Democracy, Density, and Transformation: We Need Them All

Part 1: AFL-CIO Debate Fizzles…and Why This is Hard

The debate over the future of the AFL-CIO has taken a wrong turn.  The original argument offered by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to increase labor’s bargaining power by increasing union density (the percentage of organized workers in a particular industry or sector of the economy) has largely disappeared from the discussion, replaced by a less than visionary debate over how much to cut dues to the national AFL-CIO.  SEIU’s use of an antiquated concept of union density has gone substantially unchallenged.  Union democracy has been both fetishized and demonized.  Arguments have been posed in an ahistorical and apolitical manner, separated from an analysis of today’s political climate.

To evaluate the principle elements of the debate, we need to measure them against our own experience in the movement.  The debate needs to be grounded in the work of thousands of local leaders to illuminate the way forward. 

I’ll argue that the drive for union density in particular industries and sectors of the economy needs to be supported — although expanded and updated.  Democracy is not a barrier to rebuilding the labor movement, it is a stimulant to labor’s power.  And locating this debate in the current political moment — what has been called corporate globalization — indicates that a campaign for the political transformation of our movement is an essential third component of the program for labor’s revival.

Why this isn’t easy: It would be helpful at the start if all parties acknowledged the difficulties of coming up with solutions to the ongoing decline of the movement we love.  There is a series of obstacles to objectivity and clarity we need to frankly identify and do our best to overcome.

            The Federation itself, as SEIU correctly states, was set up as a loose association with little or no control over its affiliates.  Each international union has a different history, culture, and constitutional structure.  Each is defined in part by the sector or sectors of the economy in which it organizes and bargains.  With no real authority over the affiliates, the Federation is more dependent on the good will of the individual unions than it is in a position to actually lead the movement.  Federation leaders, whether elected or appointed, have no troops of their own and have only the power to exhort or motivate some other way. 

Worse, it means that the Federation has difficulty providing an honest summation of its work and the work of its affiliates. I tried for several years, for example, to find someone in the Federation who could sum up the campaign to get international unions to put at least thirty percent of their budgets into organizing new members.  This was initiated with great fanfare and with a serious educational campaign under the first Organizing Director of the AFL-CIO hired by new President John Sweeney in 1995, Richard Bensinger.   I was curious to know, “What unions changed, and which ones did not, and why?  Did those who put the thirty percent into organizing actually organize more workers?  To what degree is the issue primarily a matter of resources, as opposed to methods or politics or just where you happened to be in the economy?”  But no summation ever happened, and that campaign disappeared without notice, as have others before and since.  The Federation staff is simply not in a position to say to its affiliates, “Some of you are doing lousy work, and some of you are okay.”  Most good summations of experience of the AFL-CIO and its unions have come from outside the official structure.

It is perhaps even more difficult for individual leaders and activists to get a clear view of the movement as a whole, for several reasons.  First, each union activist or leader of whatever trade, staff position, rank-and file-job, or political persuasion lives his or her activist life within a particular international union and culture. There is not much of a labor movement culture overall.  So inevitably the view of the individual activist or leaders is limited — that is, biased — by that experience. (This is of course true of me as well, with my own twenty-two years in the International Union of Electrical Workers and then four in the Communications Workers after the IUE-CWA merger.) 

A small number of labor leaders and activists get involved with cross-union organizations like Jobs with Justice, an AFL-CIO “constituency group” like the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) or Pride at Work, or other networks outside the official structure like the Labor Notes newsletter.  But absent that activity, you can argue that the longer a worker is active in his union, the narrower his vision becomes

Second, the organized intellectual life of the trade union movement is pretty sparse.  The unofficial journals which sum up advances and failures are small and not widely read.  The internal union press rarely provides substantive self-criticism or debate.  So an individual leader’s views are largely formed by anecdotes and, understandably, organizational self-interest. 

Consequently it is common for union leaders and activists to sum up that their employer is uniquely vicious, their organizing tasks uniquely challenging, but their successes are models for labor everywhere.  And the lack of organized intellectual life lends no counterweight to the petty political culture that can invade any organization — a self-defeating culture with little middle ground between bootlickin’ and backstabbin’.

Finally, very few international union leaders have had experience in leading Central Labor Councils or State Federations, which would allow them to gain direct experience with the economic challenges, history, culture, and politics of other unions. The challenge and skills needed to lead at any level of an individual union are very different from those needed to lead a federation body. Any individual who has tried to make the transition from leading a local union to leading a long-neglected Central Labor Council or a State Federation and suddenly facing issues involving unions and jobs as diverse as electricians, manufacturing workers, nurses, and letter carriers can attest to this. 

Next Month: With all that as an introduction, and based on my own experience (and bias) as a local leader and a Central Labor Council leader, how do the SEIU proposals match up against the needs of American workers and the crisis of the US labor movement at this time?

Note: The complete version of this article will be printed in the November issue of Working USA.

Jeff Crosby is President of IUE-CWA Local 201 and North Shore Labor Council.