What If the Labor Movement Dies?

Ten years ago this month, the last great Detroit newspaper strike began. And as you may recall, the unions suffered a massive defeat from which neither they, nor the newspapers, ever recovered.

Now things may be about to get much worse. You’d have a hard time discovering this from our local “news” media, but the odds are that the nation’s biggest labor federation, the AFL-CIO, may break up this month when delegates gather in Chicago for their biannual convention.

Six major unions, angry with what they see as a union bureaucracy that’s stuck in the past, are openly threatening to secede. They include the Teamsters, the Carpenters, the United Food Workers and Laborers.

If they pull out, and are joined by a few wavering unions, it could effectively split the AFL-CIO in half. That stunning blow could have enormous effects on millions of workers, including 650,000 in Michigan.

It could dilute the bargaining power of an already weakened union movement, making individual unions easier for employers to divide and conquer. Their lobbyists would be less effective in Washington.

Unions from both camps might start competing with and fighting each other over workers and contracts, to the delight of the multinational corporations.

Could the fragmentation of the AFL-CIO threaten the survival of the entire labor movement itself? “Sure it could,” Mark Gaffney, president of the AFL-CIO in Michigan, told me last week. “Not only that, it could chill the entire progressive movement in this country and [damage] the Democratic Party.

“It doesn’t take too much imagination to play it out.”

None of this is greatly surprising. The breakup is not being engineered by anti-union right-wingers, but by people genuinely concerned that the labor movement is dying and the people running the nation’s biggest labor federation either don’t have a clue, or are unwilling to change.

Labor has, in fact, been in deep trouble for many years. The old joke is that our labor leaders are totally ready to deal with the problems of 1936. That’s possibly a little unfair, but not much.

When World War II ended, more than a third of all workers — 35 percent — were union members. That has withered dramatically. Today, only about 12.4 percent belong to unions — a figure inflated by public employees.

Look at it this way: In the private sector, unions now are failing to organize a whopping 92 percent of all workers. There are more than a million fewer union members in the land than in 1955, the year the AFL-CIO was created, even though the work force is nearly three times as large.

Next year, all signs are that there will be fewer still. That’s a large part of the reason why Andy Stern, head of the Service Employees International Union, usually known as SEIU, is leading the secession movement.

Stern and his allies think a fossilized bureaucracy is a large part of the reason why, every year, the AFL-CIO loses more members than it gains. They don’t believe John Sweeney and the present leadership can or will do anything to turn things around, and they’re putting together a new coalition called Change to Win. “Bold improvements must be made now so that working people can speak with a strong, united voice,” it says on their Web site.

“Do we continue to let our labor movement get smaller and weaker while global corporations get bigger and stronger? Or do we make bold changes in the labor movement’s strategy and structure in order to build new strength and unity to win good jobs and affordable quality health care and opportunity?”

Gaffney, who’s led the AFL in this state for six years, has an interesting perspective. Physically bearlike at 49, he came up through the ranks of the Teamsters, and looks as if he’d be totally at home in a union hall.

Yet he’s also an intellectual who has a master’s degree in labor and industrial relations, and a sensitive and acute understanding of labor’s difficulties. “In a way, this is a terrible time for this (the threatened split) to happen to labor, but it is also the most appropriate time,” he says.

“We urgently need to change the way we do business. We are doing things in much the same way we did decades ago, and it isn’t working.”

When workers lose their jobs, too often the unions they belonged to fail to stay in touch. Nor has the AFL-CIO figured out how to handle the tensions between its members. Smaller unions look to the national organizations for some services the larger unions can provide themselves. The larger unions resent having to carry part of the financial load for the smaller ones.

“There probably are too many,” Gaffney says of the 58 unions in the federation. But who can suggest that any eliminate themselves?

The other great problem is the constant need to organize new workers while catering to the needs and desires of the existing members who pay the dues. “It’s not like we weren’t having any luck,” Gaffney says. “In the last 10 years or so, the AFL-CIO has signed up more than 400,000 new union members.”

Trouble is, it’s lost even more through downsizing and outsourcing. Gaffney traces a lot of the recent damage to NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. “It’s not that I am opposed to free trade. But the proposal should be amended to require that Mexican workers (making products for shipment to the United States) be paid our minimum wage.”

They would still be making far less than our workers, but way more than the Mexican average. “What that would do is make things fairer here, and also help create stability in Mexico by creating a healthy middle class.”

In many ways, Gaffney seems to agree with a lot of the Change to Win folks’ concerns — though he doesn’t think fragmenting labor’s most powerful voice is the way to go. He’s been floating a compromise under which some of the reform group’s proposals would be adopted, and a member of that group be made the heir apparent to succeed Sweeney, the current AFL-CIO president.

But nobody seems to be going for it. “Both camps are so angry that prospects for a peaceful resolution appear unlikely,” noted Washington Post labor writer Tom Edsall. But in all politics, you can never rule out a last-minute compromise.

Exactly half a century ago, the nation’s front pages were filled with photos of old rivals George Meany and Walter Reuther. They were gleefully embracing, celebrating the merger of Meany’s American Federation of Labor and Reuther’s Congress of Industrial Organizations. Meany probably never could have imagined a day when the federation they created might fall apart because it had become so weak, any more than Reuther ever dreamed the day would come when General Motors bonds would be classified as junk by Wall Street.

What, I wonder, will Mark Gaffney do if there is a split. Will he stay as state leader of a shrunken AFL-CIO, or go with his Teamster homeys over to Change to Win? “I’m like Tennessee,” he says with a small grin, a border state that had a hard time taking sides in the Civil War.

You may take that to mean he’s leaning the way of secession. But I think what he really means is that however civil wars turn out, they tend to be very bloody, and a lot of people get very badly hurt. And the ones who suffer are almost never the men who export workers’ jobs to China.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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