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Commentary :: Labor
The AFL-CIO Split is an Opportunity, Not a Tragedy
28 Jul 2005
Modified: 01:10:20 PM
While the split may have been an ego thing, it still could open the way for more important debates about the future direction of the U.S. labor movement.
When media bloviators get excited about a story, you can generally figure that there's not really much to it, and so it is with the much-covered split in the AFL-CIO.

To read and watch the breathless the accounts in the newsmedia, you'd think that the Democratic Party had just been sundered into a liberal and socialist wing, or that the president had just fired his brain.

Many columnists and headline writers got it completely wrong, referring to the AFL-CIO as a "union." They got it wrong too, when they almost universally described the split in the trade federation body as a major blow to the Democratic Party, which relies on strong and largely unquestioning financial and volunteer support from unions to be competitive with the Republican Party in elections.

The reality is much different.

The AFL-CIO is simply a hollow superstructure, a member organization to which no worker but rather the union organizations themselves belong, and to which they pay substantial contributions based upon membership size.

The split itself, while billed as a dispute over strategy--whether to mandate that member unions devote more resources to organizing or to go on squandering huge sums on Democratic Party candidates--is really more a battle of egos, with ambitious leaders of the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and several other smaller unions wanting more say and more power in the AFL-CIO than they've been able to get under President John Sweeney.

The truth is that the individual member unions, both within the AFL-CIO and outside the organization, will continue to blindly provide funding and volunteer support to Democratic Party candidate--maybe even more than before if the result of the split is to force the bloated AFL-CIO bureaucracy to trim down, freeing up more union resources for political activities.

Unions will continue to act in solidarity during strikes and boycott actions--at least to the extent that they ever did so in the past--whether or not they are under the umbrella of the AFL-CIO.

There might be some increase in raiding--the stealing of members from one union by another--since this is barred by the AFL-CIO among its members, but this could be a good thing. If workers are dissatisfied with the union they belong to, having an alternative union to switch to could have a salutary effect on the lazy, self-serving leaderships at some unions, who have been content to collect dues while doing little to protect the interests of their members.

In fact, the break-up of the AFL-CIO has to be deemed a good thing. It will shake up an organization that has become an ossified self-perpetuating bureaucracy, devoid of new ideas and thoroughly in bed with a pro-corporate and largely anti-worker Democratic Party.

Even if the breakaway unions are no different from those that have so far chosen to stay in the AFL-CIO, the mere fact that they are outside now could encourage rank-and-filers to start pushing new blood and new ideas up the ladder. The break-up could also encourage more radical or creative unionist activists within the AFL-CIO to push for change at a time that the hierarchy is feeling weakened and vulnerable.

It would have been great to have seen this long-overdue break-up of the AFL-CIO come as the result of a spirited debate on the evils of rampant capitalism and the merits of militant unionism vs. the trade union movement’s decades-long detour into timid, complicit, "business" unionism. That's not what's happened, but maybe if this split weakens the ossified leadership sufficiently, that crucial debate will finally take place.

Maybe too, some unions, free of the dead hand of the AFL-CIO, will start demanding more in the way of concrete support from politicians before they hand over their members' hard-earned money.

The passage by the rump AFL-CIO of an anti-war resolution, however watered down, is a good sign. Never before has the AFL-CIO taken such a position while the country was at war. Clearly a weakened leadership felt it had to respond to a broad sentiment among rank-and-file workers that the Bush War in Iraq is a disaster. I’m willing to be that without the split, that resolution would never have gone through.

So as Joe Hill once said, on the eve of his state murder, "Don't mourn, organize!"

This split is no tragedy. It is a great opportunity for real trade unionists to get the movement back on track as a genuine oppositional organization defending and advancing workers' rights and our quality of life.

For other stories by Dave Lindorff, go to:
The author is a founding member of the National Writers Union (UAW), a union which is still part of the AFL-CIO.
See also:

This work is in the public domain
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