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Commentary :: Labor
Rupture in AFL-CIO: More labor unity key to fight bosses
28 Jul 2005
The AFL-CIO and Change to Win are at the crossroads. The crisis needs the intervention of the oppressed, multinational working class, in unity with the nationally and socially oppressed people’s movements and communities, to organize for major battles in the days to come.
Rupture in AFL-CIO
More labor unity key to fight bosses

By Milt Neidenberg

July 25 — “We’re not trying to divide the labor movement—we’re trying to rebuild it,” said Andy Stern, president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU), at a media conference the day before the 50th anniversary AFL-CIO convention.

Will these words be translated into deeds? Only if there is a reversal of past practice.

“We” refers to the Change to Win Coalition, which consists of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW); the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees, which merged with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees to form UNITE/HERE; the Laborers International Union-North America (LIUNA); and the United Farm Workers (UFW).

On the morning of July 25 when the convention began, Andy Stern and Teamsters President James Hoffa, Jr., announced they had split from the AFL-CIO and would set up a loose federation. UFCW and UNITE/HERE boycotted and threatened to split before the four-day convention ended. LIUNA and the UFW agreed to attend it.

At a packed media conference, Stern explained the split: “We believe in fundamental change, not incremental reform.”

Not entirely true, if history is any judge. At issue between the two groups are strategy, tactics and timing, combined with a top-down bureaucratic power struggle among mostly male, white leaders. Even as they announced the split, they adopted conciliatory language indicating that Stern and Hoffa hoped to continue cooperating with the AFL-CIO on working with the Democratic Party.

The Change to Win Coalition wants dramatic and immediate changes in the structure of the federation and the allocation of funds to meet new organizing goals. They want to replace the Sweeney leadership and impose a merger on a number of smaller affiliates to achieve a vague “density” formula.

Sweeney, the consummate consensus builder, had been willing to negotiate some modest counter-proposals. But his basic strategy was to get reelected and protect the posts of the majority of the Executive Council members, which would have been swallowed up by the Stern proposals. These were nonnegotiable issues for the rival camps.

Sweeney took over the AFL-CIO in 1995. He will be elected to a fifth term in spite of a 10-year trail of retreat. He had been Stern’s mentor and had turned over the powerful SEIU to him. The two officials have conflicting ambitions.

The split has no precedent, no previous practice or lessons to draw on from the AFL's 108-year history, beginning with its birth in 1886. Certainly not the 1938 split, when the Congress of Industrial Unions broke from the AFL. That resulted from an upsurge that shook the very foundations of capitalist exploitation.

The AFL-CIO and “Change to Win”
are now on uncharted territory with unmarked pitfalls.

Strengthening labor from below

A review of recent years might shed some light on the differences between the struggles of workers and the actions of the bureaucratic leadership of the AFL-CIO.

In 1998 then-Teamster President Ron Carey won a stunning victory against the mighty United Parcel Service. In a 15-day strike, he shook up the corporate rulers when he mobilized the ranks and built unity between the full-time, part-time and temporary workers. He forced a no-concession contract from UPS and secured 2,000 permanent full-time jobs per year for part-time workers.

Three years earlier, he was instrumental in getting Sweeney elected president of the AFL-CIO. Following the UPS victory, the government framed him and James Hoffa played a key role in the election campaign to replace him, with the support of the government. Carey was betrayed by both camps.

In October 2002, the West Coast longshore bosses, represented by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), locked out the International Longshore and Ware house Union for refusing to sign a concessionary contract.

Military and consumer goods were frozen in place. Ships laden with cargo were stuck in the harbor. The docks were buried under containers, and trucks were backed up for miles. The PMA 10-day lockout shut down 29 West Coast ports.

The Bush/Pentagon administration jumped in to force the ILWU back to work under a Taft-Hartley injunction, even though the union wasn’t on strike. A federal court upheld the illegal injunction.

