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Labor at the Crossroads

Five hundred people who care about the future of the labor movement gathered at the City University of New York on December 2nd and 3rd to discuss what that future should look like. There were some rank and file members in the crowd, but mostly it was made up of those who work for or write about labor.
Perhaps the only points of universal agreement among the speakers and participants of the "Labor at the Crossroads" conference hosted by the Queens College Labor Resource Center and the New Labor Forum were, first, that the labor movement needs to stop shrinking and start growing, and, second, that George W. Bush is bad news.

There was disagreement over whether restructuring the labor movement along the lines of the SEIU's "Unite to Win" proposal would help the movement grow. And there was disagreement over many other issues, including what emphasis to place on democracy and activism within the labor movement, including in labor media. But there was not much discussion of democracy and activism as tools to make the movement grow and gain power. The SEIU's proposal for restructuring was the main focus of a plenary in the main auditorium, while such issues as union democracy were discussed in small rooms at times when conference participants split up into several simultaneous panels.

The New Unity Partnership (NUP) framed the debate at this conference so that many topics were treated as after thoughts to the main project of growth (understood as restructuring). These included: democracy and activism, labor media as a shaper of public discourse, labor media as a builder of union democracy and activism, political strategy, coalition building, and international organizing. Democracy was treated as an objection to a top-down model of restructuring, and therefore as an impediment to growth, or something with which growth must reach a compromise. Rarely were democracy and activism presented as a way to achieve growth.

The project of building national labor media, promoted at this conference by, among others, Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez, was also not presented as a key to growth, but as something for its own sake. While labor media was mentioned in various plenaries and panels, not a single session was devoted to the topic.

Politics, too, was a separate topic. While the plenary on the first morning was called "Leadership Plenary: What Will it Take to Bring About Labor's Revival? Competing Visions," the plenary on the second morning was "Labor and the 2004 Elections: What Happened and What Next?" This second discussion focused on the work that labor had done for John Kerry, not on whether a more aggressive political agenda and endorsement process could help build a bigger movement.

The first plenary included remarks from UNITE HERE General President Bruce Raynor, IFPTE President Gregory Junemann, SEIU International Executive Vice President Gerald Hudson, and CWA Executive Vice President Larry Cohen. Raynor opened by describing how grim things now were for American workers and suggesting that labor needs "the kind of change that leaders of the CIO brought." He noted that the idea that manufacturing jobs were high-paying jobs "was not handed down from Mt. Sinai…. It was handed down by the CIO."

Raynor said that huge abuses of workers, such as the government's "wiping out pensions" can go on now without "any comment in American society." He recounted the successes that UNITE HERE had had with militant strikes and demonstrations. He noted that it was a Democratic president who created NAFTA, which had cost 800,000 jobs.

But from these observations, Raynor drew a seemingly unrelated conclusion: labor needs to have fewer unions, with unions focused on industries and jurisdictions. He made four proposals. First, because we lost the presidential election, we need to spend more money next time. Second, labor should not permit one union to sign a contract that undermines another union's campaign against a company. Third, every dollar from Union Privilege credit cards should go to a Wal-Mart campaign. And fourth, unions should pay less money to the AFL-CIO and invest more in their own organizing.

Junemann spoke second and stressed that he was speaking on behalf of a smaller union (56,000 members). He offered no bullet-point plan for success. But he presented a very different model for union growth from what Raynor had described and what everyone knew Hudson was about to describe. Junemann said that all IFPTE leaders come from the rank and file, that staff-to-member ratio is "incredibly low," that dues are very low, that locals are run by members and the international by the locals. Using this model, the IFPTE has doubled in size over the past 10 years and has grown under George W. Bush.

Of course, this is also the model used by community organizations, such as ACORN, which has continued to grow under Bush and has, in fact, over the past 30 years grown larger than most unions, even while organizing various unions, including two large locals of the SEIU (100 and 880).

Junemann proposed that the AFL-CIO send temporary teams around the country to help with campaigns. "We need to disassemble the whale and put together a school of piranhas." He proposed greater study of what future jobs will be and more training of members for future needs. He called for representation for the 25 percent of the work force that is "non-traditional," that is, working on contracts or as freelancers. And he suggested that US labor work more closely with unions around the world.

Junemann did not propose that other unions follow the IFPTE's strategy for success through membership control. But he did express opposition to the SEIU model: "Forced mergers are not strategic," he said. "Our members want to remain a low-cost, self-directed union with the members in charge. They will not merge with a union that doesn't have that model."

Hudson spoke next, and referred to the SEIU's 10-point "Unite to Win" proposal, which was released last month. He argued that "size matters," that larger unions are stronger, that "diversity matters," that the movement is "too male, too pale, and too stale," and that "unity matters," that the number of unions should be drastically reduced through mergers. Of 61 unions, he said, 40 are smaller than the SEIU's Local 1199.

Hudson proposed that the AFL-CIO collect half what it does now from "lead unions," and that the unions invest at least 20 percent of their international budget and 10 percent at the local level in organizing. The AFL-CIO, he said, should help to create unions in industries and regions that need them. And labor should build global alliances, Hudson said, based on industry or company.

The SEIU's proposal would be the focus of many of the questions from the audience following the speakers' remarks, as well as of a follow-up "editorial roundtable" with four speakers responding to the plenary and audience members asking them additional questions.

But first, Cohen of CWA, presented a new 10-point plan. He handed it out on paper, and it can now be found on the SEIU's Unite to Win website. Cohen's plan differs significantly from the SEIU's. It relegates the topic of mergers to point number 9, which reads in its entirety:

"In the past 10 years, about 50 national unions have merged. This trend will undoubtedly continue. The issue is how mergers can change union workplaces, lead to more active shop stewards and greater member involvement, and create more effective organizing, collective bargaining and political action."

Cohen's first two points focus on collective bargaining. Points three and five propose strengthening the role of shop stewards and allowing the democratic election by them of central labor council leaders. Point four proposes that the AFL-CIO provide strike benefits of at least $200 per week for every striking worker. Point six proposes a democratic process for political endorsements, combined with discouraging local unions from supporting a candidate not supported by the majority of unions. The other points address international alliances, social action (putting emphasis on national health care and on pensions), and "narrowing and sharpening" the focus of the AFL-CIO.

"If anyone in this room," Cohen said, "thinks that we're going to change collective bargaining rights based on how we structure rather than how we mobilize, they're mistaken." But, as far as how labor should be structured, Cohen suggested that organization by industry could not be the only factor. Some companies are dominant in many industries. Organization must take into account: employer, industry, place, and type of jobs.

Many audience members lined up for a turn at a microphone to ask the speakers questions. A number of them focused on problems people saw with forced mergers, such as when a union with a strong political position is urged to merge with unions that don't share the position. Others argued that "Unite to Win" has too much about structure, and that size and unity cannot save a union from hostile legislation -- as in the cases of the trucking and telephone industries.

Steve Early, CWA organizer in the North East, asked Raynor: "Bruce, you've called union democracy one of our faults. Greg made a case for why it's a strength. How will you and the NUPsters correct this fault?"

Raynor replied that labor needs to "line up contracts" in order to oppose multi-national corporations. "Workers get that," he said. Junemann had a different answer. Rather than claiming that workers understand a leadership decision, he said he preferred to "give workers all the information and trust them to make a good decision."

Hudson, for his part, said that rank and file democracy is "not incompatible with structural adjustment." He said that the SEIU proposal focuses on structure, because that's "the hard stuff." Building a social movement, he suggested, is easy rhetoric, whereas restructuring involves difficult concrete decisions.

Peter Hogness, editor of the Clarion, PSC-CUNY/AFT 2334, asked the four speakers if they would encourage their international publications to devote space to the debate that has been opened by the NUP. He also pointed out that many of the comments posted on the Unite to Win website are posted anonymously. He asked Hudson if he would state that no staff would be fired and no local suffer retribution for their comments, and if he would seek out dissenters and ask them to post comments. Hudson's reply was that "nobody should be penalized," which was perhaps not necessarily the same as "nobody will be penalized."

One audience member asked why labor doesn't fight for single-payer health care. When Raynor replied that it "had no chance," an audience member shouted out "It absolutely does!" Junemann proposed working for single-payer at the state level, and a later questioner noted that labor had already won that fight in Hawaii.

One questioner asked when the labor movement would "break its silence" on the war. Junemann claimed that the AFL-CIO "strongly opposed the war." But murmurs of disbelief from the audience caused him to express uncertainty. The AFL-CIO, in fact, has yet to take a position on the war or to even acknowledge in its magazine that there is a war. Karen Ackerman, AFL-CIO political director, would claim in the next day's plenary that the labor movement has no position on the war and therefore could not talk to its members about it as part of a political campaign.

The "roundtable" that followed the opening plenary opened up a broader perspective, directing attention to the global economy, the war, and the U.S. empire. Speakers included Bill Fletcher of TransAfrica Forum, Elaine Bernard of Harvard University, Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News, and Ed Ott of the NYC Central Labor Council.

"The core question," said Fletcher, "is not structure but purpose." The purpose, he suggested, should be "class struggle and social uplift."

"Let's set the agenda," said Bernard. "That will determine the politics." We have the power, she said, to put health care for all on the agenda. We need members involved every day in determining where we go. "You don't start with structure. You start with strategy."

"Real debate," Bernard said, in apparent reference to the SEIU proposal, "does not include ultimatums." For the SEIU to leave the AFL-CIO, she said, was not a bad idea. In Canada, federations compete for union affiliation, something the union members control.

Ott proposed a "split with no acrimony" for five years, with no raiding.

Gonzalez considered it a grave error for labor not to have strongly opposed the war. "The labor movement has not grasped the fact that we are in a labor movement in the most powerful, dominant, and hegemonic empire the world has ever seen…. Our empire has created the demographic changes in this country.

We lament media coverage, Gonzalez said, but an international president wants to spend more on politics. That money pays for candidates' advertisements on the media. Why not cut out the middle man and make our own media? "If you want to raise a lot of money, don't spend it by giving it to the Democratic Party. Spend it creating an independent media system!"

Gonzalez' proposal received support from the audience. Following questions from the floor, he developed his suggestion further, saying that "labor has to have a broadcast voice on radio or television." If there can be food channels and cartoon channels, he said, "why has the labor movement not tackled having its own space? It's astounding to me! Why spend money on advertising on other channels? Why not have our own channel?"

A panel held later in the day in a small room expended the debate further. The panel was called "Does Union Democracy Matter?" and it included Early of CWA and Gregor Murray of the University of Montreal, with Barbara Bowen of the AFT as commentator.

Murray made the same argument that Bernard had, that competition could be good. But he pointed out that in Canada workers can choose to affiliate with another union without decertifying. "You've never seen such responsive Teamster and UFCW locals," he said.

He argued that restructuring would not build strength without democracy. "You can organize everyone in a sector, but not have power if you don't organize strength within." And to have that strength, Murray said, you need small locals. "Mega locals suck the life out of the labor movement." Polls of workers in Canada, he said find that nearly all union members agree that unions are needed, but far from all agree with basic principles, such as that strikes are needed, that workers should never cross picket lines, or that all workers should be organized. Those who do agree in large numbers with those principles are members of unions with greater democracy.

Early handed out internal SEIU communications and read quotes from SEIU President Andy Stern to make a case that "It is an article of faith in NUPsterism that democracy doesn't matter." People, he said, who in 1968 in the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) had promoted participatory democracy, have now reversed course.

Early said that the SEIU's Stephen Lerner had argued that you could not have union democracy if only 10 percent of workers are in unions. What percentage would you have to reach, Early asked, before you could start talking about union democracy? Early went on to make arguments suggesting it might be difficult to organize a large percentage of the workforce without union democracy. History shows, Early said, that unions without democracy degenerate into corrupt, gangster-run enterprises. He cited the history of the mineworkers, the teamsters, and the steelworkers.

"CWA is exactly the sort of union the NUPsters say shouldn't exist," said Early. "Sixty percent of our workers should be traded away like baseball cards [because of what industries they work in]. But workers make a choice which union to go with."

Asked about using labor media to build union democracy and strength, Early replied that it is difficult to create a democratic labor publication without a reform movement first. He gave as examples reform movements in the Mineworkers (1972) and more recently in the Teamsters, which were followed by democratization in those unions' communications.

Early also cited the Newspaper Guild Reporter as an example of good democratic labor media. Bowen praised CWA 1180's publication as the same. And veteran labor communicator Harry Kelber cited PACE's the PACE Setter as a magazine that had begun printing more letters to the editor.

A number of questions in this session addressed the division of topics noted at the top of this article. How do we both grow and do democracy, they asked. "The NUPsters won't talk about democracy, and this panel says nothing about growth."

Early replied that the CWA's success in the North East provided a model for growth based on "bottom-up organizing and member activism."

If so, that model failed to dominate the debates at this two-day convention, which continued to focus on the proposal to restructure. And the AFL-CIO is not proposing any model of its own. Just as labor's recent political work was made more difficult by its endorsement of a corporate, free-trade, pro-private-health-insurance, pro-war candidate without a vision of his own to oppose to Bush's, labor's debate over how to revive the movement is limited by the AFL-CIO's failure to develop an inspiring vision clearly opposed to the SEIU's, a situation that has some organizers referring to the AFL-CIO as "SEIU Lite." It may be that the CWA is moving things slowly in the direction of an AFL-CIO vision for labor. Time will tell.

David Swanson is Media Coordinator for the International Labor Communications Association,



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