A Brief History of Labor Unsolidarity: AFL-CIO and Change to Win

Stephen Franklin

As Labor­ers union heads back to AFL-CIO, the price of orga­nized labor’s big break-up seems big­ger than ever

Big labor was becom­ing small­er and small­er. Jobs were dis­ap­pear­ing. So were unions. Wages were shrink­ing. Ben­e­fits were fly­ing out the window.

In the 1990s, the heads of the AFL-CIO fought it out like they had rarely done before. As a result of the lead­er­ship bat­tle, John Sweeney became pres­i­dent. Change was in the air. New ideas float­ed. New faces showed up.

But the 1990s and the new cen­tu­ry were not friend­ly times for union mem­bers. Blue-col­lar jobs con­tin­ued to van­ish. Union work­ers were blamed for earn­ing too much while oth­ers saw their pay­checks grow smaller.

And some unions made life even worse. Hun­gry for new blood, they went after any work­ers they could catch – even if the union knew did­dly about the indus­try. Unions boast­ed about orga­niz­ing new mem­bers, but that’s all many of them did.

Union lead­ers talked about open­ing their ranks and their union halls to every­one. But old­er white guys still called the meet­ings togeth­er and the rank and file, if they ever showed up at a meet­ing, didn’t look too dif­fer­ent from the folks in charge.

Even if he want­ed to, the head of the AFL-CIO is not the czar of labor. So there were walls Sweeney couldn’t knock down as frus­tra­tions grew.

So the anger boiled over into an angry breakup. Fueled by hun­dreds of inch­es of ratio­nal-sound­ing argu­ments, Andy Stern and the Ser­vice Work­ers (SEIU) led the revolt in 2005. The Labor­ers, Farm Work­ers, Food Work­ers, Team­sters and UNITE – the merged union of the hotel and gar­ment work­ers marched off behind Stern say­ing they would form a bet­ter labor federation.

Oth­ers, they pre­dict­ed, would follow.

But they didn’t and the new­ly shrunk­en AFL-CIO had to do less with few­er work­ers and less mon­ey. In Wash­ing­ton and else­where the voice of labor was miss­ing in places where it need­ed to be. With­out it, work­ers didn’t get a fair break.

The new fed­er­a­tion, Change to Win, couldn’t fill the gap left by the AFL-CIO’s shrink­age and it took the new fed­er­a­tion a long time to fig­ure out how to work as a group, let alone how to carve out a place for itself.

Across the coun­try, already bad­ly hob­bled by its foes and its own mis­steps, orga­nized labor lost mem­bers, and yet more of its dimin­ished presence.

The inde­pen­dent-mind­ed Car­pen­ters didn’t see any inter­est in join­ing the new fed­er­a­tion. An omen. Then came the inter­nal explo­sion with­in UNITE, which sent the hotel work­ers back into the AFL-CIO’s arms.

And now the Labor­ers (aka the Labor­ers’ Inter­na­tion­al Union of North Amer­i­ca) say they will soon go home to the AFL-CIO. (The reunion will take effect on Octo­ber 1.)

What’s the les­son here? Hasn’t orga­nized labor split and divid­ed before, with unions march­ing off say­ing they know how to find a bet­ter deal? What’s new?

What’s new is that these have been ter­ri­ble times for work­ers and unions, that the price of the AFL-CIO breakup was tru­ly hefty. Poised on a his­toric precipice, labor has had to do all it can to keep its footing.

Maybe in days ahead as they face more heart­break, union lead­ers will think sol­i­dar­i­ty and not just say the words.

Stephen Franklin is a for­mer labor and work­place reporter for the Chica­go Tri­bune, was until recent­ly the eth­nic media project direc­tor with Pub­lic Nar­ra­tive in Chica­go. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heart­land Loss­es and What They Mean for Work­ing Amer­i­cans (2002), and has report­ed through­out the Unit­ed States and the Mid­dle East.

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