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August 12, 2013 5:50 PM Labor Prodigals

By Ed Kilgore

The imperiled state of the U.S. labor movement is such that it’s easy for people outside it to forget there remains a spirited competition within its ranks between the AFL-CIO and the breakaway Change To Win federation. As Harold Meyerson explains at TAP today, some CTW prodigals have returned to the larger federation’s fold:

Last Thursday, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW)—the 1.3 million-member union of retail workers, chiefly supermarket employees—announced that it was leaving the breakaway mini-labor federation, Change To Win, and rejoining the AFL-CIO. Of the six unions that left the AFL-CIO in 2005 to form Change To Win—the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Teamsters, the UFCW, UNITE HERE, the Laborers, and the United Farm Workers (UFW)—only SEIU, the Teamsters, and the Farm Workers (the last with probably fewer than 10,000 members) remain. Two-point-zero-something unions do not a federation make, but then, Change To Win, despite all its lofty ambitions, never amounted to a federation.

Meyerson goes on to argue that CTW’s hope to represent a strategic breakthrough in organizing methods never reached fruition:

Change To Win quickly discovered that the same impediments to organizing that had made it nearly impossible to unionize private-sector workers when its member unions had belonged to the AFL-CIO were still very much in place now that they belonged to the new federation. A series of innovative campaigns to encircle Wal-Mart by organizing its supply chain ran up against a host of obstacles: the port truck drivers who brought Chinese imports to Wal-Mart’s warehouses were classified as independent contractors rather than employees; the hundreds of thousands of workers who staffed those warehouses, and those of other major retail outlets, were employed by a revolving door of temp agencies. Despite highly inventive legal and organizing strategies, the efforts to unionize these workers failed. The synergistic campaigns of multiple Change To Win unions to organize whole industries never got off the ground. Indeed, the campaigns waged under the Change To Win banner were the same campaigns that its member unions had been waging before the new federation formed, albeit now steered by strategists from a multitude of unions. Nor did forming Change To Win do much to remedy the structural weaknesses of some of its member unions—weak locals, inadequately resourced organizing—or the tendency of nearly all unions, whether in Change To Win or the AFL-CIO, to pursue new members in the public sector, where labor law was more favorable to organizing.

And so, says Meyerson, with the UFCW committed to a major new organizing campaign, the advantage of going back to the big federation prevailed:

the UFCW, like the Laborers and UNITE HERE, have recognized that whatever the reasons, real and ostensible, for leaving in 2005, the reasons to return are more compelling. Indeed, with labor embarking on major and costly campaigns, like Working America or SEIU’s current effort to organize fast-food workers, that won’t likely result in more dues-paying members, the logic of existing unions banding together to fund such efforts is more compelling than ever.

Readers more familiar with the internal dynamics of the labor movement are encouraged to chip in with comments agreeing with or rejecting Meyerson’s take—if any such folk are engaged late on an August afternoon.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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