August 7, 2005
One of the most fascinating stories to come along in a long
time is the
one involving the rather historic break-up of the largest
organization in America, the AFL-CIO. The move has spooked
Democratic Party leaders and the ranks of organized workers,
futures now in the hands of labor rebels who bolted the 50-year-old
federation vowing to reverse the steep decline in union membership.
Most of us who have ever worked in the electronic media or
entertainment, especially in larger urban markets, have been
either AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio
SAG (Screen Actors Guild). If you have worked behind the scenes
craft world, you may have been a member of the IBEW (International
Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, or perhaps IATSE (International
Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees).
My past also includes membership in the Los Angeles Newspaper
the United Industrial and Cannery Workers Union, when I packed
four-pound tuna cans into boxes and washed down the gutters
of the old
fish canneries in L.A. Harbor many years ago. In fact, I come
strong union family and my Dad retired as a vice president
Cannery Workers Union and Seafarers International, so I understand
labor is all about. It's in my blood, yes, my dues-paying
Much of labor has lost its path in recent years and the bitter
personalities and agendas split labor into rival camps, as
unions, the Teamsters and the Service Employees International
(SEIU), the country's largest union, broke from the AFL-CIO
Federation of Labor - Congress of Industrial Organizations)
their own federation, the 'Change to Win Coalition.' At least
unions - the United Food and Commercial Workers and Unite
Here, a union
of hospitality and textile workers ' are also breaking away.
is probably just the beginning.
This is costing the AFL-CIO about a third of its 13 million
will significantly strain its budget. The AFL-CIO already
has had to
lay off a quarter of its Washington staff. The SEIU and Teamsters
alone account for more than $20 million of an estimated $120
AFL-CIO budget. That's a sizable chunk.
A lot of people don't seem to understand the break-up, but
dissidents who left, and some analysts, say the split will
competition, a new devotion to unionizing, and eventually,
to help working people at the workplace and in politics.
The split is simple to explain. The average union workers,
I like to
call them 'Joe and Sally Six-Pack', got tired of having their
dues spent on national elections or in other states instead
the money to strengthen the labor movement closer to home,
membership, and make local unions stronger.
Andy Stern, the president of the SEIU, the first to bolt
amplified that point by saying, "Our goal is not to divide
movement, but to rebuild it."
Instead of listening to the workers on the street, the national
international bigwigs more and more began playing fat cats
politicians and the leaders of business they were supposed
challenge. They also were lining their pockets, forgetting
workers on the front lines and their needs.
Some of the biggest problems can be traced directly to John
the American Federation of Labor's portly president, who was
years ago as the 'reform' candidate. Imbued with a bureaucratic
leadership style, Sweeney's method of solving problems was
still another initiative, strategic group, study committee
staff positions, while ignoring proposals from dissident union
This is a bad way to do business with people who are paying
save their jobs, get them better wages and benefits, and keep
going non-union or overseas.
Sweeney's elaborate efforts of study committees and new staffers
not prevent a series of expensive organizing failures that
secret from the membership. But what Sweeney could not hide
during his 10-year tenure as AFL-CIO president, labor's percentage
the nation's work force had dropped from 14.2%, when he took
12.5%, with a meager 7.8% of those jobs being in the private
And there was absolutely no significant legislative accomplishment
the millions of dollars that the unions had spent on an agenda
Even Sweeney's supporters concede that he is a bust as a
in an age where television and even the Internet demand more
and charm. In the rare times Sweeney has appeared on a national
show, he comes across as a dull personality with a monotone
few interesting things to say to a national audience. He lacks
charm, and seems unable to respond to a tough question with
or a clever one-liner. He simply does not do well at communicating
both the woes and aspirations of working families. That's
he shuns many opportunities to appear before the public to
His speeches are a total bore. He's guilty of constantly
his messages loaded with horrific bureaucratic jargon, with
humorous comment that might evoke a smile. He never alludes
to a great
philosopher, scientist, poet, painter or historical figure.
the impression is that he doesn't read much of anything except
reports and memos. Does he have any cultural interests' He
Yet, Sweeney felt he deserved to be re-elected to another
term as AFL-CIO president and guess what' He won. He already
50% of the convention votes he needed to win. What that means
eight or ten of the presidents of the big unions, who each
hundreds of thousands of convention votes, were committed
to giving him
their support to seal his victory.
Ordinary union members, of course, have no voice at the annual
conventions. It is doubtful whether Sweeney could ever muster
than 3% of the votes if the AFL-CIO elected its president
nationwide election, because he is not well-known or well-liked
The remarkable thing is that, at least until this split came
there was never a single labor leader, knowing all of Sweeney's
shortcomings, who had the proverbial 'huevos' to oppose him.
while, the dissident group of union presidents was grooming
their own, John Wilhelm, the head of UNITE-HERE, a merged
garment and hotel workers, but Wilhelm held off, after counting
and finding he could get only about 35% of the vote.
The thought of Sweeney's impending re-election was the last
Andy Stern at the SEIU, who had been threatening to pull out
AFL-CIO for many months and now made it fairly certain that
bolt, taking as many unions as he could into a new labor federation.
Stern was joined by his recently-acquired ally, Douglas McCarron,
president of the 500,000-member Brotherhood of Carpenters,
who has a
well-founded reputation as one of the worst autocrats in the
They both saw the writing on the wall, that working families
that public sector jobs were not the answer because the taxpayers
a close watch on government growth and the trend has been
government and lower taxes, especially among union workers
being asked to fund higher government salaries and pension
union paychecks that were shrinking and disappearing.
As American companies shut down factories in the U.S. and
formerly-union jobs out of the country, U.S. labor movement
demanded hard answers. They never came. In addition to globalization
issues, there was the ever-increasing use of automation and
transition from an industrial-based economy that forced hundreds
thousands of unionized workers out of jobs, weakening labor's
And while this is the biggest rift in organized labor since
the CIO split from the AFL, supporters of the breakup note
made big gains when the two groups competed. One of every
private-sector workers belonged to a labor group when the
AFL and the
CIO merged in the 1950s. Now, less than 8 percent of private-sector
workers are unionized.
The SEIU's Stern says the split 'represents not an accomplishment,
simply an enormous opportunity, and a recognition that we
are in the
midst of the most rapid transformative moment in economic
workers are suffering.'
The break-away unions face tough times in making their break-away
efforts succeed. The future of the labor movement could be
affected by the success or failure of Stern's effort to build
coalition outside the AFL-CIO that dedicates more money and
recruiting union members while adjusting to demands of the
Some of the people casting a wary eye at the break-away movement
of course, politicians who have been on the receiving end
national union money. Democratic candidates and political
that benefit the Democratic Party have to date, been the largest
beneficiaries of the national union bucks. Stern, Teamsters'
boss James Hoffa and their colleagues in the Change to Win
had repeatedly pushed the AFL-CIO to shift focus from such
activity to recruiting new union members, contending that
union movement would naturally increase its political and
Hoffa says they were repeatedly rebuffed, 'They said no.
Their idea is
to keep throwing money at politicians.' Sweeney should have
better than to ignore guys like Hoffa and Stern. It became
little guys in the trenches paying Sweeney and the other `execs
AFL-CIO were going to fight back. They did.
Now we will watch closely to see if Hoffa, Stern and their
deliver on their promises to the masses or fall prey to the
of the greedy politicians who can't live without their regular
This could be another beginning of the end for labor, or
it could be
the first day of the rest of labor's resurgence and a victory
helping union workers, instead of lining the pockets of sleazy
politicos and national union bosses like John Sweeney.