Article 43


Unions Fighting Themselves

Heated talks on unions’ organizing efforts reinforce the drive to revamp the group.
LA TImes Mar 4 2005.

LAS VEGAS — A territorial spat between two of the nation’s largest unions that was discussed Thursday at the AFL-CIO’s semiannual leadership meeting underscored the potential difficulties in holding the labor federation together.

Union fights over which can organize and represent certain workers aren’t uncommon, particularly in these days of dwindling membership. But while labor leaders universally lament the waste of energy and resources, they have yet to figure out an effective way to resolve the disputes.

This quarrel, over an effort in Illinois, is significant because it involves leading protagonists in a fierce debate over the federation’s future, with one threatening to pull his union out of the AFL-CIO. Both cite the tussle as reason not to trust the other.

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  1. Time For Real Change Led With Real Courage
    By Anna Burger
    Fri Mar 04, 2005

    The winds of change are blowing through the labor movement but they need to gain force and clear out the smoke screen puffing from the leaders of the AFL-CIO. In Las Vegas the leadership of the AFL-CIO, once the voice for change, has become the voice for the status quo. Trying to cloud the issues, they claim that this is only a fight about money or about pitting organizing against politics—but we know that it’s about much more.

    The real difference is about having the courage to make hard choices. Choices that will mean making real change for the future of working families in this country...and those choices must start with the leaders.

    At SEIU we’ve made hard choices. We’ve had leaders with the courage in action to step up or step aside and put the interest of workers ahead of their own self interest. We’ve taken on global corporations and won. We’ve given workers the opportunity to vote to merge their locals to unite their strength and build the power that they need to grow and fight and win.  Why is it that the AFL-CIO leaders and their supporters refuse to look at themselves and make the changes that must be made to turn this movement around?

    This week while SEIU, the Teamsters, UFCW, UNITE/HERE, and LIUNA stood together to make change with a vision of building a movement that can win for working families, the AFL-CIO faked change through proposals that protects the titles and status of labor leaders, staff and the bloated beauracracy of the AFL-CIO.

    Politics and organizing together isn’t new to SEIU. It’s something we live every day. Our members just believe in a different way of doing politics and organizing. So while I am proud when members of the AFL-CIO say time and time again that SEIU is the example and acknowledge our hard work and success, I am horrified that they can not and do not expect the same of themselves.

    I do have a problem with the AFL-CIO’s political proposal. Throwing money at politics and politicians and just doing more of the same with fewer and fewer members won’t change the results. 

    We need to be honest. In 2004, many unions failed to do their job of talking to real members at the workplace and mobilizing our members to action.  And the AFL-CIO spent millions of dollars hiring people off the street to door knock and get people to sign petitions to make them members in name only.  It’s time for an improved and accountable political program focused on membership involvement and activism in our worksites and our communities.

    Its time for real change led with real courage!

    Anna Burger is the International Secretary-Treasurer of SEIU.


    Politics versus organizing?  Dues cuts?  Or a call to action?

    Somehow, suddenly, the issue in the debate over the revival of the labor movement seems to be changing from “too many unions doing too little organizing” to “politics versus organizing”. 

    And suddenly the solution on the table is changing from “strengthen the power of labor’s central body to make change happen” to “cut our dues”.

    Are these the issues that will dominate the debate, as May Day comes and goes and we move toward July?  I hope not.  Because these issues are likely to divide good unionists, rather than unite them.  Is that what we want?

    I do think the fundamental question must be posed.  Are we willing to put our organizations on the line--to change our lives--to rebuild the labor movement?  But the best way to ask this question is to answer it in action.

    So call us to action.  Recognize that this debate has created a possibility for action among hundreds and thousands of grassroots labor leaders.  It has galvanized our attention, and our hopes, and our fears.  Don’t waste this moment.  There’s a trigger in your hand.  Pull it.  Electrify our meetings--in every union.  And activate our labor councils--of every size.  Give us an opportunity, perhaps our last opportunity for years, to revive our movement together.

    This may mean not one but several campaigns that tap different energies to seize different opportunities in different places.  That’s the amazing thing about a real movement: it multiplies our energies, and doesn’t need a single management team.

    Ten years ago, for example, our rural valleys here on the California coast were the scene of the new AFL-CIO’s first great effort to prove its commitment to organizing and labor movement revival.  That first Strawberry Campaign targeted a key part of our 60,000-strong immigrant farm & food processing workforce.  That campaign was a catastrophe, and its lessons are legion.  Now, however, we think we’ve learned those lessons.  Now the UFW already represents the biggest employer in the industry (which also happens to be the biggest Teamster employer in the region) and now that union may be better prepared to organize than any time in its history.  So for us, as the harvest season approaches, a second Strawberry Campaign may be the answer.  Our challenge may be to galvanize our local labor movement and community partners to help win this fight--while STILL stepping up to the political challenge of the beast Scwharzenegger.  And the challenge facing our national leaders may be to help us to pick this fight and to help others pick a dozen others like it by tying them all to our common commitment to rebuild the labor movement.

