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Union Activists Clash Over ‘Authoritarianâ€TM Consolidation Proposal

by Jeff Shaw

A controversial union restructuring and revitalization plan for AFL-CIO posited by a prominent union leader has drawn criticism from some labor democracy advocates.

Jan. 4, 2005 – Dismayed by the continuing nationwide slide in union membership, some of the United States’ largest and most prominent unions are proposing fundamental -- and controversial -- changes to the nation's largest confederation of labor groups, the AFL-CIO.

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In an ambitious 10-point plan, the president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of the AFL-CIO’s member unions, has mapped a dramatic potential path. Included in the proposal set forth by Andy Stern are ideas sparking vocal debate: forcing mergers between smaller unions and restricting what trades they organize, as well as requiring each AFL-CIO member group to dedicate a percentage of its budget toward organizing more workers.

One way or the other, the labor movement will be transformed this year. If the AFL-CIO’s structure isn’t fundamentally revised, Stern says, the SEIU could decide by this August to leave the organization to form a different congress of labor unions.

To backers, the SEIU plan strengthens the labor movement's ability to speak with one voice and organize effectively. Opponents charge that it will undermine democracy in the labor federation and undercut the autonomy of local unions.

Indisputably, the proposal would concentrate power in an unprecedented manner. This, Stern said, is absolutely necessary. "Our situation is desperate enough that we can’t have some window dressing and call it change – we need real change," he told The NewStandard.

But the dramatic shift toward centralization causes unease in many on-the-ground activists and those concerned with local union autonomy.

Labor analysts who support the proposal claim it fixes a glaring hole in AFL-CIO strategy.

"[The proposal is] attempting to address what has been the fundamental weakness of the AFL-CIO since its inception: it has no enforcement power," said Sarah Laslett, director of the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies at Seattle's University of Washington. "It has never had the power to force its members to do anything."

In the past, the confederated labor group has used carrots instead of sticks to seek compliance by member organizations, such as offering budgetary incentives for unions that commit a certain percentage of their resources to organizing. The new proposal would bring out the stick of a top-down mandate, forcing member unions to spend a significant amount on recruiting more members.

The voluntary measures have not worked, according to Stern, and if the federation will not take more drastic steps, his union will. "If we can’t change the AFL-CIO to be a place to build the strength of workers, then we should create something stronger," he said, adding that this August, following the federation’s 50th anniversary convention later this year, "will be a moment of decision for us."

But the dramatic shift toward centralization causes unease in many on-the-ground activists and those concerned with local union autonomy. Herman Benson, founder of the Association for Union Democracy, argues that the proposal would strengthen union bureaucracy at the expense of power for the majority of workers.

The SEIU is "essentially using the problem [of a weakened labor movement], just as President Bush uses the Iraq war to undercut civil liberties in America," said Benson. Their program, he said, amounts to a quest for "authoritarian power, undercutting the rights of the rank-and-file."

Critics say that the effort runs afoul of union democracy and could be counterproductive to the labor movement as a whole. Some feel, as one rank-and-file member of a major industrial union says, that the proposal amounts to "a naked power grab lightly couched in organizing talk."

Others, like Bob Bussell, director of the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon in Eugene, can see both sides.

"It all starts with what condition you think the patient is in," said Bussell. "If you think the patient is on the critical list, you may try drastic measures. The measures that you take depend on your diagnosis."

For many, including Stern and Laslett, the patient is practically on life support, especially at a time when less than ten percent of private sector workers in the United States belong to a union, a fourfold decline from historic highs.

"Given the state of organized labor, if there isn’t a dramatic turn back toward organizing, organized labor will cease to exist within a generation," Laslett said. "It’s a critical time. We don’t have the leisure of sitting back and doing nothing."

One founding basis of the proposal is a criticism of cross-industrial organizing -- a practice pursued mainly by the manufacturing unions, which have seen their base of potential union members shrink for more than a decade as the American industrial workforce has declined. For example, unions like the United Auto Workers represent academic student employees, health care professionals, casino staff and other non-industrial workers.

