"Breaking ranks with the AFL-CIO"
John M Cox
coxj at email.unc.edu
Wed Sep 10 07:29:16 MDT 2003
SEPTEMBER 5, 2003 Business Week Online
Breaking Ranks with the AFL-CIO
Five union chiefs are discussing how to join forces to increase their
memberships -- away from the labor federation.
Earlier this year, a group of union leaders eager to reverse labor's
long-term decline goaded AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney into
setting up a streamlined new governance structure for the federation.
Their goal: a complete overhaul of the AFL-CIO to focus it like a
laser on getting labor's ranks growing again. Sweeney broadly agrees
with them, but he bristled at the activists' moves and has essentially
sidetracked the new executive committee instituted last February.
Now, BusinessWeek has learned, these rebellious labor chieftains have
decided to take matters a step further by creating their own mini
labor federation. Since early July, the head of the Service Employees
International Union (SEIU) and four other labor presidents have met
several times to map out what they're informally calling the New Unity
On Sept. 2, they gathered again in Washington to discuss hiring staff
and formalizing an agenda. The idea is to find new ways to stimulate
growth in union rolls -- for example, by mounting joint recruitment
campaigns against large national companies or across geographic
regions. "The question is: Can we create something to help us all grow
faster?" says SEIU President Andrew L. Stern, whose union, the
AFL-CIO's largest, is one of the few that has been gaining members in
the private sector.
"THAT COULD HAPPEN."
The five, who have been talking to Teamsters President James P. Hoffa
about joining their effort, also continue to map out their ideas for
reforming the AFL-CIO. They have been discussing the issues they had
hoped to push in the federation's new executive committee, such as
reducing or eliminating many AFL-CIO functions to free up resources
At this point, they're not talking about quitting the AFL-CIO --
unlike the course one of them, Carpenters President Douglas J.
McCarron, took two years ago after his frustration over the
federation's inaction boiled over. Nevertheless, "that could happen if
things don't change," says one of the other four.
The gang of five are part of a new generation of labor leaders, mostly
in their early 50s, who want to see more militant action to stem
labor's decline. All five have put their own unions through often
painful transformations, slashing bureaucracy and focusing dwindling
resources on recruitment. Now, they want to make bold moves across the
federation, such as throwing hundreds of recruiters and other
resources into major organizing campaigns.
"We all believe this is a critical time for labor, and we're not
prepared to let it disappear on our watch -- not without an effort by
us," says Bruce Raynor, president of UNITE, the needle trades union.
Problem is, most union leaders are divided about just how militant
they want to be. Many seem content to bargain for existing contracts
and make token efforts to refocus on growth. Only a handful have
restructured themselves for big organizing pushes, despite years of
exhortation by Sweeney and others. A few chiefs have been taking steps
to make membership gains but perceive the five as divisive or
grandstanding. "The AFL-CIO's doing a better job than it has in
years," says one top union leader.
Complicating matters is the perception that several of the five harbor
ambitions to replace Sweeney when his term expires in 2005. So their
agenda hasn't been greeted with open arms. Indeed, the New Unity
Partnership in some ways reflects a failure of the five to garner
support for their program, prompting them to strike out on their own.
AFL-CIO officials, for their part, vacillate between trying to
accommodate the conflicting views of union presidents and lashing out
at those challenging Sweeney's priorities. "Anyone who says you can
crack a whip or knock heads [to force unions to change] is crazy,"
says Denise Mitchell, Sweeney's assistant for public affairs.
If the partnership gets off the ground, employers could see some
stronger organizing drives. One example: UNITE and the Teamsters have
already joined forces to target 17,000 workers at Cintas Corp.
(CTAS ), a leading commercial launderer. UNITE has successfully
unionized smaller rivals in the industry and may be able to put up a
real fight with the clout of the much larger Teamsters, which also
represents laundry workers.
The group is also talking about targeting industries by region.
Florida and Arizona are two states they're eyeing. The SEIU has
contracts with real estate and management companies for building
workers, while the Laborers and Carpenters deal with the construction
companies that build the properties. The idea is to push unionized
employers in one industry to allow unimpeded organizing in the others.
They want to target hotel chains, too, where the hotel employees union
has members. "Far too many hotels are built by members of my union but
run nonunion, or vice versa," says Laborers Union President Terence M.
Many of these ideas are already being tried by some unions, including
most of the five. Still, this would be the first organization
dedicated to helping unions grow again. If it works, other unions are
likely to sign on -- and one of the five would likely take over the
AFL-CIO and try them on an even broader scale.
By Aaron Bernstein in Washington
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