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Bureaucrats fight for power:
AFL-CIO to celebrate 50th anniversary with divorce?

The US labor movement may split over a plan by several ‘international’ presidents to reduce democracy and make union bureaucracies more corporate. A showdown in this ‘palace coup’ is expected in the coming months; but, as important as these choices are, the debate is not publicized in union publications nor is it a hot topic at union meetings.

The "unlikely alliance" pushing the plan joins the progressive presidents of SEIU (Andy Stern) and UNITE-HERE (Bruce Raynor & John Wilhelm), with the Laborers’ Terrence O’Sullivan and George Bush’s favorite union leader Doug McCarron of the Carpenters, in a challenge to Stern’s old boss at SEIU, John Sweeney, for control of AFL-CIO headquarters. Their caucus is called "New Unity Partnership" (NUP) and their plan is to restructure the AFL so it can ‘market’ unions better. The proposal has led to threats by various unions to leave the AFL whichever side wins.


The "new" NUP structure proposal is a weak parody of the 100 year-old IWW (aka the Wobblies) idea that people working in the same industry should be in the same union. The NUPsters propose to merge the 62 AFL-CIO unions into about 15 larger unions and move millions of dollars into organizing. Departments that educate and advocate for members – like civil rights, education, publications, legal, and health & safety – will be cut.

But if the NUPsters want to caricature the One Big Union structure they want nothing to do with the rank and file democracy and local autonomy at the heart of the IWW. Newspaper Guild member Andy Zipser writes, "Questions about union democracy have been dismissed by Stern and his supporters as essentially beside the point: the ship is sinking, they point out, and there’s no time for the luxury of education, discussion and consensus building."

State and local AFL bodies are to be taken over by the national. Herman Benson, Association for Union Democracy, calls this "an authoritarian straightjacket" already in place in the Carpenters which "has already been reorganized to show the way. Its locals have been reduced into impotent units. Merged into sprawling regional councils... Locals have lost all control over collective bargaining."

Zipser says, "the more carefully the NUPster plan is analyzed the more it emerges as a prescription for more of the same. More mergers. More political lobbying. More top-down direction and coordination of forces. More – well, more of the tired and discredited servicing model that organized labor has been riding into the ground since the 1950s, when the capitalist class first started reneging on the social contract it had struck with labor during its militant stage."

Fear of change

Cornell University labor studies professor Richard Hurd advocates changing union culture to improve external and internal organizing. In the late ‘80s the AFL-CIO "decided to contrast the typical union workplace with an activist one, using the terms servicing model and organizing model," writes Hurd. 

The original idea of the organizing model "argues that unions can be more effective when representing workers if they use the same mobilizing techniques with current members that are most effective when recruiting new members." Activist union locals would be the goal. 

In the ‘90s this idea of "organizing the organized" and building a social movement of union members was sacrificed to recruiting goals. The emphasis shifted to a "nearly single-minded focus on external organizing" which, says Hurd, increases the problems of poor service to members and leads to an alienated membership.

Needed: vision & courage

The challenge is difficult and no one has all the answers.

Reviving the real organizing model that sought to organize the unorganized and the organized is one part of an answer.

Defying the US system prohibiting ‘minority unions’ in a workplace is another – if some workers at a workplace want to join the union, they join the union and start acting like a union by building shop floor power and defending co-workers.

Another is workers centers that bring together unorganized and organized workers, immigrants and native-born workers. Such centers can serve the employment law needs of the unorganized and educate all workers on rights, not abstractly, but more importantly teaching ways to organize with co-workers to gain shop floor power. Workers centers act like old time union halls did: as the center of working class community.

Simon Greer of Jobs With Justice says labor leaders should be asking "How do we build a progressive movement?" rather than "How do we restructure our bureaucracy?"

"At a minimum," says Hurd, "labor needs to recapture the organizing model ideal of injecting social movement zeal within the rank-and-file… there really needs to be a coherent vision about how our economy and our society would be different with a more vibrant labor movement."

Building the space and the networks to express a vision of a society outside the grip of corporate control and eternal war is a place to start.

Jack Fate

Would you reach out your hand to a drowning man
if you thought he might pull you in?

A SEMCOSH member responded to the print version of this article by noting that the current Sweeney administration got off too easy. Sorry GB I thought criticism of the current state of affairs was clear and did not intend to 'let them off the hook'. 

Most importantly the AFL, the NUP, and most affiliates, have sacrificed the possibility of building a challenging and innovative organizing model to a fetish for bringing in new members regardless of how well educated they are or how well they can be serviced. 



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