Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Labor's Crucial Second Step
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Organized labor lost big in the presidential election. Very big. But labor's failed all-out attempt to unseat the virulently anti-union George Bush was only the first of two steps aimed at reversing the steep and steady decline in the economic, social and political influence that unions exercise in behalf of most ordinary Americans.

The next and perhaps most important phase in the drive to revitalize labor calls for restructuring -- or even replacing -- the AFL-CIO, the federation that encompasses virtually all unions.

It's a matter of survival, says President Andy Stern of the Service Employees International Union, the country's largest. For with only one worker in 12 belonging to a union, "we are gasping for air as a labor movement."

A half-century ago, one in three workers carried a union card. But since then, adds Stern, "our employers have changed, our industries have changed, technology has changed and the global economy has changed, but the labor movement's structure and culture have sadly stayed the same."

Stern is one of several major union leaders who have joined in a highly ambitious effort to change labor. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, his fellow officers and the leaders of other major unions don't necessarily agree with Stern's specific proposals. Some in fact strongly oppose them. But all agree, as Sweeney says, that "we have to change."

Certainly there's no doubt that despite the steep decline in the proportion of workers belonging to unions, the 13 million-member AFL-CIO is still quite capable of waging the major effort that would be required for significant change.

For proof, consider the presidential campaign, the most extensive -- and most expensive -- ever mounted by organized labor. More than 225,000 union volunteers and staffers took part in the nine-month drive that cost more than $100 million. They distributed millions of leaflets, held hundreds of rallies and demonstrations, operated hundreds of phone banks, walked thousands of precincts to register and turn out voters.

What's more, a record 27 million voters from union households turned out. That was fully one-fourth of all voters, and they favored John Kerry 2-1 overall, by an even greater margin in some battleground states.

The failure of labor's extraordinary effort to defeat Bush will subject unions to even greater hostility from his administration, which already has done them serious harm. The administration has denied union rights to more than a quarter-million federal workers, for instance, attempted to shift some 850,000 federal jobs to private non-union contractors, rescinded regulations limiting the award of contracts to firms that repeatedly violate labor laws, curtailed job training programs and the development and enforcement of job safety and anti-discrimination regulations and the enforcement of the laws governing minimum wages, child labor and other worker protections.

At the very least, the administration undoubtedly will now try to implement previously proposed regulations that would make it difficult for unions to finance political activities and even routine day-to-day operations. Congress, now even more firmly controlled by Bush's Republican cohorts, is certain to do its part by blocking Democratic proposals for increasing the minimum wage, ending tax breaks that encourage employers to shift jobs overseas, and creating a national health insurance system and shoring up Social Security in response to the widespread employer cutbacks in health and pension benefits.

Nor is labor going to get GOP support for revising and effectively enforcing the National Labor Relations Act to keep employers from the blatant interference in organizing drives that's a chief cause of the steady decline in union membership.

Labor's election campaign nevertheless was such that, even in losing, unions gained hundreds of thousands of new supporters -- notably non-union workers who signed on to try to unionize their workplaces through a new AFL-CIO organization, Working America.

The federation is still undecided on what other steps it should take in attempting to revitalize the labor movement, but the ideas getting the most attention call for a sweeping overhaul of the AFL-CIO. They come from the Service Employees' Stern, who's threatening to pull his 1.6 million-member union out of the federation and possibly get other unions to do the same -- or even form a new federation -- if major changes are not made. It's also possible that he and his allies will put up a candidate to challenge AFL-CIO President Sweeney in his bid for a third four-year term next year.

Stern wants the AFL-CIO's member unions to wage a five-year, $2 billion organizing campaign financed in part by cutting in half their per capita payments to the federation. He proposes that AFL-CIO itself spend the $25 million a year in profits from its Union Plus credit card on a drive aimed at unionizing giant retailer Wal-Mart. It has become the hugely profitable model for employers everywhere, keeping its 1.2 million employees' pay and benefits at the poverty level, shifting jobs to even more severely exploited workers overseas and, as Stern says, "viciously opposing workers' freedom to form unions."

Stern also wants to increase union bargaining power and unity by, among other actions, shrinking the number of AFL-CIO affiliates from 60 to as few as 20 much larger and stronger organizations by merging often competing unions with jurisdiction in the same or similar industries. Those unions would in turn form partnerships and alliances with foreign unions that deal with the same multi-national corporations as U.S. unions.

Labor leaders who might very well lose status if their union was merged into another are not pleased with Stern's proposals. Nor are rank-and-file members who want to maintain their unions' separate identity. But the greatest opposition stems from Stern's suggestion that the AFL-CIO be empowered to order the mergers, despite the traditional autonomy of its affiliates. One of the most prominent affiliates, the International Association of Machinists, already has said it will leave the AFL-CIO if the proposal is adopted.

President James P. Hoffa of the powerful 1.2 million-member Teamsters Union has proposed changes similar to those suggested by Stern, but with a proviso that mergers be strictly voluntary. Hoffa also calls for AFL-CIO affiliates to cut their per capita payments, but use the savings primarily to finance a four-year campaign in swing states aimed at electing a pro-labor president.

A committee headed by Sweeney is looking closely at Hoffa and Stern's proposals, as well as more modest changes suggested by others. The final word will come in February when the AFL-CIO's executive council votes on the committee's recommendations.

For organized labor and the millions of working people it champions, the stakes could scarcely be higher. If American unions fail to take a new path the consequences could be at least as severe as those certain to result from labor's failed election campaign.

Copyright 2004 Dick Meister