Whither Change to Win?

Steve Early October 10, 2011

Joe Hansen, international president of the United Food and Commercial Workers and current chair of Change to Win, speaks at the organization's founding convention in 2005.

The much-her­ald­ed break­away labor fed­er­a­tion now calls itself a strate­gic orga­niz­ing center”

Most six-year-olds like to have a big birth­day bash, with lots of games, presents, bal­loons, sug­ary cake, and as much noise as possible.

But Change to Win, the new kid on labor’s block born in 2005, has opt­ed for a qui­eter approach, much in con­trast with the cel­e­bra­to­ry and self-aggran­diz­ing scene at its fes­tive found­ing con­ven­tion in St Louis six years ago. On that occa­sion, CTW founders like Tom Woodruff, cur­rent­ly its exec­u­tive direc­tor, talked about spend­ing $750 mil­lion a year on new orga­niz­ing dri­ves sim­i­lar to those launched by the Con­gress of Indus­tri­al Orga­ni­za­tions (CIO) in the 1930s. Then-UNITE HERE co-pres­i­dent Bruce Raynor (recent­ly drummed out of SEIU for alleged expense account fid­dling) gave a rad­i­cal-sound­ing speech call­ing for the impris­on­ment of cor­po­rate boss­es who stole work­ers’ pen­sion fund mon­ey.

Six years after these rhetor­i­cal fire­works, only four of the sev­en unions that broke away from the AFL-CIO to form CTW remain in the lat­ter camp. The union coali­tion that soci­ol­o­gist Ruth Milk­man (and oth­ers) once tout­ed as labor’s best hope — maybe its only hope — for revi­tal­iza­tion” is rarely seen or heard from. At the Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Team­sters (IBT) con­ven­tion in Las Vegas in July, lead­ers of the two largest CTW affil­i­ates — James Hof­fa, pres­i­dent of the host union, and Mary Kay Hen­ry, pres­i­dent of the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) — lath­ered much praise on each oth­er. But nei­ther ever men­tioned the words Change to Win,” in 40 min­utes worth of speechi­fy­ing about the close work­ing rela­tion­ship between SEIU and the IBT.

On its own web­site, CTW recent­ly gave itself a down­grade. It now describes the alliance of SEIU, IBT, Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers (UFCW), and the tiny Unit­ed Farm Work­ers (UFW) as a Strate­gic Orga­niz­ing Cen­ter,” not a new labor fed­er­a­tion. The par­tic­i­pat­ing unions are work­ing on just four inno­v­a­tive orga­niz­ing cam­paigns in the pri­vate sec­tor econ­o­my” — involv­ing farm labor, port truck­ing, ware­hous­ing, and Wal-Mart. (All four groups of work­ers were a mem­ber­ship recruit­ment focus of the UFW, IBT, and/​or UFCW respec­tive­ly long before they left the AFL-CIO and linked up togeth­er.) This mod­est re-con­cep­tion of Change to Win’s role is a far cry from ear­li­er claims to be a dynam­ic, fast-grow­ing alter­na­tive to a labor fed­er­a­tion for­ev­er hob­bled by its own dys­func­tion­al bureau­cra­cy and inter­nal pro­to­col.

The com­mon denom­i­na­tor of CTW seems to be its affil­i­ates’ shared inter­est in con­tin­u­ing to pay low­er per capi­ta dues than the nation­al AFL-CIO requires (now 65 cents per mem­ber per month); the four Strate­gic Orga­niz­ing Cen­ter” par­tic­i­pants pay about half what oth­er cash-strapped unions con­tribute to the fed­er­a­tion now led by Rich Trum­ka, for­mer pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed Mine Work­ers. If the CTW defec­tors had remained in the main House of Labor,” AFL pro­grams and staff would have received an esti­mat­ed $150 mil­lion more in dues and spe­cial assess­ments since 2005.

The sec­ond com­ing of the CIO?

