As the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor organization, heads to its convention, we host a debate on the future of organized labor. We speak with Karen Ackerman, political director of the AFL-CIO, Chris Chafe, Chief of Staff at UNITE HERE as well as Kim Moody, co-founder of the rank and file newsletter Labor Notes and professor at Brooklyn College. [includes rush transcript]
The labor movement brought American workers the forty-hour week, pensions, healthcare, and basic rights on the job. From a high point of 22.8 million union members in 1978, the ranks of organized labor have dwindled to 15.5 million in 2004. Now, with less bargaining power and a deindustrialized service-based economy, the labor movement is in the throes of a debate over how to build for the future.
The venerable American Federation of Labor may face the largest rupture in its history next week. In March, five of the AFL-CIO’s largest affiliate unions criticized the leadership of federation president John Sweeney. Together the Service Employees, Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, Laborers, and UNITE HERE represent 40% of the AFL’s membership and most of their workers are in rapidly expanding service sectors where low-wage immigrant workers of color have won some hard fought union battles in recent years. Last month the five unions launched the Change to Win Coalition, which is threatening to split from the AFL-CIO if their demands are not met at the annual convention next week in Chicago
The Change to Win platform revolves around the premise that the AFL should direct more resources towards organizing new workers than lobbying Washington politicians. But the AFL leadership charges that effective organizing can’t happen without a more favorable political climate…which requires leverage in Washington. Meanwhile other labor activists question whether renewed organizing could even be successful unless current union members are mobilized and unions democratize their own structures.
Today, we host a roundtable on the potential split in the AFL-CIO and the future of the labor movement.
- Kim Moody, co-founder of the rank and file newsletter “Labor Notes,” professor at Brooklyn College and Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He is author of “Workers In A Lean World: Unions In The International Economy.”
- Chris Chafe, Chief of Staff at UNITE HERE.
- Karen Ackerman, Political Director of the AFL-CIO.
AMY GOODMAN: Today we host a roundtable on the potential split in the AFL-CIO and the future of the labor movement. We’re joined on the phone from Chicago by Chris Chafe, Chief of Staff of UNITE HERE, one of the Change to Win Coalition members. Also in Chicago is Karen Ackerman, political director of the AFL-CIO. Here in New York, co-founder of the rank and file newsletter “Labor Notes,” we’re joined by Kim Moody, he’s author of Workers in a Lean World: Unions in the International Economy. And we welcome you all to Democracy Now! Why don’t we begin with Karen Ackerman? You and Chris Chafe are in Chicago for the annual convention. Talk about what’s at stake here.
KAREN ACKERMAN: Well, the convention will really take — really engage, I think, the entire labor movement in a rigorous debate, like we’ve been having leading up to the convention, a rigorous debate as to how to strengthen and move the labor movement forward and how best to represent workers in this country. And I think, you know, that debate is a good debate to have. I think there’s a lot at stake, obviously. We’re hoping that the result of this convention will be a stronger labor movement that has a clearer unity of purpose, and that is that there are sort of twin goals here of equal importance. One is to strengthen the union’s commitment to organize workers, and there’s no question that that is absolutely a cornerstone of what we hope to achieve. But the other side of that is to strengthen the commitment to expand union members’ engagement in the political process, and that you cannot separate those twin goals, and that the labor movement, in order to — really to strengthen in its representation of workers in this country, has to address both of those goals.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Chris Chafe, clearly your group feels that the crisis in the American labor today is at such a level that you must actually consider splitting away unless you can get some changes. What made you come to that conclusion? And also, how do you answer those who say that the major theme of organized labor solidarity is being ruptured through this process of contemplating splitting?
CHRIS CHAFE: Well, first, thank you for letting me be on the show this morning. I think that we got to this point because we are ten years into the Sweeney administration and we continue to see really horrendous conditions persist for American workers. We feel like within each of our unions in the Change to Win Coalition which also includes the carpenters union and we’ll be adding more unions in the days to come, we have each gone through and experienced either through the deindustrialization of the economy or other forces that has made all of our unions fundamentally go through a change and focus more of our resources towards organizing and really structure the way we engage all of our work complete differently. For example, at UNITE HERE we spent 43% of our budget on organizing, and almost all of our political program is tooled to support organizing campaigns. The same is true with different numbers, with the number of the partners in Change to Win. And so, from our own experiences in our own unions of enduring some tough, tough battles internally to change our own organizations, we realize that the same has to be done throughout the AFL-CIO if we’re going to have any hope of rebuilding the labor movement and gaining real strength for workers. So that’s the foundation of what we’re doing here.
