September 4, 2005
Big labor splitsBy Thomas Lifson
A pillar of the Democratic Party is crumbling before our very eyes.
The AFL—CIO has been the greatest financial patron of the Democrats, as well as an indispensable adjunct for organizing on the ground, precinct—by—precinct. For years, reliance on big labor to staff a major part of the retail level organization gave the Democrats an advantage in getting out the vote.
The GOP finally assembled an effective apparatus for mobilizing its voters in 2004, to the shock and dismay of Democrats. The prospective loss of a substantial chunk of the Democrats' organizational muscle could not come at a worse time.
Democrat insider Harold Ickes, Jr. said that if the Democrats couldn't head off this split, the future would be 'very, very bleak....' He was correct.
The AFL—CIO's new rival is Change to Win, a still—forming consortium of unions under the leadership of Andrew Stern, boss of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The SEIU is one of very few major unions whose membership is growing rather than declining. For months Stern had been publicly threatening John Sweeney, head of the AFL—CIO, with a walkout, demanding more money be spent on organizing new workers, and less money and attention for the Democrats.
Instead of selling the idea of unions to new workers, labor has been shrinking to the point where it had too little clout in national labor markets. Stern warned that the entire enterprise of organized labor was at risk because of this failing strategy.
And now he has walked. Monday, the SEIU and the Teamsters boycotted the AFL—CIO's 50th Anniversary meeting in Chicago. Those two unions together account for one quarter of the AFL—CIO membership. Over the next two weeks, an orchestrated wave of other unions likely will follow into the rival—in—the—making union coalition.
The romantic mythology of the labor left sees heroism in the champions of industrial unions. Pro—union journalists could not help but draw at least an implicit comparison to the Depression—era split in the labor movement, when John L. Lewis led the more militant CIO unions out of the AFL, and built strong new industrial unions like the United Auto Workers.
Andrew Stern, a former social worker and a career leftist, might wish to see himself joining the pantheon housing John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther. But in fact he is more in the mold of Henry Kravis, William Simon, and other LBO artists of legend.
The Business of Labor
A labor union, after all, is also a business, with a payroll to meet and prices (dues) to charge their customers (members). Stern's 'business' — the SEIU — was well—positioned in a growing sector of the economy, the service industry, and was pursuing strategic niche opportunities, such as health care workers and Hispanics. Stern also spent lavishly on marketing, organizing and winning the right to represent new workers. As a result he enjoyed growing revenues and clout.
But at the federation level and in many other major unions, the heavy commitment of resources to the Democratic Party precluded the same kind of organizing. Industrial unions were struggling to hold onto to their membership, and saw political influence with labor's historic ally as a necessary insurance policy. If all else fails, ask for trade restrictions or federal bailouts.
These failing unions are now left behind in a smaller and vastly weaker AFL—CIO, one which inevitably turn more and more of its attention to dying—industry issues: pension security, layoffs, health benefit givebacks, and other unpleasant matters. The federation's own workforce will be subject to downsizing and possible pay cuts and loss of benefits, just like their membership.
No doubt Stern and his coalition will wish them well, keep the doors open for work together on issues of common interest, and otherwise maintain a smiling face. But the two union groups are on divergent paths. There are promises from Teamsters' boss James Hoffa to tell his locals to continue to pay dues to the AFL—CIO for political contributions, but inevitably these and other transitional arrangements will end, and the AFL—CIO will be cut loose, like a spin—off of an unpromising manufacturing division in a corporate restructuring.
Stern's new group will build its membership, and when it practices politics it will look to play off the two parties against each other, gaining bargaining leverage.
So Stern has leveraged his success, his vision, and his organizational resources to bring other unions with him into a brand new organizational framework, to be constructed under his leadership. Like similar visionaries in the business world, he has attracted resources to his control, taking them from failing entities which were not using them productively.
Ironically, the actual members of the unions he is attracting to his new federation have no direct voice in the decision of their union to leave the AFL—CIO. Their elected leadership will make that decision for them.
In the allegedly less—democratic and more ruthless world of capitalism, shareholders themselves get to vote on whether or not to sell the company to the takeover artists. Leverage is used to bring them cash, not to force them into something new.
Dues—paying union members have less leverage on their leadership. The unions have plenty of leverage on them.
Call Andrew Stern's new organizational strategy a leveraged walk out.
Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of The American Thinker. This article appeared in different form on July 27th this year.