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The Road to Disunion.

Led by Andy Stern of the SEIU and James Hoffa of the Teamsters, four key unions boycott the AFL-CIO convention, with plans to withdraw from the organization in short order (The Teamsters have already left.) Early word seems to be that this bifurcation could spell trouble for the Dems in 2006, but, frankly, the House of Labor has needed serious renovations for a good long while. Perhaps this schism won’t be as profitable for labor as that of the CIO in 1935, but how much harm could it really cause? Old-School Big Labor couldn’t even get Gephardt past third in Iowa last year. I don’t know the details of the power struggle, but I get the sense that Stern & co. are advocating some tough-minded reforms, including consolidating smaller unions, while AFL-CIO president John Sweeney is attempting to protect various union fiefdoms in tried-and-true calcified-leadership fashion. Let’s see what the Young(er) Turks have to offer. Update: The SEIU’s officially out now, too.


3 Responses to “The Road to Disunion.”

  1. Hi KcM, I’m not sure I’d say that the issue here is rational consolidation vs. fiefdoms. SEIU and the Teamsters are themselves fiefdoms if what you mean is hierarchical organizations under the tight control of the existing leadership, each staking claim to a particular jurisdiction whether that jurisdiction makes sense or not. (Admittedly, the current Teamsters leadership stakes very little claim — Hoffa is allowing restructuring in transportation and logistics to deunionize the industry.)

    Andy Stern has done a brilliant job promoting his ideas in simplistic and often misleading terms: the bottom line, he suggests, is that he’s for organizing and growth, and he’s identified a set of requirements for unions to organize and grow, and anyone who doesn’t accept those requirements wants organized labor to shrivel and die. Well, that’s an easy debate to win. Unfortunately, the situation isn’t so simple.

    The core idea behind Stern’s list of requirements is that “density” — the percentage of unionized workers in an industry — is the source of union power. This insight was part of what made SEIU successful in organizing workers like janitors: instead of trying to organize one building or contractor at a time, they organized entire cities so that a majority of the market was unionized and building owners had a hard time turning to non-union contractors. Stern, however, is now doing what a hack does: he’s taking one good insight and saying it’s the key to everything. He says that unions can grow if (1) existing unions merge, dissolve, and trade members to create about a dozen industry-defined unions in the country, (2) those unions internally create very large locals sized to match regional markets, and (3) unions devote half of their resources to organizing. Anyone who disagrees, he reminds, must not be interested in growth.

    But density, while important, is not the single key to union power or growth. Another factor that matters, for instance, is internal functioning — how democratic unions are, whether they promote genuine participation and power among members. No one is interested in joining or staying in a union in which they’ll have no say about what goes on — recent decertification votes within SEIU unfortunately show just that — and moreover, employers know they don’t have to make concessions to bargaining committees that have no members behind them.

    On the issue of democracy, and on others, Stern’s proposals are really retrograde, and they have been criticized not just by the AFL-CIO leadership but people on the left in the labor movement, people associated with groups like Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and others.

    If you’re interested, Labor Notes has done a good job tracking and analyzing the “structure” debate as it has developed over the last few years. They’ve archived quite a few articles here (sorry for the low-tech reference):


    JoAnn Wypijewski also wrote some good analyses of the proposals back when they were packaged as the “New Unity Partnership.” (They were later rebranded by the SEIU jargon department when NUP became widely criticized.)


    As for Stern’s suggestion that his group is recreating the 1930s, Bill Fletcher has written several good responses, including this one (scroll down):


    Posted by Amy O. | July 25, 2005, 10:08 pm
  2. Hey Amy,

    Thanks for the thoughtful response and the links…I’ll check them out. (I also took the liberty of html’ing ’em so people can click through easier.)

    Most of my info on the subject comes from last year’s Dem primary and this Matt Bai profile of Stern from a year or so ago (which I’ve since added to the original post.)

    My general feeling right now is, the labor movement is clearly in the tank and something needs to be done. If nothing else, this move will shake things up and get people talking about the big picture. But I’ll say no more until I’ve perused the articles you sent along and can write more knowledgably.

    Posted by Kevin | July 25, 2005, 10:55 pm
  3. Thanks for hooking up the links. The debate has indeed been convoluted, and there’s no “side” in it that I really like — Sweeney and the AFL-CIO have the problems they’re accused of having, and it’s just that their critics have big problems, too. Would be happy to discuss any time.

    Posted by Amy | July 25, 2005, 11:51 pm

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