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From the January-February 2005 issue of UDR #154
the AFL-CIO debate: Bureaucracy v. Democracy
Those 500 union leaders, labor activists, writers, and academics who showed up at Queens College, December 2 and 3, came not to celebrate the role of the labor movement but to argue about it. They came from all over, their interest provoked by Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, and his four-union New Unity Partnership [NUP] of SEIU, Carpenters, Laborers, and UNITE/Hotel. The NUPers have posed a challenge to the AFL-CIO and its president, John Sweeney. They keep reminding listeners of what everyone knows: the labor movement has slumped to a dangerously low level.
They add, however, that labor must expand or die, suggesting that because John Sweeney has failed to reverse the trend, he and his leadership must go. As a solution, they propose their NUP policies and an NUP-type leadership. No one disagrees that there is a problem. But is theirs the answer? That is what has provoked an increasingly emotional national debate. There has been nothing like it since the early CIO days; and that was seventy years ago.
What to do? The discussion escalates. Website and internet exchanges, joint declarations, public debates, long essays in periodicals, and personal manifestos bring a rich flurry of proposals and counter-proposals. Many are reasonably familiar; some contradict others: beef up political action, encourage the initiative of central labor councils, put them under international control, united union action around selected key organizing targets, more money and manpower to organize the unorganized, strike funds, global unionism, count on the power of big union leaders on top, encourage the locals and the rank and file down below, preserve the right of workers to unions of their choice, eliminate small unions and force workers into a few big unions.
The discussion becomes heated, edgy, bitter. There's even talk of a possible split in the AFL-CIO. The Carpenters, still in the NUP, actually secede from the AFL-CIO. What's going on here? The source of the mounting hostility is not in the question posed by the NUP but in the basic quality of its proposed answer, in the dominant bureaucratic strain that runs through its proposals.
In 1995, after taking the AFL-CIO away from Tom Donahue and Lane Kirkland, John Sweeney, whom the NUP now hopes to edge out, called for reorienting the labor movement and rebuilding its power. Just like the NUP today. But his rhetoric and his appeal were not like theirs. He called for transforming the labor movement into a strong force for social justice and democracy in America. In contrast, like venture entrepreneurs, the NUP calls for labor market shares, hostile mergers and takeovers of weaker entities, and concentrated power in the hands of directors ---especially their own.
In 2004, the NUP's contribution is to provoke a discussion. But in 1995, Sweeney inspired, not soul-searching, but an outpouring of enthusiasm. A roster of prominent intellectuals issued a call for renewed support to a reviving labor movement. They formed a new organization: Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice. Overflow crowds flocked to pro-union "teach-ins" in the universities. Students signed up as summer organizers. How can we help? It was a rallying to a cause. Labor seemed to be showing the way.
But after nine years, rhetoric and reality fall short of the great illusion. Unionization in private industry remains low. No new burst of cheer-leading support for labor; only a sobering exchange over what to do. As one sifts through the heap of proposals, most of them good ideas --- good, and even better if they could be implemented --- it is obvious that there is no consensus, no confidence that any program, however praiseworthy in formulation, can be counted upon to bring prompt results. No magic bullet. No speedy way out of labor's difficulty. At best, what lies ahead in organizing the unorganized are tough years, demanding concentrated effort, money, manpower. Meanwhile, what shapes up is not simply a debate over specific proposals, but a sharp difference over how to proceed.
The NUP looks for the answer in the ultra bureaucratization of the labor movement, more extreme than anything we have seen before. They would swallow up independent small unions and reduce the whole labor movement to an assemblage of 15 or 20 monster organizations, which would parcel out all jurisdictional rights among themselves. Workers, dissatisfied with their union leaders and unable to replace them, would be eternally locked in, with nowhere to turn. Central labor councils in cities and states would be deprived of autonomy and subject to strict control by the officers of those huge internationals who would appoint all their delegates and officers. They view union democracy and even talk of union democracy as a diversion or an impediment to carrying out their plans.