An element of the SEIU proposal is that numerous smaller unions within the AFL-CIO should consolidate into mega-unions that organize within their own "sectors" -- that is, where they already have high union density. The new proposal would discourage industrial unions from organizing non-industrial shops and vice-versa. If passed, it would collapse the more than 60 unions that make up the AFL-CIO into 20-some entities, each focused on a different sector of the economy. For instance, under the new scheme, UAW would focus exclusively on workers in the auto industry.

Since there is one steady growth area in the American economy -- service workers -- the proposal would leave SEIU as the only union with a mandate to organize in growth industries.

To Stern, unions of 100,000 or smaller simply are not as effective as larger bodies, and larger, industry-focused unions would allow workers to have "a more sophisticated relationship" with employers.

"If local unions aren’t big enough, they don’t have the strength to deal with employers effectively," said Stern, citing the example of SEIU Local 1199. Once an independent union, the local joined with the larger body "because we both understood that they didn’t have the resources, being a 100,000-member union in New York, to organize nationally."

While he doesn’t question the sincerity of the proposal’s backers, Benson says the centralizing impulse is itself counterproductive for union power. Besides consolidating authority at the top, the SEIU’s proposal leaves barriers to labor democracy intact. For example, union rules that make it difficult for people to run for office, retribution against rank-and-file workers who criticize union leadership, and failure to inform workers of their rights under the law. Wiping out small unions via the SEIU proposal, he predicts, would also make it "virtually impossible" to challenge union leadership.

Bussell is sensitive to these concerns and says he understands the use of the term "power grab," though he would not use it himself. But "more organizing has to happen if the labor movement is really going to affect the national balance of power," he said, "and this proposal certainly could have a positive effect on organizing. The very future viability of the labor movement might be at stake, so whatever one wants to say about 'power grabs,' the deepening crisis demands action."

On the other hand, he noted, organized workers can blanche at taking directives from above. "There’s a strong voluntaristic streak in unions, the feeling that union autonomy is inviolate, and that’s what [the SEIU proposal] is bumping up against," Bussell said.

"There has always been a resistance to orders from the top, and there is a real democratic impulse behind that," said Bussell, adding that many workers are skeptical of others claiming to know what is best for their particular situation. "The sense of being dictated to by someone outside your ranks will certainly rankle some folks."

The SEIU is not alone in backing changes, though its plan goes the farthest. The Teamsters and Communications Workers of America have also made public their proposals, while other unions have made suggestions privately, said Lane Windham, spokesperson for the AFL-CIO.

These plans have several common elements: health care reform, expanded political action, more funds and resources devoted to organizing, and building a global labor movement. Like the SEIU plan, the Teamster effort backs union consolidation and more money for organizing -- but does so in an incentive-based way, not via mandate.

Laslett says that she sees centralizing power in the AFL-CIO as necessary, but that checks and balances must be built into the system. In addition to organizing, this means promoting pro-democracy reform.

"The fundamental check is democracy within unions," she said.

The Association of Union Democracy’s Benson agrees, saying that only encouraging real and meaningful participation by the rank and file works. "In order to strengthen the labor movement, you have to strengthen the democratic spirit," said Benson. "The labor movement has to exude the spirit of freedom. If it exudes the idea of bureaucracy and limitation, then it's actually undercutting solutions."

In response to the critics, Stern says that consolidating authority is the way to win the fights that matter. The Republican Party, he said, is an example of how centralized power can lead to success. "This is about winning. It’s not about descriptions of centralization or democracy, it’s about winning, about changing workers’ lives," Stern said.

The AFL-CIO executive committee will meet at the end of January to review the proposals and develop recommendations. To force mergers upon member unions would require amending the organization's constitution, which would be subject to the approval of union delegates at the group's convention in late July.

"Many people fear that this will be a divisive debate, instead of one that ultimately unifies," said Bussell. "I hope that a constructive debate comes out of this -- but that remains to be seen."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

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Jeff Shaw is a contributing journalist.

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