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Will the AFL-CIO Split? A Debate on the Future of Organized Labor

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A handful of top national labor union leaders have threatened to split away from the powerful AFL-CIO and set up a new labor alliance unless the parent body adopts new policies to stem decades of decline in union membership. We host a debate with spokespeople from the Communications Workers of America and Unite Here. [includes rush transcript]

A major review of the organization and direction of the labor movement is currently underway following President Bush”s reelection. A meeting of major union leaders last month was called by AFL-CIO president John Sweeney to debate the future of the movement.

While all sides agreed something must be done to stem decades of decline in union membership, there are sharp disagreements over what strategy should be taken.

In an unprecedented move, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Unite Here and others have banded together into a group called the New Unity Partnership. They claim that organized labor’s current crisis is so profound that the union movement can be saved only by a total overhaul of the AFL-CIO and have threatened to split from the federation unless new policies are adopted.

Andrew Stern, the president of SEIU, has promoted a 10-point plan for change with a brochure, a sophisticated Web site and a blog. Key to the plan is a proposal to consolidate the AFL-CIO’s 60 unions into fewer than 20 and for using the $25 million in yearly profits from its credit card program to mount a nationwide campaign to unionize Wal-Mart to improve workers” wages and benefits.

Today we host a debate on the future of organized labor.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Today, we host a debate on the future of organized labor.

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined by Chris Chafe, Chief of Staff and Political Director at Unite Here, and Bob Master, Political Director of Communications Workers of America and district one co-chair of the Working Family’s Party. We are joined in Washington, DC, by the president of TransAfrica, Bill Fletcher, formerly served as Education Director and assistant to the president of the AFL-CIO.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to start with Chris. Obviously, it’s been unprecedented, the opening up of a major debate, publicly within the AFL-CIO. Things are usually decided by consensus by all of the union presidents behind closed doors. Your union spearheaded this. Why did you feel that you needed to do this at this time? What are the key parts of Andy Stern’s ten-point plan?

CHRIS CHAFE: Unite Here, along with SEIU, the laborers and carpenters, initiated this debate essentially because we feel that the crisis facing American workers is so significant that we have to engage it at every level: in our workplaces and the union halls, central labor bodies, state federations and at the national level. We’re now down to probably less than 8% of the private sector being organized in this country, and from our point of view, we have been taking serious measures within our own unions to try to retool, rebuild and reorganize our capacity, so we can do more to organize and grow. At the same time, we’re seeing the legitimacy and the power of workers in this country fade into irrelevance, the labor movement losing ground. We are at a moment in history, when we have inherited this incredible institution across this country that has created the standards for workers even in non-union facilities, but that’s less and less relevant. So, we believe major change needs to happen. It needs to be publicly discussed, as our president has said, the labor movement is not the Kremlin, we have to have as much creative input from as many different people as possible. That’s why we believe this should be as fully discussed as possible.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, a key part of the program, as has been explained by several of the key proponents is that bigger is better. That the AFL-CIO with 60 unions, many of them very small, does not have the capacity to battle multinational corporations that keep consolidating themselves, and that a politics of consolidating these unions would make labor’s ability to fight even stronger. But how would you accomplish this kind of merger given the fact there will be so much resistance of individual union presidents wanting to maintain their own control and given the AFL’s history of autonomy of the various unions.

CHRIS CHAFE: Sure. I think that a fundamental issue here is that this is about globalization. This is about what can the labor movement do to structure itself is so that a worker in any facility who is now no longer working for the local owner, no longer even working for somebody who is based in this country, but in many cases is working for a multinational conglomerate where decisions are made far beyond the reaches of your average worker. This is the $100 million question. $100 million is essentially the budget of the AFL-CIO is. We have to make sure that the money is being directed, as much as possible, both at the AFL-CIO level, but also within affiliates, to make sure that they are doing everything possible to accomplish two things: one, create standards for workers, to create real standards for collective bargaining agreements to create real standards for mobilization and political action, and most of all, real standards for the ability to take on these multinationals through organizing. Two, we need leverage. American workers need greater leverage to take on these massive battles. We have seen through the merger created Unite Here —

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what unite here is.

CHRIS CHAFE: Unite here is a new union, established in July, 440,000 workers, who represent traditional industrial workers in textiles and apparel.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Unite.

CHRIS CHAFE: That’s the Unite side.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Which itself is the a merger of the old ILGWU and the Amalgamated Coal Workers.

