A Plan To Defragment the Labor Movement By Rebuilding ‘Federal Locals’ and Central Labor Councils

Douglas Williams and Cato Uticensis

Directly Affiliated Local Unions (DALU) helped begin the strike wave in auto manufacturing that would culminate with the Flint Sit-Down Strikes and the establishment of the United Auto Workers union.

The words on the flag of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers are a perfect summation of the labor movement at its best: JUSTICE ON THE JOB, SERVICE TO THE COMMUNITY.”

It is that sense of solidarity that drives aggrieved workers to reach out to union organizers in the first place. They know that they are not just signing up to join a local or negotiate a contract, but to be a part of a movement that has been the last line of defense for many a worker since those Mill Girls first walked off the line in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1845. It is a movement that has come out of the shadows of its craft union past to embrace an industrial unionism that places its priorities in growing the ranks of the organized.

Well…not exactly.

The truth is that the American labor movement still operates under a system where we organize by industry. It is not even as if that organizing model operates on a one-to-one basis, either: for example, postal workers have five different unions that they can organize under. There are also times when different unions have industries where their organizing reach overlaps with one another. That is where things can get ugly, as it did in 2013 when the West Coast-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO after rival unions crossed ILWU picket lines in Washington State. And, of course, there was the breakaway Change To Win labor federation that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) led out of the AFL-CIO in 2005, which essentially imploded in 2008 after SEIU launched a wave of raids against UNITE HERE, one of the unions that joined SEIU in breaking away from the AFL-CIO.

All of these ructions in the labor movement are happening at a time where the anti-worker forces are gathering momentum, passing odious laws and getting major victories at the United States Supreme Court. We must evaluate, challenge, and remake the way that we conduct business in our movement. But how?

The first major challenge to the kind of craft unionism exemplified by the old American Federation of Labor emerged from the Industrial Workers of the World. The IWW, or the Wobblies, saw the fragmented, squabbling, and exclusively white and male craft unions as an inadequate challenge to the plutocratic rule of the Gilded Age, and with good reason. Their answer to this state of affairs was industrial unionism, which called for organizing all workers in a given job site (and eventually all workers everywhere) into One Big Union. Sadly, in the face of brutal repression on trumped-up pretexts by Attorney-General Mitchell Palmer and internal conflicts, the IWW ultimately crumbled as a political organization and exists mostly as a shadow of its former self.

One of the things that the Wobblies were absolutely right about was the power of industrial unionism. Later industrial unions, organized frequently by ex-Wobblies and other radicals, would come to dominate the labor movement under the banner of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. New and vital industrial unions like the United Auto Workers joined with efforts by established craft unions like the Steel Workers Organizing Committee to organize across the United States.

If there is any one story about labor from the Depression and wartime eras, it is the undeniable fact that industrial unionism was a more effective method of organizing workers than the old craft system. So why does the house of labor remain so fragmented?

The IWW’s notion of One Big Union is a grand idea, and if we were starting from a blank sheet of paper, that is the model that should be pursued. However, we are not starting from a blank sheet of paper, then or now, and existing unions have assets, history, experienced activists, and knowledge that is too useful to just throw out. There’s also the strong group identity that union members form as a natural course of shared struggle. None of these things are actually bad; most of them are good for any kind of sustained class struggle. Yet all of this adds up to significant pressures towards keeping the status quo of fragmentation.

Any effort to reorganize the American labor movement’s internal structure needs to do four things. First, it needs to preserve labor’s existing structures as much as possible. Second, it needs to make cross-industry solidarity as easy as possible, to the point of being reflexive. Third, it needs to be accessible to unorganized workers. Finally, it needs to be accountable from below.

This brings us to our solution: the revival of the federal local, otherwise known as Directly Affiliated Local Unions (DALU), and using them to build the capacity of central labor councils as representative bodies.

If you have not heard of the DALU, it is understandable; there are only a handful in existence right now. But there was a time when DALUs were some of the most radical and community-focused labor organizations in the country. It was AFL Federal Local 18384, for example, that organized the Toledo Auto-Lite Strike in 1934 and began the strike wave in auto manufacturing that would culminate with the Flint Sit-Down Strikes and the establishment of the UAW. But the organizations would become a victim of craft unionism, as individual unions complained that the DALU violated their jurisdictional rights. Most of the DALUs were dissolved by the end of World War II.

In today’s fractured labor movement, however, the DALU can play a huge role in building working-class power and solidarity. This is the core of our proposal: establish the central labor council as the day-to-day core of union life. 

As it stands right now, the CLC mostly exists as an organ of labor to screen candidates during elections. Only in areas where there is a significant union density (such as Washington, D.C., or Chicago) does the CLC have the resources to do anything more significant than this. By putting the center of daily union life in the CLC, you by default make the concerns of one group of union workers the concerns of all union workers. No longer can disgruntled union members complain about the international doing (insert grievance here)”; the face of the labor movement is now your neighbor.