JUAN GONZALEZ: What about this whole issue of labor solidarity?
CHRIS CHAFE: Well, I think unfortunately the labor movement is already bitterly divided. We have unions currently in the current AFL-CIO situation who are raiding each other. We have unions that are organizing in each other’s jurisdiction. We have no clear enforcement mechanism that is helping clarify for unions who they should and should not organize. We’re fighting each other. So to talk about solidarity in the current context is a little bit misleading because we really don’t have any clear purpose and rules. And that’s been a lot of what the Change to Win program has been about, creating a much clearer power at the center of the labor movement through the AFL-CIO that gives us a blueprint for organizing and change.
AMY GOODMAN: Ken Moody, you’re author of Workers in a Lean World. Looking at this from the outside, talk about what’s at stake right now. Can you talk about your characterization of both sides, and what this means for the greater worker movement in this country?
KIM MOODY: Yes. Okay, first of all, thanks for having me here. Appreciate that. Well, the outside, I’m a union member. I belong to two locals of the A.F.T. I think what’s at stake here is the future of the labor movement. But I have a somewhat different take on it. If you think about the AFL-CIO and the decline in union density in the United States, it’s kind of an odd coincidence that the year the AFL-CIO was founded, 1955, was the high point, and it’s been down hill ever since.
AMY GOODMAN: So then this is the 50th anniversary.
KIM MOODY: This is. December will be the 50th anniversary. I think the foundation of the AFL-CIO left a lot of problems unresolved. To me the question is not just organizing in the sense of putting more money and more professional staff in the field or something like that, rebates. Core jurisdiction, this is a good idea. Should have been doing that for a long time.
AMY GOODMAN: What’s core jurisdiction?
KIM MOODY: Core jurisdiction is what the Change to Win Coalition is talking about that unions should be organizing, not — the UAW shouldn’t be organizing graduate students, it should be organizing automobile workers in the South, for example. The SEIU organizes health care workers. This is a good thing. I’m all for this.
But I think what is unresolved here is one of the basic problems labor has had for a long time, which is the relationship between leaders and members. That is, the leaders have for decades now isolated and insulated themselves from the members. The members are not motivated, not mobilized, except very occasionally. And that if you’re going to have a kind of upsurge — unions don’t grow incrementally. They grow in upsurges, and if you’re going to have this, it’s going to take the activation of, if not the whole membership, at least the activist layer of the labor movement to get out there and to do this. Workers organize workers. That’s the way labor has always grown traditionally.
Our unions unfortunately have become long ago bureaucratic organizations, top down organizations. The lesson I draw from the failure of the Sweeney era is that top down reform basically doesn’t work. And I don’t think that the kind of recipe that’s coming from the Change to Win Coalition — and what I mean by that is things like the SEIU’s mega-locals or the carpenters’ regional mega-organizations that we now have, so-called locals. You can’t even really call them that. In the SEIU, the 32BJ runs from New York to Philadelphia. 1199 similarly. I could give you many more examples. This is an administrative approach to the problem of labor, and it seems to me that it didn’t work for Sweeney and it’s not going work for the Change to Win Coalition. The debate is good. If there’s competition that isn’t raiding, that could be positive. But it seems to me there has to be a fundamental change in the relationship between leaders and members.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to talk more about that when we come back from our break. Our guests: Ken Moody, author of Workers in a Lean World; Chris Chafe, Chief of Staff of UNITE HERE; and Karen Ackerman, political director of the AFL-CIO. We’re talking about the future of labor in this country. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about the future of labor with this opening of the AFL-CIO convention in Chicago. Kim Moody is with us in New York, author of Workers in a Lean World. Chris Chafe, Chief of Staff at UNITE HERE, and Karen Ackerman, Political Director of the AFL-CIO, are both in Chicago at the convention. I’m Amy Goodman with Juan Gonzalez. Juan?
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to get back to Karen Ackerman for a moment. Karen, no one doubts, who knows the trajectory of the labor movement, that under John Sweeney there has been progress compared to previous administrations in the AFL, a lot of changes in political direction that are positive. But Sweeney came in ten years ago saying that he was going to revitalize the labor movement, saying that he was going to be a transitional figure, only in for one term. He’s now been in for ten years and is seeking re-election again. And essentially, much of the revitalization that he promised has not occurred. Why should other unions support the direction that he is proposing to go in in a new administration or a new term?
