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From the December/January 2003 issue of UDR #149
The New Unity Partnership: Sweeney critics would bureaucratize to organize
by Herman Benson
The five were banding together,
they said, because at a time when labor must grow or die, the AFL-CIO
remains passive and impotent. Calling for change, they propose to show
the way to organize the unorganized. And so memories of the 1995 AFL-CIO
convention in New York! That's when Sweeney, at the head of a coalition
of international presidents, proclaiming that labor must grow or die,
called for change and proposed to lead the federation in a drive to organize
the unorganized. His drive for change succeeded only partially. He was
elected AFL-CIO president to head a new leadership; he beat the drums
for organizing; he called upon affiliates to put forces in the field;
he recruited hundreds of eager students for a demonstrative summers of
But it didn't work. Now,
eight years later, back to square one. Despite his exhortation, the response
from the established labor leadership was limp. There have been some gains
in organizing, but the unionized section of the private, nongovernment,
work force remains at the dangerously low 9%.
Now, the restive five international
union leaders, publicly expecting Sweeney to bow out, have joined together
in a formal organization, partially inside the AFL-CIO and partially outside,
complete with a name, New Unity Partnership. Time and tide wait for no
one. They intend to reorganize themselves and then demonstrate to the
labor movement how to organize the unorganized. The implication of their
message: Lane Kirkland and Tom Donahue, the AFL-CIO old guard and all
their predecessors, talked of organizing; but did nothing. Sweeney promised
to organize, but accomplished next to nothing. But this time, really and
now, they will organize.
Together, the five international
presidents make up an odd combination: Douglas McCarron, Carpenters Union;
Bruce Raynor, UNITE; John Wilhelm, Hotel union; Terrence O'Sullivan, Laborers;
Andy Stern, Service Employees.
In 1995, the Carpenters
and UNITE both voted the old guard against Sweeney the reformer. The other
three backed Sweeney. When McCarron pulled the Carpenters out of the AFL-CIO,
Sweeney announced that Carpenter locals would be barred from AFL-CIO state
and city federations. In a serious rebuff, an unusual coupling of the
building trades and the New Unity Partnership defeated Sweeney and blocked
Wilhelm and O'Sullivan head
two unions once heavily infiltrated by organized crime. Their unions,
at least at the national level, were freed from organized crime, not by
internal insurgency and reform, but by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Wilhelm and Stern, who have both earned reputations as modern, progressive
leaders, are allied with McCarron who exchanges mutual public expressions
of admiration with President Bush.
Unlike Sweeney, the Partnership
starts out with a scientific plan scrupulously worked out on paper by
research workers, complete with graphs and statistical charts. The NUP
program is inspired by a 44-page analysis prepared by Stephen Lerner of
the SEIU organizing staff. The key aim of any organizing effort, according
to this plan, is for unions to win a decisive market share in industries
by increasing "union density" and controlling the "labor
supply" and so gain the ability " to take wages out of competition
and raise standards."
According to Lerner, here's
the problem: "The current structure of the labor movement stands
in the way of organizing workers and building increased strength for workers
at every level of the labor movement." And so, they would reorganize
the labor movement, but really reorganize it: Unions must stop taking
the lazy way out; no more picking up whatever is easy to organize; and
so no more "general workers unions" that reach out for anyone
who will pay dues, from laborers to nuclear scientists. They must concentrate
on increasing that "density" in their assigned basic markets.
We have to get rid of that clutter of little organizations, those "corner
store" unions which are happy with a tiny, selective membership so
long as they pay enough dues to sustain the officers' salaries.
The graphs and charts demonstrate
that American industry is shaped into 15 great segments: Services, Government,
Manufacturing, Mining, etc etc. And so, we have to get rid of that useless
proliferation of impotent unions and organize into 12 - 15 big, powerful
unions, each in its defined industrial segment. To get there, we must
eliminate the defectives, merge some, swap locals and members, and end
with those powerful few, each with its authorized clearly defined sphere
The formation of the NUP
has been compared with the rise of the CIO within the old AFL, but differences
are more striking than similarities. The CIO arose in response to the
turbulent, spontaneous, often uncontrollable initiative of thousands of
workers. The NUP arises out of the brain of well-meaning idealistic union
The ideological flavor of
the plan recalls the old-fashioned disputes of yesteryear; a weird combination
of old AFL conservatism with its strictly assigned jurisdiction and the
old radical industrial unionism with its imaginary unions concocted out
of wheels and charts.