At the time of its birth, skep­tics argued that CTW was more about the mon­ey (as in pay­ing less), than a dif­fer­ent kind of union func­tion­ing. (At most, CTW recalled the short-lived Alliance for Labor Action, an odd-cou­pling of the Chem­i­cal Work­ers, Team­sters, and Auto Work­ers formed in the late 1960s when the UAW and IBT were both on the outs with the AFL-CIO.) Crit­ics saw the CTW union defec­tions as a self-serv­ing dues revolt, dressed up as a prin­ci­pled part­ing of ways between a recal­ci­trant old guard” (then per­son­i­fied by one-time pro­gres­sive hero John Sweeney) and Sweeney’s frus­trat­ed and impa­tient for­mer back­ers — Bruce Raynor, John Wil­helm, then co-pres­i­dent of UNITE-HERE, and Andy Stern, now pres­i­dent emer­i­tus” of SEIU.

In the parched land­scape of Amer­i­can labor, cir­ca 2004 – 5, CTW shim­mered briefly as an oasis in the desert. But its jour­nal­is­tic and cam­pus cheer­lead­ers, like UCLA Pro­fes­sor Milk­man, failed to see that it was a mixed bag at best, more mirage than real, and hard­ly the sec­ond com­ing of the CIO. With­in its ranks were the Car­pen­ters, already estranged from the AFL-CIO and detest­ed by oth­er build­ing trades unions for poach­ing on their turf and under­min­ing indus­try stan­dards. (See this sto­ry I wrote back in Sep­tem­ber 2009.) 

Car­pen­ters pres­i­dent Dou­glas McCar­ron was George Bush’s clos­est friend in the labor move­ment and, thus, not the best exam­ple of the new approach­es to pol­i­tics osten­si­bly favored by CTW. Team­ster pres­i­dent Hof­fa, anoth­er unlike­ly reformer,” pro­fessed no inter­est in realign­ing union juris­dic­tion in the ide­al fash­ion favored by Stern, Raynor, and Wil­helm.

Those Ivy League Ami­gos” — as I call them in my recent book, The Civ­il Wars in U.S. Labor—were the dri­ving force behind the New Uni­ty Part­ner­ship” (NUP) that pre­ced­ed the sev­en union split from the AFL-CIO. It was an arti­cle of faith among them that top-down struc­tur­ing, assist­ed by union merg­ers, was the panacea for labor. Before his depar­ture, Raynor insist­ed that the AFL-CIO’s 50-plus affil­i­ates should con­sol­i­date into just 10 to 15 mega-unions, with less over­lap­ping juris­dic­tion and a bet­ter focus on core indus­tries.”

A Change to Win divorce

To demon­strate how pro­gres­sive unions could super­size them­selves overnight and grow faster, Raynor and Wil­helm formed the 440,000-member UNITE HERE. With­in five years, how­ev­er, this much applaud­ed mar­riage of equals” foundered on the rocks of a messy divorce that proved cost­ly and dis­rup­tive for both hotel and gar­ment work­ers. The med­dle­some third par­ty in that trou­bled rela­tion­ship was none oth­er than CTW found­ing father Andy Stern. In ear­ly 2009, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly lay­ing waste to his own hos­pi­tal work­er base in Cal­i­for­nia, Stern wooed a rump group from UNITE HERE, led by Raynor, into SEIU.

The CTW civ­il war between UNITE HERE and the SEIU-affil­i­at­ed Work­ers Unit­ed” proved to be a car­ni­val of orga­ni­za­tion­al can­ni­bal­ism. Eigh­teen months and tens of mil­lions of dol­lars lat­er, SEIU — by then head­ed by Mary Kay Hen­ry — sued for peace (and, not long after­wards, got rid of Raynor).

As Dai­ly News colum­nist Juan Gon­za­lez explained it to Democ­ra­cy Now! lis­ten­ers in July 2009,

the reform­ers that were sup­posed to be the Change to Win unions have become so torn by inter­nal divi­sion and attempts by SEIU to dom­i­nate the Amer­i­can labor move­ment that, in essence, the Change to Win fed­er­a­tion is — it’s not offi­cial­ly dead yet, but … some of the exist­ing Change to Win unions will soon be rejoin­ing the AFL-CIO, but prob­a­bly with­out SEIU.

As Gon­za­lez pre­dict­ed, UNITE HERE, fol­lowed by the Labor­ers, soon re-affil­i­at­ed with the AFL-CIO, fol­low­ing the Car­pen­ters out the door of CTW (an embar­rass­ing return to inde­pen­dent union sta­tus that CTW took more than a year to acknowl­edge).

