The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Labor Federation Cuts Jobs, Shifts Priorities, Raises Hopes, Concerns

by Brendan Coyne

With a major reshaping underway at the AFL-CIO, labor activists are looking forward to newly honed effectiveness; but the net loss of more than 100 jobs – some in highly valued areas – has generated fears and criticism.

May 17, 2005 – On the Tuesday following both Workers Memorial Day and May Day, the nation’s largest labor organization handed pink slips to more than a quarter of its national workforce as it began instituting a plan to restructure the body in an effort to more effectively mobilize workers and influence politics.

Email to a Friend
Print-friendly Version
Add to My Morning Paper

While many are looking forward to new directions and priorities, even some who are generally positive about the changes have raised concerns over particular weak spots left by the reshuffling and streamlining process, including the loss of worker health and safety advocacy at the national level.

The decision by the national AFL-CIO to lay off 167 members of its over 400-person workforce caught many by surprise and comes amid internal dissention and falling union membership. According to spokesperson Lynn Wyndham, the restructuring will ultimately eliminate 106 positions, after decisions on 61 yet-to-be-created jobs are finalized and the spots are filled. Officials with the organization say the move will produce a more effective labor movement for the 21st Century.

Wyndham said the plan reflects the wishes of members and is designed to concentrate resources in order to better serve workers in the United States. In addition to the layoffs, the union will reorganize some departments and close others at its Washington, DC offices, she said. The International Affairs department will cease to exist; the Political and Field Mobilization departments are being merged into one department; and the Legislative, Public Policy, and Health and Safety offices are all being rolled into a new Government Affairs department.

Work-related incidents took the lives of 5,559 workers and left another 4.4 million injured in 2003.

When all is said and done, the AFL-CIO expects to focus more effectively on influencing public policy and growing the labor movement through concerted recruitment drives, a policy change brought about by pressure from affiliated unions and rank-and-file members, Wyndham said.

As union membership continues to slide nationwide, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney has been weathering criticism from several outspoken union leaders, including John Wilhelm, president of HERE, the hotel and restaurant wing of Unite HERE, and Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Both have put forth aggressive plans of their own to shore up membership and focus on organizing new workers.

"I wouldn’t say it’s politics, per se," Wyndham told The NewStandard, speaking about the timing of the restructuring decision. "It’s certainly a response to what our leadership wanted. There have been negotiations and meetings ongoing for awhile. We got over 7,000 rank-and-file members writing to us with suggestions on how to refocus the Federation."

Wyndham said the restructuring is not a reflection of the labor federation’s fiscal health, despite what has been reported elsewhere.

Union locals usually handle the grist of safety matters through contract negotiations, collective bargaining and arbitration.

"These layoffs are not because we have no money," Wyndham said. "Our budget is balanced. The only debt we have is our mortgage. Our reserves are in good shape." The AFL-CIO’s reserves have fallen by about half, from $61 million to $31 million during Sweeney’s tenure, the Washington Post reported on May 4, the day after employees found out about the cuts.

As for the layoffs themselves, Wyndham is careful to explain that the positions have been "de-funded." And, she said, there will be new opportunities for many of those losing their positions because most current employees are under contracts that call on the AFL-CIO to take seniority and similar considerations into account when filling new posts. The union expects many of the 61 new positions to be filled by laid off workers, though it has yet to formally announce what the jobs will be, nor have any start dates been set, according to Wyndham.

Still, employees of the DC-based organization were taken aback when news of the layoffs came about, said Rob McGarrah, one of two Health and Safety department staffers slated to lose his job as the office is dissolved.

"Definitely morale is down," McGarrah told TNS. "There’s no way around it. People are concerned for themselves, for their families, and for the workers they represent and work for. This kind of came as a surprise. We’re all committed to trying to do a good job and the news really shook some people."

McGarrah is the AFL-CIO’s point man on workers’ compensation issues. A lawyer with a Master’s in Public Health, he travels the country to meet with legislators at the state and national levels, attempting to counter the actions of lobbyists in the employ of insurance companies and other well-funded industries. It is, he said, an uphill battle since there are many of them and only one of him.

"I’m just one person and we don’t have that large of a budget," McGarrah said. "Every time I travel to a state over workers’ comp issues, I run into at least dozen [insurance] industry lawyers." As the national organization’s only workers’ compensation specialist, McGarrah said he is concerned that the cuts will have a detrimental effect on workers’ ability to be fairly compensated when they are injured at work. Most injured workers are forced to subsist at or near the poverty level by state compensation laws, he said.

According to a 2003 study by the capitol-based think tank National Academy of Social Insurance, Workers’ Compensation payments in many states barely meet the poverty level. Sixteen states allow injured workers to live in poverty, with Mississippi bringing up the rear, compensating them at slightly higher than 70 percent of the poverty level, according to the study.

With his function soon to disappear, McGarrah worries that unions lack the resources and expertise to adequately combat the insurance industry at the political level. "The difficulty, from the very beginning, is that the AFL-CIO is outspent right now, plain and simple," McGarrah said. "The industry has billions of dollars to spend on this at the state and national level. We don’t. With these cuts… well, it only gets worse for unions."

McGarrah’s supervisor, Peg Seminario, a 28-year AFL-CIO veteran, was tasked with breaking the news to her staff, as was the case with other departmental supervisors. She sympathizes with his concerns and acknowledges that the organization’s restructuring will inevitably force affiliated unions to shoulder a larger burden, especially when it comes to fighting for workers’ health and safety needs at the local, state, and national levels. Seminario said the AFL-CIO and unions in general remain committed to workplace safety, but, she admits, some things will fall by the wayside because there aren’t enough resources within the organized labor movement to handle all the issues faced by workers.

