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Monday, July 25, 2005

What is the future of the American Labor Movement?

Detroit Free Press:
Teamsters and service union to quit the AFL-CIO

Defections will be biggest labor rift since the 1930s

CHICAGO -- Jolting organized labor, the Teamsters and a massive service employees union decided Sunday to bolt the AFL-CIO, paving the way for two other labor groups to sever ties in the movement's biggest schism since the 1930s.

The four dissident unions, representing nearly one-third of the AFL-CIO's 13 million members, announced they were boycotting the federation's convention that is to begin today, a step that was widely considered to be a precursor to leaving the federation.

They are part of the Change to Win Coalition, a group of seven unions pledging to accomplish what the AFL-CIO has failed to do: reverse the decades-long decline in union membership. But many union presidents, labor experts and Democratic Party leaders fear the split will weaken the movement politically and hurt unionized workers who need a united and powerful ally against business interests and global competition.

The Service Employees International Union, the largest AFL-CIO affiliate with 1.8 million members, has spearheaded the exodus and is to announce today that it is leaving the AFL-CIO, said several labor officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Teamsters plan to declare their departure at the same Change to Win news conference, officials said.

Two other boycotting unions signaled similar intentions: United Food and Commercial Workers and UNITE HERE, a group of textile and hotel workers. But they were not scheduled to take part in today's news conference, officials said.

"Our differences are so fundamental and so principled that, at this point, I don't think there is a chance there will be a change of course," said UFCW President Joe Hansen.

Without directly saying so, coalition leaders seemed to be establishing the group as a newly minted rival of the AFL-CIO. "Today will be remembered as a rebirth of union strength in America," coalition chairwoman Anna Burger said.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, expected to easily win re-election over the objections of the dissidents, suggested the dissidents were spoiled sports, leaving after their demands were not met.

"It's a shame for working people that before the first vote has been cast, four unions have decided that if they can't win, they won't show up for the game," Sweeney said. The rhetoric was unusually personal, in part because dissident leader Andy Stern of the SEIU is a former protege of Sweeney's.

Leaders of the dissident unions say the AFL-CIO leadership has failed to stop the steep decline in union membership. In addition to seeking the ouster of Sweeney, they have demanded more money for organizing, power to force mergers of smaller unions and other changes they say are key to adapting to vast changes in society and the economy.

Rank-and-file members of the 52 non-boycotting AFL-CIO affiliates expressed confusion and anger over the action.

"If there was ever a time we workers need to stick together, it's today," said Olegario Bustamante, a steelworker from Cicero, Ill.

It's the biggest rift in organized labor since 1938, when the CIO split from the AFL. The organizations merged in the mid-1950s.

The boycott means the unions will not pay $7 million in back dues to the AFL-CIO today, an act that some labor officials consider tantamount to quitting the federation. Still, hope for a resolution remains until the unions formally announce their disaffiliation from the AFL-CIO, officials said.

If they quit the federation, the unions would take about $35 million from the AFL-CIO, which has already been forced to lay off a quarter of its 400-person staff.

The four unions already had formed the Change to Win Coalition to pressure Sweeney to undertake major changes to the federation. That coalition scheduled a news conference this afternoon at which the SEIU and the Teamsters intend to announce disaffiliation from the AFL-CIO, officials said.

The SEIU is led by former Sweeney protege Andy Stern who has turned against his former boss.

Two other unions that are part of the dissident coalition did not plan to leave the Chicago convention: the Laborers International Union of North America and the United Farm Workers.

The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, the seventh member of the coalition, left the AFL-CIO in 2002.

Leaders of the dissident unions say the AFL-CIO leadership has failed to stop the steep decline in union membership. In addition to seeking the ouster of Sweeney, they have demanded more money for organizing, power to force mergers of smaller unions and other changes they say are key to adapting to vast changes in society and the economy.

Sweeney's allies contend he has taken steps to change the AFL-CIO, meeting many of the dissidents' demands. Globalization, automation and the transition from an industrial-based economy have forced hundreds of thousands of unionized workers out of jobs, weakening labor's role.

The dissidents largely represent workers in retail and service sectors, the heart of the emerging new U.S. economy. Sweeney's allies are primarily industrial unions whose workers are facing the brunt of global economic shifts.

•On membership: The AFL-CIO will lose 3.2 million Service Employees International and Teamsters members and about $20 million in annual dues.