In addition, every CLC should run an associate membership program, which would allow workers who are not actively being organized at the moment a chance to meaningfully participate in the movement. Those workers would gradually build a relationship with the CLC’s organizers, thereby making it easier to turn that associate member into a full member, along with everyone else at their workplace.

The CLCs would be established along the standard lines of president, vice president and secretary-treasurer, and its primary deliberative body would be a committee made up of delegates elected from all affiliated locals. Locals with membership of six thousand to eight thousand members would get three delegates, locals with membership from three thousand to six thousand would get two, and locals with less than three thousand members would get one. This body would oversee the work of the elected officers, determine the strategic direction of the movement locally, and hire and fire council staff.

The elected officers would handle the day-to-day operations of the council, assist in representational and organizing work, oversee the work of council staff, and keep all data and files created by affiliated locals, including things like membership rolls, organizing maps and charting, and past grievances. The CLC would also continue to fill its political role of screening candidates running for office.

The national AFL-CIO would receive per capita tax payments from the CLCs as if the CLCs were international affiliates today. This would allow the national AFL-CIO to continue in its current capacity of providing education, organizer training, and coordination across the entire movement, such as in the fight against awful trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

This cannot happen overnight, though. As very few CLCs have the capacity to do this kind of work, they must be given the resources to develop the expertise needed. This is why organizing DALUs is important, as the workers they organize would pump money and (more importantly) new activists into the movement. It would also open up new opportunities to organize workers wall-to-wall, meaning that DALUs should seek to organize all the workers in a given community. Be it retail, service, manufacturing, education, or the public sector, there should be no worker left behind, no scumbag boss able to feel free to abuse their employees. DALUs should strive towards full unionization in the communities that they serve.

The DALUs would be capped at 8,000 members (give or take a few hundred workers) in order to facilitate quality member service and representation. Upon reaching the cap, a new local will be chartered within the CLC, which in turn will be populated by workplaces equaling roughly half the old local’s membership. The housing of local data and files at the CLC rather than with the DALU will allow for a smoother transition when new locals are chartered.

As this plan sees success, existing union locals affiliated with an international would start participating the CLCs in the way that the directly-affiliated locals would, creating a positive feedback loop and strengthening ties between workers across industry. Gradually, international unions would transition into being a source of expertise and industry-specific knowledge instead of being actively involved in organizing new workers and representational work. They would grow into being something akin to an affinity group instead of a separate political body. In the case of nationwide bargaining units, the internationals are the correct body to coordinate negotiations in conjunction with locals who contain workers affected by these agreements.

The most relevant historical example of what we seek to accomplish here is detailed by Peter Rachleff in Staughton Lynd’s 1996 book We Are All Leaders: The Alternative Unionism of the 1930s. In that book, Rachleff describes the organizing done by the Minnesota-based International Union of All Workers (IUAW):

From its base in the Hormel plant, the IUAW spread to other workers in Austin and to community after community. In Austin, where the union relied on the collective consuming power of the Hormel workers and their families, it reached its goal of 100 percent unionization. It included units’ of truckers and warehouse workers, barbers and beauticians, waiters, waitresses, and bartenders, construction tradesmen and laborers, WPA laborers, automobile mechanics and service station attendants, laundry and dry-cleaning workers, retail clerks and municipal employees.

More than anything, the aim of this plan is to cultivate a sense of unity and group identity across the entire union movement (and hopefully, eventually, the entire working class) from the bottom-up. By creating a single center for workers to go for support and assistance in times of need, the union movement would take its rightful place as the voice of the working class.

Twenty-six months ago, we wrote that the American labor movement was in a fight for its very existence. We were right. Labor is now on the verge of the forced introduction of the open shop to public sector unions because of the Supreme Court’s neo-Lochnerite bent, and richly-funded anti-worker organizations are beginning to lobby for municipal open-shop ordinances in states with union-friendly legislatures.

The hour is late and organized labor does not have the time or the resources to afford the luxury of internecine fighting. Only by unifying the union movement into a single, cohesive body that represents the interests of the working class writ large can it survive the worsening storm, much less roll it back.

Help In These Times Celebrate & Have Your Gift Matched!

In These Times is proud to share that we were recently awarded the 16th Annual Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. The Izzy Award goes to an independent outlet, journalist or producer for contributions to culture, politics or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

In These Times is proud to stand alongside our fellow awardees in accepting the 2024 Izzy Award. To help us continue producing award-winning journalism a generous donor has pledged to match any donation, dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,000.

Will you help In These Times celebrate and have your gift matched today? Make a tax-deductible contribution to support independent media.

Douglas Williams is a doctoral student in political science at Wayne State University in Detroit, where his research centers around public policy, disadvantaged communities and the labor movement. Cato Uticensis is the pseudonym used by a union organizer in North Carolina. He can be found on Twitter at @Cato_of_Utica and at the nearest Biscuitville. Both blog regularly at The South Lawn.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.