Intra-union Battle Lines Shaping Up

Over the past week, while I madly dashed to finish off the tasks of my old job, there have been many developments in the AFL-CIO split up story. And my feelings toward the split have ranged from cautious hope to outright fear. I’m back in the middle now, but it doesn’t look good for the forces of solidarity. Watching from afar, informed by the press and by press releases, the whole thing seemed tawdry and disappointing. The final e-mail reporting the accomplishments of the AFL-CIO Convention and the “re-election” of current leadership by acclamation certainly rang hollow.

After the SEIU and Teamsters disaffiliated on Monday, there was some news that the split wouldn’t disrupt local efforts too much. The LA Times reported that that city’s central labor body had already reached an agreement to continue work with the SEIU and Teamsters on fighting Governor Terminator. And a friend who works for SEIU in San Jose said the same thing for that region. For a good sense of the problems this creates at the local and state level, check out Workday Minnesota’s quotes from local leaders. On the one hand, these quotes suggest a real split between the mentality of local leaders on the one hand, and leaders of the fed and the internationals on the other hand. But they also suggest how disruptive the split is going to be for local bodies.

The latest is that the AFL-CIO will take a hard line, is declaring the disaffiliates “free riders,” and is forbidding local unions and central labor bodies from receiving financial contributions from them. Workday Minnesota quoted Sweeney as saying “we cannot allow these organizations to pick and choose which parts of the federation they want to belong to.” However, locals and central labor bodies can work in “coalition” with the disaffiliated unions. Meanwhile, the Fed is asking for impact statements from central labor bodies in order to assess the disruption caused by this policy, and is urging still-affiliated internationals to pony up their dues money (i.e., not to pick and choose which parts of the fed they belong to…hmm that sounds familiar).

Yesterday, the UFCW disaffiliated saying “For our union to succeed on behalf of our members, we must be part of a revitalized and dynamic labor movement that connects with a new generation of workers struggling in the 21st century’s global economy.” Responding to the AFL-CIO line that the split is purely Stern vs. Sweeney, the head of the UFCW emphasized the need for industry-wide organizing drives: “The dynamics of the new economy demand industry-wide organizing and coordinated bargaining to improve living standards, ensure affordable health care and renew respect for work and workers. Solidarity means workers in an industry standing together in their union, and supporting all other workers in their industry.” Local and international unions–rather than the federation itself–are best suited to carrying out this kind of organizing, according to the UFCW. This sounds good coming from a union that has among its ranks the remnants of the Packinghouse Workers, one of the most militant, pro-civil rights unions of the 1940-1970s, with a glorious past of industry-wide pattern contracts. Can they make it happen in the new economy?

What happens next? Probably more internationals leaving the AFL-CIO. UNITE-HERE, the Laborers, and the United Farm Workers are next in line since the Carpenters bolted long ago. At the local level? Lots of bitter words about one side being scabs and the other side being dinosaurs and reactionaries. The best we can hope for is the nightmare of the business community, namely that two rival union federations will organize like crazy to claim the title of champion of the working people.

Meanwhile, if “Change to Win” is to become a new union federation let’s hope they Change Their Name.

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