In its cur­rent down­sized con­di­tion, CTW is still dom­i­nat­ed by SEIU, its largest finan­cial backer. Although UFCW pres­i­dent Joe Hansen has replaced now retired SEIU sec­re­tary-trea­sur­er Anna Burg­er as chair of the group, three of its sev­en lead­er­ship coun­cil” mem­bers are SEIU offi­cers or exec­u­tive board mem­bers. One of them, SEIU EVP Woodruff dou­bles as exec­u­tive direc­tor” of CTW. My infor­ma­tion requests for this arti­cle were ini­tial­ly field­ed by Bob Calla­han, a vet­er­an SEIU oper­a­tive involved in Stern’s dis­as­trous 2009-11 trustee­ship over Unit­ed Health­care Work­ers-West; he failed to pro­vide any request­ed data about CTW’s cur­rent bud­get, staffing, or dues struc­ture.

When asked to assess the state of Change To Win today, one long­time union staffer likened its cur­rent func­tion­ing to that of a sin­gle AFL-CIO head­quar­ters depart­ment, the Food and Allies Ser­vices Trades (FAST) group, before the split. Like CTW today, FAST helped coor­di­nate cor­po­rate cam­paigns and orga­niz­ing by some of the same nation­al unions. After its key affil­i­ates defect­ed to CTW, FAST was dis­band­ed and its tal­ent­ed cor­po­rate cam­paign staff dis­persed else­where. Younger labor activists who grav­i­tat­ed toward CTW for field staff jobs, after the split, often end­ed up dis­il­lu­sioned — and laid off as well.

As one ex-CTW polit­i­cal cam­paign­er told me, Change to Win was a husk of a fed­er­a­tion and always has been. There was not a whole lot there and it was a con­stant bat­tle to get any­one to work togeth­er. It hasn’t suc­ceed­ed by its own mea­sures, or any­one else’s.”

In the ear­ly years of CTW, only SEIU dis­played much of the promised mem­ber­ship growth CTW was sup­posed to fos­ter. Between 2006 and 2008, it added 300,000 work­ers to its ranks. But, in 2009 and 2010 — thanks large­ly to the labor civ­il war­fare unleashed by Stern — SEIU’s aver­age annu­al growth slowed to 55,000, even with the addi­tion of dis­put­ed mem­bers of UNITE HERE.

Sandy Pope, the Team­ster reformer from New York who is run­ning against incum­bent IBT leader James Hof­fa, has long been crit­i­cal of CTW and wary of SEIU influ­ence on her union. If she defeats Hof­fa in the mail bal­lot vote that began Octo­ber 6, Pope pledges to work for greater labor uni­ty. In her view, Change to Win has done lit­tle to pro­mote the kind of bot­tom up, cross-union sol­i­dar­i­ty, at the rank-and-file lev­el that embat­tled unions need.

Six years after its found­ing, only a hand­ful of the 5.5 mil­lion work­ers” who, accord­ing to the CTW web­site, unit­ed to cre­ate Change to Win” even know what it is or why they are in it. In the 1930s, it was the just the oppo­site: the CIO brand was so strong that even work­ers unsure about their own union’s acronym proud­ly iden­ti­fied with the broad­er indus­tri­al union movement.

In today’s very dif­fer­ent envi­ron­ment, sim­i­lar brand loy­al­ty is not like­ly to arise from an overblown inside-the-Belt­way con­coc­tion like Change To Win. As union activists learned from the WTO bat­tle in Seat­tle in 1999, the mass strike activ­i­ty over immi­grant rights in 2006 and this year’s occu­pa­tions of the Wis­con­sin state capi­tol and Wall Street, putting real move­ment back in the labor move­ment requires an upsurge from below — not a reshuf­fling of deck chairs on a sec­ond (and even small­er) Titan­ic.

Steve Ear­ly spent 27 years as a New Eng­land staff mem­ber of the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca, an AFL-CIO affil­i­ate that opposed the Change to Win split in 2005. He is the author, most recent­ly, of
The Civ­il Wars in U.S. Labor (Hay­mar­ket Books, 2011) which chron­i­cles the sub­se­quent implo­sion of labor’s pro­gres­sive wing.

Steve Ear­ly worked for 27 years as an orga­niz­er and inter­na­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca. He is the author of sev­er­al books, includ­ing Refin­ery Town: Big Oil, Big Mon­ey, and the Remak­ing of an Amer­i­can City (Bea­con Press). 

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