Thursday, June 16, 2005


Five unions, lead by Andy Stern, voted to secede from the AFL-CIO. Their beef is that AFL-CIO is not doing enough to organize new unions and to expand the labor base. Union membership is at an all-time low, and manufacturing unions are shrinking as manufacturers have been outsourcing jobs over the last 25 years.

At the same time, Andy Stern, leader of the SEIU, along with UNITE-HERE (a coalition of the hotel workers and needleworkers) have seen enormous growth. They've been organizing and sucking up smaller unions, building a vast new labor movement within the AFL-CIO.

The divide between the service economy unions (new economy) and the heavy industry unions (old economy, in broad brushstrokes) is getting wider and wider. As outsourcing hits service jobs harder, those unions want the strength to protect their workers the way the auto-workers, miners, teamsters, etc. did in the mid-20th century.

Stern has been pushing for the AFL-CIO to engage in a major new organizing campaign, to dedicate 20% of the AFL-CIO budget to new organizing. If they did that, it would be huge.

I got in touch with Tim Wells, a friend who claims the title of "Imperious Boob" at the Taft-Hartley Fund connected with a New York union, 1199SEIU. 1199 was a drug, hospital and health care union operating within New York City. In 2002, they joined the SEIU, and went statewide. They went from 75,000 to 250,000 members in the last few years. By the end of the decade, the SEIU hopes to organize throughout upstate New York, something a city union wouldn't have the resources for. They plan to double in size in the next 5 years.

In some areas where they'll organize, skilled hospital workers are earning $11/hour. These are people you trust with your life, and they are earning a wage that can't do more than get them paycheck to paycheck.

So, the AFL-CIO is shrinking, but the SEIU is growing. How do they do that? By organizing new businesses and bringing non-union labor into the fold. There aren't enough new auto factories being built for a similar strategy to work for the UAW. That difference in industries alone may be enough to explain these threats of division.

Will labor split? My friend thinks not. There's a sense that this is a political ploy to force John Sweeney, the incumbent candidate for AFL-CIO president, out of office. Five unions banding together to demand more organizing makes him look weak and forces new organizing onto the table.

The SEIU is currently the largest union in the AFL-CIO, and if it left, that would cause massive rearrangements. The Laborers have promised to stay in, but the Teamsters are going to vote on secession next month.

SEIU is a stealth union, in some ways. Teamsters, UAW, Mine Workers, Needle Workers and Laborers all have a long history and a cultural presence. The Service Employees International Union doesn't have the same resonance. Nonetheless, it has made the effort to expand and follow new trends, and I really do see this as a fight between "old economy" workers and "new economy" workers.

In particular, when you look at the coalition, you find the five unions most threatened by Walmart. Service workers, food and commercial workers, teamsters, laborers, and needle workers are all threatened by the abysmal wages paid by Walmart, and each needs the others to take effective action against Walmart. It may be reading too much into this, but the subtext of this fight may revolve largely around Walmart.

There's a deeper subtext, but that's for another day.

Tomorrow: Unions and globalization.