Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 13, 2005
By: Brad Plumer

DEBATING THE FUTURE OF LABOR....Those of us following the big internal debate over the future of organized labor know the basic story: A bunch of "upstart" unions, led by Andrew Stern of the SEIU, want to carry out a bunch of changes, that include withholding some dues from the AFL-CIO, labor's big umbrella organization, so that unions themselves have more money for organizing. Stern also wants, among other things, to merge many of the smaller unions together. Meanwhile, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, along with many of the bigger unionsand that includes the municipal employees' and teachers' unionswant to keep the money with the AFL-CIO so that there's enough cash to wage political warfare in Washington.

Anyway, it's been hard to come by analysis that judges these various proposals on the merits, and as a newly unionized worker myself (no, seriously), I'd like to know who actually has the better vision for the future of labor. To that end, I was pleased to read John Judis' take in the New Republic:

In Las Vegas, Stern dropped his widely unpopular demand for forced mergers; instead, he supported a Teamster proposal to rebate some dues for organizing, while indirectly encouraging mergers. But that proposal was defeated 15 to seven by the Federation's Executive Committee.

It's just as well: Neither rebates nor mergers would solve the Federation's problems. The record among U.S. unionsincluding the SEIU and the AFSCME [municipal workers --B], the AFT [teachers --B] and the National Education Association, and the pre-merger AFL and CIO themselvesis that competition over recruits has actually encouraged organizing. And there is little reason to believe that rebating part of a union's dues would dramatically spur organizingbut it would definitely put the AFL-CIO's legislative and political program in jeopardy.

That's one view. On the other side, offering a somewhat pro-Stern take a few weeks ago, was Nathan Newman:

Instead of emphasizing new worker organizing, unfortunately, the majority proposals emphasize increased spending on politics, not worker organizing.

While there's no doubt federal labor law changes would assist organizing, that's just not going to happen any time soon in the face of GOP filibusters. There is a chicken-and-egg problem for labor: labor's numbers have decreased, so their political power has declined, which means they can't change the law without expanding their membership numbers. Dramatic labor law changes will be the result of an upsurge in new worker organizing, not the cause of it.

And another of my favorite labor-bloggers, Jordan Barab, argued that this whole debate has obscured a potentially even more important issuethe fact that the AFL-CIO is considering cutting its health and safety department, thus weakening a crucial part of its political operation:

Forcing OSHA to issue health and safety standards or to enforce the law is no longer a simple administrative process. To be successful, unions need to organize massive grassroots political action campaigns. It takes coordination from the AFL-CIO and national unions, it involves organizing the victims of health and safety problems on the local and national level and it takes political action in Washington and in the states.

There's no obvious solution here. Yes, it would be great if unions could devote plenty of resources to better organizing and fighting the Bush administration's regulatory rollbacks, but some sort of trade-off seems necessary. Judis, on the other hand, opts for a Third Way approachsimply replace John Sweeney with a "new leader" for the AFL-CIO who can unite and motivate the unionsthough those sorts of answers always sound slightly dubious to me.

Brad Plumer 4:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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