CHRIS CHAFE: That’s right. We are a blueprint of mergers and their effectiveness. HERE is formerly the Hotel Employee and Restaurant Employee Union. They represent hundreds of thousands of folks in gaming, restaurants and hotels. They’re a hospitality union. We’re essentially bringing together manufacturing and hospitality. Old economy and new economy. We have found ways to create much greater leverage with the right allocation of resources. 40% of all of our dues go directly into organizing. And that has given us the opportunity to take on employers and defensive battles like the Atlantic City strike, where we just bon 10,000 workers won a 25% wage increase. That never would have been possible had the merger not taken place.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re basically talking about succeeding from the AFL-CIO, dividing the AFL-CIO?

CHRIS CHAFE: No, I wouldn’t say that at all. I would say that what we’re trying to do is drive a debate about how it should be structured. These unions in the new unity partnership, but Unite Here in particular, I’ll only speak for Unite Here, we are putting a great deal of work into trying to save the AFL-CIO and rebuild it so it takes the relevance and power that it deserves and that American workers deserve.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Bob master, you’re with the CWA. Your union has 600,000 members?

BOB MASTER: 700,000 members.

JUAN GONZALEZ: 700,000 members in the communications industry and also in government as well. Everyone agrees that there’s a crisis within the American labor movement. What are your problems with the proposal that Andy Stern, the new unity partnership put forward?

BOB MASTER: I agree, really, with just about everything Chris said. I think his analysis of the crisis is accurate. His call for thoroughgoing debate in the AFL-CIO is necessary. We feel very positive about the fact that the debate is kicked off. What we are concerned about is the question of the revival of the labor movement being reduced to a question of structure and reorganization. And our — and I say “our” loosely, because in the CWA, we are only at the beginning of the debate. We need to have a broader debate inside our own organization. We don’t have a unified consensus position at this point. I think we’re trying to achieve that. A lot of us look at the history of the labor movement. We say reviving the labor movement is activating rank and file workers at the base from below. If you look at the greatest split in the labor movement between the AFL-and CIO, it was driven by mass activity in the years leading up to it. It was not a bureaucratic restructuring from the top down, it was driven by the demand of workers for organization and economic justice. Having said that, I don’t think that Chris would necessarily disagree with that. So, I think that the question here is do we have before us the basis for a split. I would argue very strenuously, no, that we need to have a thoroughgoing discussion, and an exploration of a lot of strategies, some of which have worked for Unite Here, some of which we have pioneered. I think some of the things they have done work in their industries but don’t work in the telecommunication industry. We need different approaches. We don’t have a problem necessarily with competition with other unions. That’s not our issue. If you put the IBW telecommunication division inside the CWA, that’s not going to make it easier to organize Verizon Wireless. That’s not the problem. By focusing exclusively on the question of structure, which seems overwhelmingly the point of the SEIU program as posted on Unite to Win, you miss a lot of the broader questions.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What about the issue of how the mergers would occur, given the fact that, again, the AFL has historically been a federation of autonomous unions. How can the AFL-dictate mergers of its various member organizations.

BOB MASTER: Bluntly, I don’t think they can. If you look at the Unite to Win program, it says the AFL-CIO should have the authority to require coordinated bargaining, and to merge or revoke union charters. I don’t think the members of the AFL-CIO are going to vote to give the AFL-CIO Executive Committee that power, and by spending our time to focus on that, we miss some of these bigger questions. What is the political strategy to revive collective bargaining? How do we get affiliates to make more effective plans to build power in their industry? I went to the AFL-CIO website last night and I printed out a list of the affiliates, this long list of 65. What will merging the glass molders, pottery plastics and allied workers international union do to build power for any of us in the most important industries. No disrespect to that union. It’s a small group of people historically created because of that particular union. I don’t think they’re the impediment. I don’t think they’re the problem. I don’t think that the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers’ independent existence is holding us back. We need a different kind of discussion that doesn’t focus on forced mergers and restructuring.

AMY GOODMAN: But, ultimately, there’s the question of if you have many small unions, versus the huge multinational corporations, do you have the strength that you need? Maybe the answer is the decline of the union movement. And I wanted to bring Bill Fletcher in, to bring a third perspective to this. We most recently talked to Bill, I think, about the Sudan, but today we’re talking to you not as president of TransAfrica, but really as formerly one of the top people, Education Director and assistant to the president of the AFL-CIO. What do you make of this debate?

