The AFL-CIO held its 25th AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention July 25-28 in Chicago. The highlight of the convention was the split of three of its largest unions, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) and the United Food Commercial Workers Union (UFCW). Together with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC), which quit the AFL-CIO in 2001, they formed the Change to Win Coalition (CTW). Unite-Here, the apparel, hotel and restaurant conglomerate, has since quit the AFL-CIO and joined the CTW. When the smoke clears, the CTW will have about one-third of the former AFL-CIO membership.
SEIU president Andy Stern, IBT president Jimmy Hoffa, Jr., UFCW president Joe Hansen and UBC president Doug McCarron proclaimed their goals as to shift resources from the AFL-CIO to the member unions by reducing AFL-CIO dues, to put more money into union organizing and less into political action (understood by both sides as support for the Democratic Party), to focus more on promoting legislative priorities and less on elections, to endorse only candidates who support labor priorities, to merge smaller, weaker unions into larger, more powerful ones, to form strategic alliances among unions to organize industries and large employers, and to incorporate blacks, Latinos and women into the union leadership.
These goals are neither new nor uniquely the CTW's. In 1995 the New Voice slate of John Sweeney, Richard Trumka and Linda Chavez-Thompson, supported by most of the CTW leaders, was elected on a similar platform of more energetic organizing. Sweeney, et al, incorporated the CTW goals into their platform this year. Both leaderships are thoroughly committed to the traditional business-union perspective of bureaucratic domination of the unions, collaboration with the employers and their government, and support for the Democrats.
Negotiations to prevent a split continued until the last moment before the convention, when Stern, Hoffa and Hansen announced that they were boycotting the convention and forming the CTW. The main sticking point in the negotiations seems to have been a demand by the CTW unions for weighted voting to pick Sweeney's successor after he retires mid-term, rather than a vote by the AFL-CIO Executive Council. Weighted voting would give the large CTW unions a decisive voice in picking the next AFL-CIO president, which otherwise would be Trumka. The CTW leaders said, essentially, "We'll stay, if we can run the show."
The union ranks had no voice in the split. The CTW unions are even more top-down than the remaining AFL-CIO unions. Competition between the AFL-CIO and the CTW may strengthen the hand of rank-and-file workers, but the split also heightens the danger that the AFL-CIO and CTW unions will raid each other, rather than organize new workers. It also weakens the local and state labor councils and the building trades, industrial union and other departments through which the AFL-CIO tried to coordinate the activity of member unions.
The AFL-CIO convention adopted a resolution from US Labor Against the War (USLAW) calling for the "rapid" return of US troops from Iraq. The resolution is vague and couched in "support our troops" patriotic language, but this is the first time in the AFL-CIO's fifty-year history that the federation has balked at an imperialist war. The convention rejected a proposal from the resolutions committee calling for withdrawal "as soon as possible". The Sweeney leadership permitted the resolution to be adopted largely because it felt it needed to appease the left to survive the split.
The CTW split is not like the split of the CIO from the AFL in the 1930s. Neither the AFL-CIO bureaucrats nor the CTW bureaucrats have solutions to the crisis of the US labor movement. The AFL-CIO bureaucrats have clearly failed to reverse the decline. The CTW bureaucrats offer at best a series of mergers and acquisitions to increase the market share of their own unions, not a perspective to revitalize the unions.
The US labor movement will revive only when workers take matters into their own hands, as they did in the 1930s. Workers could reclaim the bureaucratized unions and organize Wal-Mart, McDonald's, CitiBank, Toyota and the other nonunion employers. But this would take an upsurge that goes far beyond the timid maneuverings of the AFL-CIO and CTW bureaucrats.