Discontent has been festering within the AFL-CIO for several years. But a Rubicon was crossed on Monday. That day, as the labor federation’s 50th anniversary convention was about to kick off in Chicago, two of its biggest affiliated unions, the Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters, announced they were splitting from the broader organization.
Two other large unions, Unite Here, and the United Food and Commercial Workers, also look likely to leave the federation.
The differences of opinion between the federation loyalists and the rebels are clear: the SEIU’s president Andrew Stern and his Teamsters counterpart James P Hoffa contend that unions need to put much greater emphasis on the recruitment of new members.
They also argue that the labor movement is putting too many resources – and too much faith — into electoral politics, at a time when radical moves are needed to ensure union power does not ebb away completely.
The beleaguered head of the AFL-CIO, John Sweeney, sees it very differently. Sweeney’s view, in essence, is that it is irresponsible for labor leaders to behave as if they can somehow circumvent the realities of Washington politics.
Sweeney believes that the quickest route to real change for American workers is through the election of a greater number of labor-friendly politicians.
As is always the case in politics, however, the temperament and character of the individuals involved in this dispute is almost as important as the ideological principles they articulate. To critics like Stern, Sweeney is too cautious, too cozy with Washington powerbrokers and too disinclined to rock the boat.
Sweeney loyalists, for their part, view Stern with grave suspicion. To them, he is a brash opportunist who is using strategic disagreement as a Trojan horse to further his personal, ego-driven ambitions.
We are not without sympathy for the view being put forward by the rebels. It is beyond dispute that union membership has dropped precipitously. When the AFL-CIO was formed in 1955, one-third of the entire American workforce was unionized. Today, just 8 percent of workers are union members. A steady-as-she-goes approach seems hopelessly inadequate in the face of such a trend.
Similarly, it is perfectly valid to question the efficacy of concentrating as heavily as Sweeney has done on electoral politics. Union leaders’ desire to see Democrats hold power is understandable. But American politics offers nothing to losers. That being so, it is easy to see why many union members believe that some of the money and manpower the AFL-CIO expended in the vain effort to elect Sen. John Kerry as president last year might have been better deployed in other ways.
For all that, though, sadness seems the only appropriate response to this week’s major schism. When Stern and Hoffa announced their unions’ departure from the federation, the AFL-CIO’s membership fell, at a stroke, by almost one-quarter.
It now seems certain that the coming months – perhaps even the coming years – will see one faction of the labor movement battling the other for dominance. The only people who will regard such a prospect with pleasure are those who seek to exploit and subjugate American workers.
The union rebels, we repeat, make some valid points. But, in leaving, they have breached the very principle of solidarity upon which the entire union movement is based.
Their action is a tragedy for organized labor. We fear the damage they have inflicted will not be easily or speedily undone.