•On labor: Internal turmoil could draw attention from issues like organizing, raising wages and protecting health care benefits.

•On politics: A weaker labor movement could hurt the Democratic Party, its traditional political ally.

Instead of higher wages, unions need to be getting smarter. They've accomplished a lot in fighting for workers' safety and reasonable labor hours. Now, there are increasing concerns that Americans are working too much, that they don't have enough access to health care, and that American jobs are moving overseas. If the unions concentrated on these areas, they wouldn't be hemorrhaging members, nor losing out on the influence battle.

Working too much-

Compared with Europe, Americans receive precious little vacation. Instead of the typical two weeks in America, in Poland an entry-level job earns 20 workdays of vacation. After 10 years (which includes time at college), you get 26. This amount of vacation is not the reason behind Europe's recent slump - that has more to do with difficulties in hiring and firing, as well as high taxation and a high level of bureaucracy.

A few more days of vacation would be in order ...

Americans also work more than 8 hours per day, on average, if you include time on the cell phone, work at home, and skipped lunch hours (just grab some Mickey D's right? - too much work is also detrimental to Americans' health).

Labor unions need to focus (no, not necessarily on reducing work hours), but on promoting things like remote working. Due to increasing technology, people like computer programers, all sorts of writers and independent contractors, can work from home. Working from home reduces the time in the car(see, there are environmental benefits as well), reducing stress levels and time away from the family (and you can still work those 8 hours). For working moms and dads, it could be the solution to spending more time with kids. As flex-time becomes more and more popular, remote working is the next step. Unions need to work with employers and if necessary push them to find more ways to allow their workers more flexibility. That's better for workers' stress levels, their psychology, their physiology, their families, and the environment.

Health care-

This is a battle I see playing out not between the unions and employers, but between unions (and hopefully employers on the same side) and health-care providers and pharmaceuticals. Intellectual property rights need to be restricted so that drugs and health care can become more affordable. If the government isn't going to guarantee health care, then at least we can try to make it guaranteed if you work. However, as we can see in the case of GM, health care costs are now just too much for one company to handle. They need to be reduced, so that health coverage can become a viable - and ubiquitous! - benefit for workers. Undoubtedly, employees will have to cover some of the costs in the future, but we can minimize the costs to both employees and companies.

American jobs overseas/outsourcing-

I am in favor of allowing companies to move their place of production if it allows them better business opportunities. Do you like those cheap clothes? Be glad American companies are moving to China then. But this leaves lots of Americans (with highly specialized skills and with few marketable skills in the new economy) out of work, and the unions can do something about that. Instead of coming out against outsourcing outright, they should take a more long-term view. I think requiring a business to help cover the costs of retraining its workers is not too much to ask. This could be done in two ways, either by requiring the employer to pay one fee up front to help offset the cost of retraining workers (which could either be done through government programs - some alreday exist - or through private training businesses) or they pay a tax which goes to government funding for such retraining.

For an economy to work efficiently, it's got to be flexible. Investing in programs that make our workers more flexible will keep unemployment low and our economy chugging - while we buy the inexpensive raw materials and cheap goods from the countries that can do it best and cheapest.

Unions could also work towards legislation guaranteeing employee retirement benefits against corrupt or incompetent management, and adding members in middle management and new technologies, which they so far haven't been able to gain.

Or, they could keep arguing about how best to get their members more money per hour, how to prevent outsourcing from making businesses more efficient, and how to keep the Republicans out of office (something they're dreadful at) - and become extinct.


Blogger Redneck Texan said...

They might want to think about voting Republican every now and then.

By voting exclusively Democratic they have given the party in power absolutely no reason to give a shit about their needs. Its not like the Democrats have really done anything for them in the last 20 years anyway.

The Democratic party takes their vote for granted, and the Republicans dont have any worries passing anti-union legislation because it does not cost them any votes.

7/25/2005 02:28:00 PM  

Blogger Gustav said...

You're right.

But then again, what can the Dems do, except for keep the Republicans from abolishing unions altogether.

Anyways, many of the members are already voting Republican. Remember "cultural issues" and gun control. We'll just see how much they like a Republican-controlled government. My guess is that it serves their interests much worse than even the Dems did.

And that's why they have to change tack - and they can't wait for politicians of either party to support them either.

7/25/2005 05:45:00 PM  

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