The five in the NUP promise
to plunge forward. Success, they say, will induce others to join in. It
will be interesting to see how they solve their own immediate problems.
One of the five, the SEIU, has many of the characteristics of the "general
workers" union they want to abolish. Will it swap away all its government
workers and other incidentals? Will the Laborers union fork over its 500,000
mail handlers and the millions of dollars in federal insurance money that
goes along? Will the Laborers and Carpenters merge into a single construction
union and convince, say, the IBEW electrical workers to join and surrender
the autonomy it now enjoys in its limited field? UNITE has nothing to
swap; its basic industry is in collapse. Who will define the limits of
its ultimate imperial domain? Such questions, limited when confined within
the NUP five, would be magnified a thousand-fold if extended to the rest
of the labor movement.
"It is too narrow to
talk of union democracy only ," writes Lerner. (Would it not be "narrow"
to talk only of anything?) "If only 10% of workers in an industry
are unionized it is impossible to have real union democracy because 90%
of the workers are excluded." An elusive formulation which implies
that the 10%, we who are organized, must wait for our union democracy
until that 90% come along, which could be a long, long time. Actually,
as AUD insists, union democracy, can be a spur to organizing by making
the labor movement more attractive to recruits. But the NUP seems to see
union democracy as an inconvenience, even an impediment; in any event,
its whole program is permeated with that "narrow" spirit.
The NUP proposes to eradicate
any element of autonomy for state and city AFL-CIO federations; all delegates
would be selected by the internationals not by affiliated locals. State
and city federation presidents could serve only part time. The federations
would be ruled by full time executive vice presidents, not elected by
the delegates, but appointed by the national AFL-CIO. The local federations
would lose control over their own money; all per capita payments would
go to the national AFL-CIO. These organizational trappings are never explicitly
justified; they are simply enunciated and shoehorned to fit into the NUP
conception of a newly bureaucratized labor movement.
This vision of a highly
centralized labor movement which restrains membership initiative in an
authoritarian straightjacket is no mere bad dream, no reverse utopia.
The model is already in operation. The Carpenters union has already been
reorganized to show the way. Its locals have been reduced into impotent
units. Merged into sprawling regional councils, locals are not permitted
to pay any officers or staff members; their main source of income, the
work tax, is taken over by the councils. Locals have lost all control
over collective bargaining. No member can hold any paid staff position
in the council or any local without the permission of an all-powerful
executive secretary treasurer. Local delegates, who elect the EST, cannot
hold a paid union job without his or her endorsement.
Support for the NUP comes
from divergent sources: From a younger generation of union leaders, social
idealists (for want of any better term) who are impatient with the slow
pace of progress and will let nothing to stand in the way. With them are
the congenital authoritarian types. What binds them together, at this
juncture, is the conviction that if they could be relieved of the "narrow"
restraints of democracy all power placed in their hands, they could save
the labor movement. Unskilled, low-wage workers, immigrants, and even
undocumented workers make up a large part of the membership of four of
the five NUP unions: Laborers, SEIU, Hotel, and UNITE. Huddled masses
yearning to be free, make way for the experts and idealists!
The five unions are already
reaching out to others who they feel share their values, in particular,
the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers. They hope for
support from liberal Republicans and from Karl Rove, Bush's chief advisor.
They are not likely to reshape
the whole labor movement. Extensive resistance is unavoidable: On the
one hand, from grassroots local leaders and rank-and-file activists who
would welcome an effective program to organize the unorganized but want
a voice in running their own unions; on the other hand, from complacent,
entrenched office holders who simply distrust any program of action, good
or bad. In any event, given the current political and economic trends
in the country and in the world, even the best program of organization
will continue to run into heavy employer resistance.
If AUD is correct, and a
major breakthrough for the labor movement requires cultivating the spirit
of freedom in unions and in the nation and not its stifling, this plan
is off the track.
If they do succeed, the danger is that they, like the Carpenters union, will deepen the trend toward bureaucracy and authoritarianism in the labor movement. And so while we can't wish them well in their drive to bureaucratize the labor movement, we can only hope for successes in their effort to organize. In any event, defense of union democracy will remain more relevant than ever.
The New Unity Partnership
plan in brief
on the New Unity Partnership of SEIU, UNITE-HERE, LIUNA and the UBCJA:
Next Article: Free Speech under attack from within
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