organizing initiative soon. At the July convention, the federation earmarked $22.5 million for affiliates to use in organizing.

A campaign by either labor grouping to organize Wal-Mart or some other massive global or national corporation would be an encouraging development. This could help stimulate a renewed struggle and labor militancy. Such a massive struggle would undoubtedly lay the basis for new forms of labor unity—unity in class struggle.

To reemerge as an effective social force, the labor movement needs to go back to the basics, emphasizing labor education and acting to harness the power of the whole working class, inside and outside of unions.

Also key to building a strong labor movement is forging unity to fight against racism and anti-immigrant bigotry and violence.

The struggle against racism and special oppression is not a central concern of either of the union groupings. Change to Win has said little about the need for African Americans, Latinos, women and other oppressed groups to be represented in labor’s leadership. This patronizing approach has generated opposition from groups like the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.

But the split highlighted the continued lack of representation at the national leadership level of the AFL-CIO across the board, despite the increasingly multinational character of union members. Confronting racism and sexism is essential if organized labor truly hopes to become a vital social force.

Building unity will come in the course of developing and leading shop-floor struggles that clearly draw the class line between workers and owners. It will come in developing campaigns involving unions and community groups; in extending international solidarity with workers all over the world, especially those under attack by U.S. imperialism. Unity has to be built on a class basis, rejecting the class collaborationist appeals of Democratic Party leaders and their backers.

Ultimately, the future of labor does not lie within the debates or differences between the AFL-CIO and Change to Win leaderships. The aspirations of the working class are not bound to either grouping. New unity and leadership can only come out of increased militant and class-wide struggle, whether within organized labor or in the broader mass movement.

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