Seminario, who has been in charge of the Health and Safety department for fifteen years, accepts the situation as it is. With fewer resources and a new focus on politics and membership growth, she expects the organization to regroup and effectively address rank-and-file concerns, even as state and local affiliates are asked to take on issues like Workers’ Compensation for themselves.

"Obviously everyone at the Federation, from the officers on down, realize this is an incredibly difficult time," she said. "It certainly isn’t being greeted with any happiness by anyone, but there is the realization that changes have to happen. And I think, in the end, people are willing to accept that."

Health and Safety Cuts Raise Concerns

Many labor advocates find the cuts to the Health and Safety Department especially damaging to workers and organized labor’s mission. According to the most recently available numbers from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), work-related incidents took the lives of 5,559 workers and left another 4.4 million injured in 2003. The governmental department charged with overseeing labor safety issues reported inspecting 23,625 incidents and over 50,000 hazardous conditions in 2004 through its offices and state programs it funds.

Jordan Barab, the former director of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees’ (AFSCME) Health and Safety department said the AFL-CIO cuts should not be swallowed easily. He follows worker safety issues closely and said many factors play into both the demise of the department and the decision to trim the AFL-CIO’s workforce. Internal politics, in his estimation, certainly played a role.

"With the [AFL-CIO] election coming this summer, I’m not too surprised that they [AFL-CIO] made this move," he said of the layoffs and restructuring. "Union debates tend to be abstract, they tend to be about unions and the state of unions, rather than the workers and making their lives better. And with the challenge Sweeney’s facing now, it appears that that argument has taken on even more significance."

Barab, who left AFSCME in 1998 to take a job with OSHA, a position he left when George W. Bush became president in 2001, is worried that the battle over control of the AFL-CIO is overshadowing what he sees as organized labor’s primary duty: making sure workers are treated fairly.

Workplace safety issues tend to be technical and less-than-glamorous, which makes the subject difficult for organizers to use in mobilizing efforts without significant work to educate both members and union employees, said Barab, who also served as a consultant to the AFL-CIO’s Health and Safety department for a year and a half after leaving OSHA. Those efforts pay off, though, as the issue resonates with workers when properly addressed, he added.

"Health and safety is really a lot about being down in the trenches with members," Barab said. "A large part is giving workers the tools to organize around these issues in the workplace. The AFL-CIO does a good job in that area, but it’s something that gets lost in Washington. There’s a disconnect, I think, because you become insulated from workers in the field when you’re there."

According to Macalester College labor Historian Peter Rachleff, altering the Federation’s safety mission on a national level might make sense as the organization has historically focused such efforts on federal legislation, lobbying and research. But, said Rachleff, union locals usually handle the grist of safety matters through contract negotiations, collective bargaining and arbitration.

"All that the AFL-CIO does in this arena is seek federal legislation, so it makes a certain amount of sense to fold it into ‘government affairs’," said Rachleff. "Most of the labor movement's progress in this area – other than the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 – has come through individual collective bargaining contracts."

"The situation at the AFL-CIO is an utter, complete crisis," Rachleff said of the layoffs and internal power struggles. "This is probably not the best strategic response to the crisis," he added. "But the severity of the crisis, overall and in relation to the SEIU and other unions’ pressure, needs to be recognized."

The crisis is simple to define but has proven elusive to solve. According to the most recently available Department of Labor and AFL-CIO figures, just 12.5 percent of the total US workforce (slightly above eight percent of the private sector) belong to unions. And industries where labor has historically held sway no longer employ as many workers, depressing union density in key strongholds. This, Rachleff noted, along with the fact that companies can easily move -- out of town, out of the state, even out of the country -- ultimately means that organized labor’s bargaining power and political clout have been severely diminished.

"This could be the death throes of the AFL-CIO," Rachleff noted grimly.

Other observers are not as alarmed, but the looming cutback in organizational support for safety issues has many concerned for the future of workplace safety. There are few national workplace advocacy organizations, and local ones generally tend to have limited resources and are unlikely to be able to expend enough energy to fill the void left by the AFL-CIO cuts.

According to Roger Cook, director of the Western New York Council on Occupational Safety and Health (WNYCOSH), the demise of the AFL-CIO’s Health and Safety program will be felt by his organization and similar ones throughout the country.

WNYCOSH is a member of the National Council on Occupational Safety and Health, a loose coalition of 23 labor-friendly groups which run safety training and education programs for workers, and conduct grassroots and lobbying advocacy campaigns over issues related to workplace safety. The COSH groups work hand-in-hand with unions and rely heavily on the support and information the Federation has traditionally provided. If nothing else, Cook said, the AFL-CIO currently sets the agenda on health and safety issues. Now he has no idea who will.

"The AFL-CIO has been a unifying voice for safety and health nationally," he said. "And the AFL-CIO's commitment to this issue through the department filters down to state and local affiliates that workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths are unacceptable and that this is something that rank and file members and would-be members in organizing drives care about. It sets a tone for the labor movement."

"Basically, the Safety and Health department has been organized labor's voice on safety and health in Washington, DC and around the country," Cook said.

Send to Friends Respond to Editors or Reporter

The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Brendan Coyne is a contributing journalist.

Recent contributions by Brendan Coyne: