A New Labor Federation Claims Its Space: If Enthusiasm on Display Were Substance, CtW Could Claim a Good Start

The founding convention of the Change-to-Win labor federation held in St. Louis on September 27, 2005 was, if nothing else, filled with enthusiasm and efficiently managed.  The founding unions’ top leaders put forward a lean and specifically organizing-focused agenda, and it was adopted without even a hint of dissent.  The longer-term question is whether this self-described new direction in unionism will help reverse the growing inequity and inequality of the U.S. working class, who are now experiencing the most economically and politically destructive period in decades.

The event was well managed.  Timetables were kept. The principal leaders’ speeches throughout the day introduced themes and calls to action in a well-charted sequence.  Several were punctuated by the introduction of rank-and-file workers invited to tell their stories in ways that highlighted either the CtW’s immediate impact or scenarios where CtW action would likely produce victories.  The some 460 convention delegates and over 200 additional observers — overwhelmingly made up of local officers and staff — gave rousing approval to every resolution and initiative put before them. The high energy of a well-coached contender was on display.

Also on display was the absence of profound differences between the seven defecting unions and the AFL-CIO they leave behind. However historic the CtW’s formation will ultimately be deemed, on launch day it offered little to distinguish it from the abiding traditions and utilitarian culture of its former mothership.  However, the dominant theme which the CtW unions hammered at throughout the long, pre-split “debate period,” a renewed organizing focus and complimentary restructuring initiative, was very much still the center of the CtW’s agenda.

Mantra-like, the theme that “organizing is power” was repeated throughout the day’s proceedings.  There were a few rhetorical nods to such questions as poverty (to be reduced by creating full-time work for anyone who wants it), “revolutionizing our failing health care system,” creating a new political movement (often described as finding “good” Democrats and Republicans to support), championing diversity (something scarcely seen on the floor at this founding event), and “globalization,” a faintly noted threat with little elaboration.  The centrality of “organizing” underpins the entire new CtW structure and constitution and virtually all resolutions adopted at the inaugural convention.

Three-quarters of all the CtW funds will be devoted to organizing, starting with the $16 million initial budget and continuingly derived from the dues-based .25 per capita per affiliate member which is estimated to total $750 million annually.  These funds are the CtW federation’s own organizing monies, separate from the even greater amounts expected to be spent by affiliates on organizing as well. The organizational structure, as described, includes “three basic components”: Executive Office; Strategic Organizing Center; and Organizing Fund. 

These functioning components are under the direction of a CtW Leadership Council (LC), which meets every two months; the Leadership Council selects the CtW Chair (currently SEIU’s Anna Burger) and a Treasurer (Edgar Romney, Unite-HERE Executive Vice President).  Named CtW Executive Director is Greg Tarpinian, of Labor Research Association.  Picked to head the all-important Strategic Organizing Center is SEIU Executive Vice President, Tom Woodruff. (I am unaware, as of this posting, who will head the Organizing Fund component). 

Tom Woodruff gave the presentation which outlined the general organizing goals and objectives of the new federation.  He indicated that, in the 14 occupational sectors where the CtW affiliates were currently representing 6 million workers, there were 44 million unorganized workers. He defined them as the CtW’s target population.  Explicit in the assumption about the CtW’s organizing target — the assumption common to the unions making up the CtW — is the fact that the targeted sectors are largely unaffected by globalization or, as Woodruff put it, “off-shoring.”

Here — on the question of claimed jurisdiction — lies the fault line of the U.S. labor movement, which has been widening for years.  The CtW carves out most, though not all, of the “landlocked” employment sectors, leaving the AFL-CIO with the sectors most damaged by capital’s ever increasing mobility and neoliberal motives (i.e., industrial and digitalized sectors), as-yet-unprivatized blocks of the public sector, and a loose collection of other unions. Among those remaining in the old federation’s fold are the centerpiece unions (auto, steel, electrical, and chemical) of the great CIO upsurge of the 1930s and ‘40s — along with the UMW and the IAM, most public employee unions, and the high-profile Communications Workers who have retained a somewhat aggressive organizing and collective bargaining reputation but, like many others, suffer from global capital’s bare-knuckle agenda. Still in the AFL camp are also a cluster of building & construction trades unions.  These “left-behind” unions are not linked in ways that the CtW affiliates are structurally linked — the only point of unity being their membership in the AFL-CIO. (It was clear in the confident CtW leaders’ side conversations that they expected more defectors from the AFL-CIO to align with them in time.)

During Tuesday’s convention, several floor speakers referred to the rise of the CIO, and some reporters in the press section speculated on comparisons between today’s CtW breakaway and that of industrial labor’s 1930s juggernaut.  I’m among those who see little to compare between the two to date.  The CIO was home to a significant number of left worker activists who led many of the organizing and direct action struggles which empowered the country’s working class, particularly in mass production industries. Many of those rising leaders were “big picture” activists and collectively offered a vision that could, in their view, fundamentally transform the whole society. 

Local unions emerging at the thousands of workplaces in the initial CIO era were generally horizontally organized, robustly democratic, and built in part by workers’ self-activity.  The CtW’s operational perspective is unapologetically vertical, and internal democracy, outside of its current limited application in its respective affiliates, didn’t make its talking points at its founding convention.

Also notably absent from the spoken and written proceedings of the CtW convention were words usually associated with union conventions.  For example, the word “solidarity” was strangely missing from virtually all major leaders’ speeches and does not appear anywhere in the five resolutions approved by the convention.  Similarly, none of the resolutions contained the word “justice.” The language of the convention, instead, favored techno-futurist phrases and corporate focus-group jargon like “growing the labor movement” through “value-added integration,” a phrase that appears to be designed to replace the word “solidarity.”   

This is not to suggest that revitalizing the labor movement is dependent on old language rather than new initiatives, an overriding social vision, and the ability to win the allegiance of millions of workers.  But words like solidarity and justice don’t scare workers or our working-class community allies. What they embody does, however, make our corporate adversaries uncomfortable.  We can only speculate on why today’s labor movement leaders feel the need to so readily replace them.

CtW leaders and staff were generally open to reporters, and there were several press briefings by principals during the otherwise busy day.  Mostly they “stayed on message,” trying to amplify themes of building “new worker power” and “devoting resources to growth” through their new commitment to organizing. They tended to avoid direct criticisms of, or comparisons to, the senior federation.  But the question of how CtW affiliates would interact with AFL-CIO affiliates at the state and local level (a topic receiving a lot of attention at the AFL-CIO convention in Chicago and since) was also on the minds of the CtW founders and a majority of the delegates.  It was the CtW position that local CtW affiliates continue to stay connected to the local and state bodies.  That, Chairperson Anna Burger explained, was a matter still in negotiations with the AFL-CIO.

Spokespersons focused on the CtW’s organizing objectives, and deflected inquiries of the organization’s position on such questions as the war in Iraq (Anna Burger’s response in the noon press conference was “that affiliates can take their own positions and some have”). She indicated that action on that question may be taken at a later time.  The question of whether the CtW would support the striking AMFA mechanics at Northwest Airlines received the same reply: “it was up to the individual affiliates.”

The convention did address the Hurricane Katrina and Gulf states situation. A resolution was passed to “rebuild new hope and new communities in the gulf coast.” The resolution noted how “the disproportionate impact of Hurricane Katrina on minority and low-income communities exposes the need to address persisting economic and racial inequality in the Gulf Coast and across this country.” On this question, the old federation and the new one have put forward very similar programs involving large dollar commitments to retrain workers in the affected region.  The CtW also announced that it would be “partnering with the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Rainbow/PUSH in its comprehensive rebuilding effort.”

In mid afternoon, the press pool was alerted to an impromptu briefing opportunity with SEIU President Andy Stern who, more than any other CtW leader, had forced the debate that had led to the split.  He was seated on a couch in the area immediately in front of the convention entrance, alongside several of the rank-and-file janitors from Houston whose organizing victory had been touted earlier in the convention.  With the press tightly knotted around him, Stern answered questions about the hopes for the new organization.  “The change process has ended,” he stated, “and now that we’ve changed, we can win.”

When asked about how to talk with the union membership, Brother Stern said, “Blogs and the internet. Union halls and small groups aren’t working.” At one point in the interview, he made the assertion that engaging in “class struggle unionism was outdated” and that “a new partnership with employers was necessary to build unions and America.”

But, when asked why workers weren’t joining unions today, he responded firmly that “employers are why workers don’t join unions.” Later, he stated that “we need global unions to compete with global companies.”  And on the subject of politics he said, “Democrats don’t have a clue.  When they figure out how to solve working families’ problems, then they’ll get somewhere.”

As the one-day convention came to a close, the delegates, many of whom as noted were long-time local officials and business agents in their respective unions, were still conveying an uncustomary degree of collective enthusiasm and perhaps even some “value-added integration” to apply to the work ahead.  A reception to close out the long day helped the delegates celebrate their new Federation’s founding convention.

A Brief Side Trip to Add Perspective

Before offering any concluding commentary on the Change-to-Win convention, I would like to briefly mention another event which was coincidentally held in St. Louis the weekend immediately preceding the CtW event. That event was the Jobs with Justice National Annual Meeting. 

Jobs with Justice, or JwJ for short, is an organizations founded by labor and community activists some years ago to serve as a broader coalition to mobilize workers and communities to actively resist injustice. 

There are a number of JwJ chapters in major cities and communities around the country.  In many locations, they have provided local labor with critical “shock troops” and given a more progressive face to workplace and community struggles. JwJ has a small national staff and a national board of directors made up of activist community and religious leaders, as well as a number of labor leaders.  Today, those labor representatives, both at the national and local JwJ board level, are on both sides of the recent split in the labor movement. That’s a reality that most of the 1000 some JwJ conferees were well aware of as they met.

The JwJ national meeting represented a marked contrast with the CtW convention in several ways, the contrast that is still remarkable after their different origins and stated purposes are taken into account.  Unlike the CtW’s convention, JwJ participants were very diverse — racially, ethnically, and by gender and sexual orientation.  They were on average much younger, and many were union organizers, local leaders, and rank-and-filers. They listened to speeches and participated in workshops which explored a wide range of current working-class challenges.  They were also very enthusiastic as their meeting ended, and hundreds of them delayed leaving to join an anti-war march in a heavy rain storm on Sunday.

Just as the current labor split is causing uncertainty within the existing State and local labor bodies, a similar tension affects labor support elements like JwJ.  This is not the time for organizations fighting for justice to take spectator seats, waiting for labor to sort out its less-than-epic differences.  If anything, those frontline organizations should surge forward, using all the innovation and militancy their coalition of the class can muster, to help point the way to a new social justice agenda for our working-class communities.

Where — from Here?

We now have two “competing” labor centers in America.  Yet neither represents a conscious break with the cultures, traditions, and failures of the past which have pushed us so deeply into the crisis they have both acknowledged.  The primary emphasis of each labor federation may differ, but their competition is still within the realm of business, or “partnership,” unionism. 

CtW, with still the most to prove, will more effectively deploy its resources to organizing within the targeted sectors it claims.  And some successes are likely.  The AFL-CIO bureaucracy will counter with its own relative structural and tactical modifications.  Partisans in both camps will hype their respective achievements — and yet the sustained and relentless attacks on workers by capital will continue.

Missing throughout those many long months of in-house debate, and still missing today, is an overarching vision of what a just society should look like: how to break with the economic elitists who are waging the one-sided class warfare against workers in this country, and around the world; and how to build the solidarity to promote and sustain such a vision. 

Today in the U.S., there is no influential center, or “third voice,” to provide an alternative space for discussion of class-struggle strategies and creation of a new paradigm to replace the failed “partnership unionism” of the past.  What is now needed is for workers, social activists, intellectuals, and other persons with the enthusiasm for such a center to come together. Then, the real debate can begin.

Jerry Tucker is a long-time U.S. union activist and former Executive Board Member of the United Auto Workers union.  He was a founder of the UAW New Directions Movement.