BILL FLETCHER: Thank you, Amy and Juan. I agree and disagree with both of the guests. The first thing is that form has to follow content. That is, we have got to figure out what do trade unions stand for in the 21st century, and in that sense, it’s not even just about mobilizing members. At the high points of trade unionism in this country, the trade union movement is looked at as a visionary movement, as a movement that’s spearheading larger change than just organizing members. The issue of restructuring, I mean, I agree with what was just said. I mean, if you look at Australia for example, in Australia, they have restructured their movement they have reduced the number of unions, and the movement is still not growing. I think that the issue is not just whether bigger is better. We have to really be looking at strategy and coordination. We can have bigger unions, and still get our rear ends kicked because we’re not coordinating here in the United States or coordinating overseas.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Chafe.

CHRIS CHAFE: I would agree in part with that. I think that the fundamental issue is we’re not organizing, and we’re not even trying across most of affiliates of AFL-CIO. We are seeing the globalization restructure the corporate reality and the workplace reality for millions and millions of workers. The 90% of the American workforce that’s not organizing needs to see this movement restructure itself, and rebuild itself so that we have the ability to take on these fights. We’re not even trying.

AMY GOODMAN: What about dealing with the corporation like Wal-Mart?

CHRIS CHAFE: Perfect example. So, Wal-Mart is going to open a store every single day in 2005 somewhere in America. And we are not ready in the American labor movement to take them on at any level. We’re not ready, and we’re not focused enough in seeing them at the table when they come to the county zoning board or city is zoning board. We don’t have the structure in place to fight them at the local level. We don’t have a corporate campaign taking place right now to make sure there’s enough education, both in the workplace and in our communities, about the impact that Wal-Mart is having on the retail world, but for us, incredibly relevant, in the industrial world. We don’t have the capacity to run a media message that takes on this company. And most importantly, we have no effort right now, to organize the workers. 65% of Wal-Mart workers have no capacity to pay for their own health insurance. And everyday citizens, their tax dollars are subsidizing the health care that Wal-Mart workers are getting. This could be the signature campaign that gives workers across this country a clear reason to feel like the labor movement, and the AFL-CIO, is actually standing up for the standards of all workers. So, we believe that we should take $25 million a year out of the royalties from the union privilege credit card and put it directly into a firewalled account that’s just about organizing Wal-Mart. That’s a good use of that money. Forget about the other pieces of the puzzle here, if we are not doing that, then we are squandering this institution we inherited.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, where do we go from here on this? The AFL-CIO Executive Committee will meet in February. John Sweeney has basically given the go-ahead to have this debate. But there are also questions as to whether the decisions into the debate will be reflected and changes in the AFL-CIO leadership, whether this will mean that pressure for John Sweeney to step down and whether if the AFL doesn’t agree to some of the changes, whether the Unity Partnership will decide that it must itself go its own way. Where do you see this going in the next few months, Bob and Chris?

BOB MASTER: Let me say before I get to that, if we have just a moment, the question of Wal-Mart, I think it’s an interesting question. Here you have in New Jersey an effort by the state AFL-CIO to pass legislation which would make it hard for Wal-Mart to locate in the state of New Jersey and create all kinds of restrictions. A member of the new Unity Partnership, one of the major unions, the Laborers, blocked that legislation, thwarted the wishes of the entire AFL-CIO, trying to build some sense of social movement around Wal-Mart, because they wanted to cut a deal to enable them to build the Wal-Mart union. These are not easy questions to resolve. Dropping $25 million on Wal-Mart is like a drop in the bucket, candidly, right? So, I think it’s a complicated question. I think where do we go from here? The first thing we need to do is step back and say, this is the beginning of a debate. Our labor movement has gotten into crisis over a long period of time. It’s not going to be resolved by next July. It’s not going to be resolved simply by electing new leadership. One of the biggest problems in the labor movement is our own members, and many of our leaders don’t understand the depth of the crisis. We need a massive education program so people understand what needs to be done. Without training literally tens of thousands of members to be part of a social movement to take on Wal-Mart, we cannot win with an unlimited number of parachuted-in organizers and media campaigns. We need people to be talking to their friends and neighbors who work at Wal-Mart about the benefits of the union day-to-day in the community. It’s a much longer and broader debate, and I hope it doesn’t lead to a split because we don’t want to squander our resources fighting over each other in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. Thank you all very much for being with us. We have been joined by Bob Master, Political Director of the Communications Workers of America. District 1, that’s CWA, co-chair of the Working Families Party. Bill Fletcher, formerly, assistant to the president of the AFL-CIO, and Chris Chafe, Chief of Staff and Political Director at Unite Here.

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