Regrettably, this scheme is more than a nightmarish dream. It is actually a work in progress. Where they have power, some of our NUPers are already shaping their labor movement to their hearts' desire. In reorganizing, the Carpenters union has emptied locals of power, autonomy, and dignity and turned them into impotent social clubs. Locals are merged into sprawling regional councils, each subject to the authoritarian power of an executive secretary treasurer, who determines who can hold a paid union position. Carpenter locals are forbidden to pay their own elected local officers, or any other staffers except clericals. In any event, locals are deprived of the major source of construction union income: the work tax, which now goes directly to the region for disbursement by the all-powerful executive secretary treasurer. The NUP vision is a labor movement in the grip of well-meaning, self-appointed saviors.
In sharp contrast, is the alternative view which sees the road to success in stimulating the grassroots membership, in mobilizing rank and file activists and shop stewards as an organizing army. Foremost in defending this view, in debates, periodical essays, the internet, and policy statements, is the Communications Workers of America through its spokesmen, Executive Vice President Larry Cohen and International Representative Steve Early.
"If anyone in this room," Cohen told the December audience, "thinks that we're going to change collective bargaining rights based on how we structure rather than how we mobilize. They're mistaken."
"We need to focus on mobilizing our own members and key allies around collective bargaining as the cornerstone for our standard of living. Rights on the job, and even our voice in the country," he wrote in the New Labor forum. "we cannot, in the name of density-driven restructuring, dictate to workers in this country which unions they can join or not join ...or discourage them from starting new ones. If we take that approach, we risk losing any public debate about collective bargaining being an essential element of a democratic workplace."
While the CWA agrees that the merger of some unions is necessary, its ten-point program cautions against forced mergers: "The issue is how mergers can change union workplaces, lead to more active shop stewards, and greater membership involvement, and create more effective organizing, collective bargaining, and political action."
A statement signed by leaders of 12 AFL-CIO central labor councils calls for opening up the councils and transforming them into crusading community leaders. They would welcome membership from minority and non AFL-CIO local unions. "Labor councils are no more than the sum of their parts," they write," A powerful local union movement cannot be built from weak locals... We need strong and vibrant locals to make a strong and vibrant council." Two of the 12 signatories are CWA leaders: Jeff Crosby of the Massachusetts North Shore Labor Council and John Ryan of the Cleveland Federation of Labor.
As the discussion turns into a debate and intensifies, the participants do not seem to notice that a large part of our labor leadership, perhaps a majority!, seems to be watching coldly on the sidelines. If the issue is posed: Which way, democratic or bureaucratic? --- many may not be interested, Some are surely repelled by the outrageous notion of other bureaucrats ordering them about; but neither are they likely to be delighted by all that counter-talk about rank-and-file initiative and union democracy. The current balance in the AFL-CIO between democracy and bureaucracy is probably good enough for them right now; let well enough alone!
At any rate, where are those Auto Workers, Steelworkers, Machinists, Teachers, AFSCME, etc? If all this turns into an open faction battle, where will they bounce?
So far, the discussion centers mainly on questions narrowly posed by the NUP: How best to restructure the labor movement to organize the unorganized? In a report on the December conference at Queens College, David Swanson of the International Labor Communications Association writes, "There was not much discussion of democracy and activism as tools to make the movement grow and gain power." Something even more fundamental is at issue. The great barrier to a major labor advance is the current political and social balance of power in the United States. The levers of governmental authority are in the hands of labor's adversaries. A majority or near-majority of the voting population are deluded into a kind of alliance with corporate business. Yet the labor movement, even at its low point, remains a powerful force. The problem is how to inspire and mobilize the potential power of 16,000,000 already organized workers as a social force to turn the tide of opinion in the country and shift the balance of political power.
By presenting the union
movement to the world as a bureaucratized corporate structure, centrally
coordinated by an authoritarian elite, the NUP would squander that potential
social power. We still need a program for the kind of thoroughgoing internal
democratization of the labor movement that would enable it to come forward
effectively as a liberating force for social justice in America. However,
by emphasizing the aim of activating the grassroots membership and releasing
its power, the Communications Workers of America does point in the right
on the New Unity Partnership of SEIU, UNITE-HERE, LIUNA and the UBCJA:
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