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Commentary :: Labor
Is Change to Win enough?
31 Jul 2005
Changes are afoot in the mainstream labor movement. Are they enough?
Is Change to Win enough? -- 31 July 2005

Most media ink and bytes have been about the split. Important? Sure. But too little attention has been paid to the AFL-CIO's anti-war resolution.

How significant might such a stance be for a labor federation? In the aftermath of the American entry into World War I, just such an anti-war view provoked the systematic dismantling of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in what came to be called the Palmer Raids. Union halls were ransacked throughout the country, and nearly two hundred IWW leaders were imprisoned for opposing the war and for "criminal syndicalism." (Yet the IWW has survived, and hasn't changed its views about war.)

So the AFL-CIO has taken a bit of a radical turn, at least in one dimension. The anti-war resolution is remarkable, if only because it is such a dramatic departure from the past history of the federation.

What remains to be assessed during the mainstream labor movement's current introspection?

The small but vibrant IWW has a number of ideas which ought to be examined.

The Change to Win (CtW) coalition that has split off from the AFL-CIO believes there are too many small unions. They would reduce the number to increase their power. If bigger is better, why not take this to its logical conclusion? The IWW believes in the concept of One Big Union.

The CtW people also advocate a better mechanism for dealing with unions competing for members. How serious is the problem? There are currently thirty unions competing with each other for health care workers. Unions not only compete, there are examples of unions raiding each others' memberships. The IWW puts its members into industrial union divisions, and members may freely move from one industry to another without changing unions, so such union-against-union competition within the "One Big Union" is avoided.

CtW advocates spending fewer dues dollars on politicians, and more on organizing. The IWW constitutionally prohibits spending union dollars on political parties, period.

Say what?

How can a union ignore that labor law impacts the "right" to organize?

Well, the IWW doesn't ignore that little detail. But there's another principle at work, and for the past century the IWW has believed this principle outweighs the compulsion to drop union dollars into the pocket of the nearest politician. That principle suggests that working people are capable of greater loyalty to their union than are the politicians who trade political favors for donations.

We can see an example of the failure to win such loyalty in the recent skirmish between the United Auto Workers and the United States Marine Corps. Earlier this year the UAW banned Marine reservists from parking in a UAW parking lot if they drove foreign cars, or if they had a bumper sticker supporting President Bush. After an outpouring of scorn which included letters of outrage from union members, the UAW backed down.

Now i'm not in any way advocating the support of a president whose policies are anti-worker across the board, nor am i boosting the Marine Corps. But taking away a worker's political choice (and many Marine Corps reservists are working class) is not one of the best ways to increase loyalty to the union movement, as the UAW quickly discovered amidst the national outcry. A union should certainly keep members informed, helping them to determine whether an elected official is a friend to working people. But in my view unions should never force a divisive decision on workers they're seeking to unite, whether it relates to politics, or religion, or who has the right to park their car. The union should be about uniting workers, not dividing them.

The AFL-CIO tried to halt CAFTA by donating massive amounts of money to the Democrats. But fifteen Democrats defected, and yet another anti-worker free trade treaty passed, this time by two votes. How many workers might have adopted union culture and sentiments if the AFL-CIO had invested those millions in organizing fast food workers instead? What economic clout could have been wielded if the AFL-CIO decided to mobilize all the nation's minimum wage workers in a struggle for economic justice?

Why hasn't this already occurred? Because with few exceptions, low-paid and transitory minimum wage workers are not "lucrative" enough for any particular AFL-CIO union to organize. Such a dramatic shift in focus would have to come from the federation itself, but the federation is subservient to the dictates and demands of its constituent unions.

Andy Stern, one of the leaders of the Change to Win faction, seems to believe that the federation structure, and the way it is run, are a great weakness. He's not alone.

Professor Shelton Stromquist, a historian at the University of Iowa has observed that,
----- 8< snip! ---------------------------------

Historically, federations haven't had a great deal of power. Samuel Gompers used to complain about how little real authority he had. The real strength of the labor movement lies with its individual unions and their members.
Historically, there has been reluctance on the part of these unions to consign their autonomy to a federation. While I hesitate to say that the federation is just symbolic, it is a kind of public face for a labor movement that is quite diverse and quite protective of its individual unions' autonomy.

----- 8< snip! ---------------------------------

This last point is confirmed by AFL-CIO President Sweeney himself, who complains about Stern,
----- 8< snip! ---------------------------------

"It's unfortunate at this time that he's tried to dictate changes in programs to the affiliates of the federation and doesn't respect the fact that a federation is different from a national union."

----- 8< snip! ---------------------------------
By his own words President Sweeney appears to be dedicated to protecting the status quo, even when five decades of decline scream for a dramatic change.

Lets return for a moment to the question of banning foreign cars from parking lots. Many foreign cars are now made in America, and so-called American cars have foreign parts, so what makes a car foreign?

The practice of union nationalism is a dead end. The corporations jettisoned that concept when they started sending manufacturing jobs to Mexico in the 'eighties. Even as jingoists were blasting "workers of the world unite," declaring such aspirations the harbingers of an evil world-wide menace, the corporations were plotting their own strategy for international corporate rule. The worldwide search for the lowest wage quickly ensued.

Jobs have moved overseas. Why haven't American unions followed those jobs? If the labor movement wants to get with the times, it must begin to think of itself as a global union in a globalized world. If it wields the clout of "one big union," all the better.

Richard Myers is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World in Denver, Colorado. He speaks as a member, and not for the organization.

This work is in the public domain
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