The AFL-CIO, which included SEIU and its current allies, did not back up the ILWU. They did not mobilize their members to keep the ports shut down and to resist the illegal use of Taft-Hartley during a lockout. It was a Bush/Pentagon misuse of power, but a great opportunity for united labor action was lost. The 1947 Taft-Hartley, the most oppressive anti-union law in U.S. history, is still on the books.

In October 2003, when the UFCW grocery workers struck supermarket giants led by Safeway, Albertson’s and the Kruger-owned Ralph’s stores, the chains locked out their workers. For four months the grocery workers fought back against the united grocery chains. Where were Sweeney and Stern? Nowhere to be seen.

Teamster-driven trucks did not leave the warehouses when these low-paid, multi -national workers, primarily women, block ed the warehouses and supermarkets. Many of them were arrested. Isolated except for some support from the community and from anti-war forces, these workers accumulated large debts and were for ced to settle for a two-tier wage structure.

Finally, there was the AFL-CIO debacle that cost the affiliates over $100 million—more than $40 million from SEIU alone—to elect John Kerry. They mobilized millions of members to knock on doors and get out the vote.

Compare this support for Kerry, with an all-out mobilization of both the Sweeney and Stern camps, with the minuscule resources and solidarity from the AFL-CIO for the heroic resistance from rank-and-file members during the aforementioned strikes. There is much soul searching to be done by the rival federations to match words with deeds.

Walk the walk!

Sweeney, in his keynote address to the convention, talked about plans for the future, not the lessons of the past. “The labor movement belongs to all of us—every worker—and our future should not be dictated by the demands of any group or the ambitions of any individuals.” So empty of meaning. So full of rhetoric!

Will this top-down power struggle that has led to a split energize 13 million organized workers? Will the split accelerate the unrelenting attack by the government, Wall Street and “Corporate America,” which currently have momentum for further attacks?

Were the union sisters and brothers who spend 24/7 trying to make ends meet even aware that a split was taking place? Were they informed of the issues before the split happened?

After a decade of retreat by the AFL-CIO leadership, the multinational, low-paid, women, immigrant and service-oriented segment of the work force is looking for a fresh perspective and a new direction. Will this split meet those expectations?

Both rival factions are on trial. Both need to walk the walk. Forget talk the talk. If they had any concern for fundamental issues, they would call for the immediate end of the U.S. occupation, that has diverted billions from desperately needed social services. They would demand, “Bring the troops home now. End the death and destruction hurled at the Iraqi and Afghan people. Stop the tragic stream of U.S dead and wounded.”

They would open an attack on capitalist institutional racism and national oppres sion and open the doors of their ingrained white male leadership to women, Black, Latin@ and other workers of color.

They would break from the foreign policy of this declining imperialist empire and from repressive immigrant bashing. Break with the National Endowment for Demo cracy, a CIA front, which bribes the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center to support counter-revolution, particularly against Venezuela.

A united front in the making

The millions of unorganized and poor represent a work force whose labor power produces the goods and services that create wealth and profits for a parasitical few. Their labor power has no boundaries. It is international. Exploitation and the high-tech revolution have bound them together globally, and the potential for a unified class-wide struggle is within their grasp.

This is especially true during this period of disastrous, unrelenting cuts in living standards, compounded by racism and national oppression. The top-down split has obscured this vision. But only for a historical moment.

Wall Street and “Corporate America,” and their executive committee in the White House and the legislative and judicial institutions, have restructured monopoly capitalism along class lines.

Unity and struggle, not bureaucratic divisions, are necessary. The 13 million organized workers have no loyalty to either faction. The homogeneity of the AFL-CIO leadership has been broken. The dilution of bureaucratic power can open the door for rank and file members to run the unions in their own interests.

The AFL-CIO and Change to Win are at the crossroads. The crisis needs the intervention of the oppressed, multinational working class, in unity with the nationally and socially oppressed people’s movements and communities, to organize for major battles in the days to come.

-- 30 --

Union labor donated.
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