KAREN ACKERMAN: Yeah. I’d like to address some of the things that the other speakers have said along with your question, Juan. I think that the question of unity is a really important question. And, you know, Chris mentioned — talked about that the labor movement is disunified and that, you know, that sort of — and I’ve heard this, that some unions breaking off and leaving the AFL-CIO is not disunifying because the AFL-CIO is already disunified. That really speaks to, I think, a real critical issue here, and that is is that there are many differences in the labor movement. There’s no question the labor movement is a complicated institution. It represents, you know, 57 different unions with different industries, different kinds of workers, different histories, different cultures, and the AFL-CIO is the umbrella organization that people choose to belong to and choose to affiliate on a local level, as well. And some choose not to affiliate on a local level. So it’s a complicated institution that at this point is going through what I think is a healthy discussion. So, yes, there are raiding situations. Yes, there is intense debate about the direction of the labor movement. But to me that does not justify leaving the labor movement, because then you have true disunity. And to me it sounds like what we used to hear and that is that you have to destroy the village in order to save it. I don’t think that solves anything.
My fear is if that some unions leave, then the raiding will get more intense, it will exacerbate hostilities and that the labor movement will turn inward against itself, when, in fact, we’re being attacked from the outside. We’re being attacked and attempted to be dismantled by the right wing in this country, by the Bush administration and the corporate forces, and we need an organization that stays together and fights together and engages members to fight. I think addressing what Kim Moody said, is that I think that — and my area is the political program — I think for the last ten years, since the Sweeney administration came in, the whole concept of how we do — and I’ll speak to the political program — the whole way we do concept is — to do politics in this country, from the labor movement’s point of view, has to change. And that is, we no longer accepted the idea that the political program was, you know, getting members out to vote by telling them who to vote for in the last month before the election and campaign contributions to candidates.
We changed the culture, I think, of the labor movement, from that kind of top-down culture to an acceptance, a real unity of acceptance of all the unions that the political program had to engage union members at the workplace, where the union is, and get information to union members about the issues they care about, issues of economic security and encourage union members to get engaged in the political process and to fight back. This is all about fighting the forces that are out to dismantle the living standards of workers. And I think that’s been our success, that our approach has always been for the last ten years, reach out to union members, engage them, train folks to be spokespeople in political skills and organize from the bottom up. And that’s our approach with organizing as well.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And to get back then to —
KAREN ACKERMAN: So I think there have been major changes in the last ten years.
JUAN GONZALEZ: But then to get back to the question of the ultimate question of is the labor movement growing or declining, and why should the Sweeney program continue to be supported?
KAREN ACKERMAN: Well, there’s no question that unions are losing members. There’s no question about that, and that the labor movement has to focus on organizing, as well as changing the environment in this country politically. And that has been the debate, and it’s been promoted by a number of the Change to Win unions, and that’s a good thing. And that debate has to continue. The proposal by the Sweeney administration on rebates sets the bar higher for unions than the Change to Win unions. The Sweeney administration proposal says that unions, in order to get a rebate to organize, unions have to spend 30% of their own dues money to organize. So it sets the bar higher, and it challenges unions to spend more of their resources organizing. And, in fact, it will raise more money from unions to organize. So our commitment is absolutely to, you know, create an environment in this country where workers can organize and also change the culture in the unions to promote more organizing. And that’s where organizing comes from.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to go back to Chris Chafe for a second and ask him — Chris, the criticism of the reform group, the Change to Win group, that some people have raised is that you are focusing almost all on structural remedies for the labor movement, and not dealing with some of the substantive issues of the fact, as Kim Moody says, the problems of some of the political direction of some of these unions that already exist, the lack of a clear analysis of how you build a progressive content of the labor movement, how you build a progressive labor movement, especially in this country, the biggest capitalist empire in the history of the world.
CHRIS CHAFE: Well, okay. I think that if you were to ask any progressive political force in the country to name who the most progressive and supportive and engaged unions are on a broad level of progressive issues, ranging from wages, community strength, benefits, worker safety, you name it, I think that almost anyone’s list — at the top of that list is going to be the Change to Win unions. So I think that our credential and our capacity to continue to lead in those avenues is unquestionable.
So I think that — I want to go back to something that Kim said. You know, if you look at it from a perspective of how are the members engaged, he’s right. And the fact is that our union has learned that lesson across the years that, in fact, our best resources are our membership. The core of who have does all of the organizing for us across the country, whether it’s organizing tribal gaming workers in California or hotel workers outside of JFK Airport or laundry workers in Atlantic City, that’s our members. That’s rank and file union leaders who know that unless they do the organizing themselves in the sectors and the industries where they live and work, that their own conditions are never going to improve.
So I would agree completely that we have to have a membership-based organization. I can only speak to one other of our partners. But SEIU, if you look at SEIU and their political program, I think Karen would agree that there is no union that has involved more members than SEIU in a political operation. And if you look at who has been the cornerstone of the successes of the Sweeney political operation that Karen and others have led for the last ten years, the Change to Win unions are really at least 60% to 70% of who’s been there in the streets making things happen.
There’s no doubt that we’ve had significant gains in the political power of the labor movement in terms of centralizing our program. But we continue to lose elections, and the reason we continue to lose elections is there aren’t enough union members. And if we don’t figure out how to structurally change the AFL and how to create a different kind of culture around organizing in all of our unions — and this is far bigger than John Sweeney — we’re not going to be able to have any major political victories. And we can throw as much money as we want to at trying to elect Democrats, but they are not going to be the savior here. Organizing is the way we’re going to have more power. And our whole program has been focused on that. I think almost all of the Winning For Working Families program that the AFL has put out draws from the Change to Win ideas. And so they’ve moved towards our proposals, and that’s an important good step in the right direction, but we’re not done, and it’s got to go beyond rhetoric.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to bring Kim Moody in. Your response to what you’ve heard from both Karen Ackerman and Chris Chafe?
KIM MOODY: Well, I think, first of all, our movement has a terrible problem with political coherence. We don’t have political coherence. We don’t have our own political movement. We’re dependent on the Democrats, as Chris pointed out. And they don’t seem to care very much anymore, if they ever did. So I think that’s a problem. You know, in terms of, well, the Change to Win Coalition: Most progressive unions? Some, yes. But the Teamsters? The Carpenters? I don’t think so. I think there’s, you know, a problem on both sides with this. We are getting better at mobilizing people at election time. But in getting our own politics across to our own members, a third of them, over a third of them, didn’t vote the way we would have liked or the way most labor leaders would have liked. So, you know, we still have an enormous problem there.
I want to say something about solidarity. Solidarity is not a matter of affiliation. Solidarity is a matter of action, and the problem we have there is that we can count over and over again the number of organizing drives, strikes, campaigns for better contracts that go down to defeat because there isn’t really any active solidarity. People from other unions are not showing up, are not helping each other. We saw the UFCW lose this strike in Southern California of grocery workers when they didn’t need to lose, actually pulled down a picket line that was being recognized by the Teamsters. Solidarity has to be an active thing done in practice, not just a matter of affiliation.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Karen, by Sunday we’ll know whether the last-minute negotiations can stave off a split. What would be the impact on the AFL-CIO of losing one third of the members, along with their dues? And what kind of impact would that have on the ability of the AFL-CIO to continue to conduct its work? And is there any hope of being able to get at some kind of a settlement that would be amenable to both sides?
KAREN ACKERMAN: Well, I am hopeful that that’s possible, Juan. As you know, I feel, you know, very strongly that the comments that Chris made about change and moving forward and, you know, helping unions to commit to organize and the remarkable work that a number of the Change to Win unions have done in the last number of years, particularly in a political arena that that change continues only when you’re in the game, and when you’re at the table. And so my hope is is that — and there has been a lot of movement from a number of the unions embracing some of the aspects of the Change to Win program. So there’s been a tremendous amount of movement, tremendous amount of debate.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s ask Chris Chafe. Do you think you’ll be leaving by Sunday night?
CHRIS CHAFE: I think we have a couple of substantive issues that have to get resolved. If they’re not, then we probably will leave on Sunday.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll certainly continue to follow this story. We want to thank you all for being with us, Chris Chafe, Chief of Staff at UNITE HERE; Karen Ackerman, Political Director of the AFL-CIO — major events taking place this weekend at the National Convention of the AFL-CIO — and Kim Moody, author of Workers in a Lean World. Thanks very much, all, for being with us.