    Let’s go to Chicago with a movement that unites us, not a dues rebate proposal.

    Paul Johnston, Monterey Bay Central Labor Council


    Posted by Burned Out Baby Boomer  on  03/20/05
  2. Labor War in Illinois
    The AFL-CIO’s two largest unions duke it out and SEIU comes out on top.

    By Harold Meyerson
    Web Exclusive: 03.29.05

    For a while last week, Illinois was home to the kind of union-against-union labor war that America hasn’t seen since American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) unions used to clobber each other while fighting for new members, in the days before the two federations merged 50 years ago.

    Hundreds of organizers from both the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) were pounding on doors in rival efforts to persuade the state’s 48,000 child-care workers to vote to join their respective unions. What made the campaign exceptional, however, was that the SEIU was able to enlist hundreds of additional organizers from other unions to pound the pavement on its behalf.

    “We had almost 200 organizers today from the UFCW [United Food and Commercial Workers], the Teamsters, and UNITE HERE [formerly the Union of Needletrades, Textiles and Industrial Employees and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, which merged last year],” Tom Balanoff, the head of the SEIU’s Illinois State Council, said last week. “That was a first for Chicago.”

    And not just Chicago. Unions hardly ever send other unions their own organizers to help out in union-versus-union conflicts; the precedent that such side-taking could set and the relationships it could sever would normally deter union leaders from that kind of intervention. The UFCW, Teamster, and UNITE-HERE interventions are even more extraordinary considering that they weren’t intended to help a small union but, rather, the AFL-CIO’s largest, the SEIU, which has more organizers and organizing victories than any other union (and which was widely expected to win the recognition vote in any event).

    Indeed, the unions’ interventions only make sense in the context of the civil war now enveloping American labor. The unions that sided with the SEIU in Chicago are the same unions that sided with the SEIU at the AFL-CIO executive-council meeting in Las Vegas earlier this month in its battle against the administration of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. Conversely, AFSCME is Sweeney’s biggest supporter. The relationships among AFSCME and the SEIU and its allies were already strained before AFSCME’s late-in-the-game decision to contest SEIU’s multiyear campaign for the right to represent the child-care workers. Coming as it did less than three weeks before workers were to start voting, and on the eve of what was clearly going to be a highly contentious executive-council meeting in any event, AFSCME’s entry to the fray set off fireworks in Vegas, with SEIU President Andy Stern and AFSCME President Gerald McEntee engaging in several shouting matches and with Stern trying to get Sweeney to persuade the federation to call AFSCME off.

    This past Friday, the federation did just that. Acting with unprecedented speed—the SEIU requested on March 21 that the AFL-CIO hold an “Article 21” jurisdictional hearing to determine whether AFSCME had a right under the federation’s constitution to intervene at this late date, the hearing was held on March 24, and the decision was rendered the following day—former United Steelworkers of America President Lynn Williams, serving as a federation umpire, ruled that only the SEIU could legitimately seek the child-care workers’ votes. The SEIU, wrote Williams, had been organizing those workers long before AFSCME came in, which meant that AFSCME’s bid ran counter to Article 21.

    McEntee immediately announced that AFSCME would abide by the decision. “At AFSCME, we believe in a trade-union center, and in these times of crisis for American workers, that center must be the AFL-CIO—and the Federation must be as united and strong as possible,” he wrote in a letter released to the press. “We will continue to remain in the Federation and support it vigorously, regardless of whether particular decisions or debates over reform proposals go our way.”

    McEntee was using the occasion of AFSCME’s defeat, that is, to score some polemical points against the SEIU, which has threatened to pull out of the AFL-CIO unless it is reshaped along lines that the SEIU has laid out. Had the SEIU already disaffiliated, of course, it could not have appealed to the federation to get AFSCME out of the race. SEIU officials argue that the federation should have blocked AFSCME from the first day Stern asked Sweeney to intervene.

    “We worked for years to build” this campaign, Balanoff said on the evening before Williams’ decision. “Before this is over, SEIU and AFSCME will each spend over a million dollars on something that shouldn’t be happening.” But Williams himself, in his decision favoring the SEIU, noted with incredulity that the SEIU had not asked for a jurisdictional hearing until last Monday. Once the SEIU asked, it received in record time. “Andy may criticize the federation, but the system worked,” one AFL-CIO official said on Friday afternoon.

    Williams’ decision makes an SEIU victory—highly likely in any case—a done deal. And a huge victory it is: The unionization of 48,000 child-care workers will be the biggest labor organizing victory since 1999, when the SEIU organized 74,000 home-care workers in Los Angeles. And both victories were a vindication of the SEIU’s strategy of using politics to bolster organizing.

    Both home-care workers and child-care workers inhabit a fuzzy terrain in American employment and labor law. Though employed by individual patients and parents, their payment (when they have clients of modest means) comes from a combination of state and federal funds, at a rate usually set by the state. Until the late ’90s, however, state and local governments refused to acknowledge that the workers, in matters of payment, had a common employer. In Los Angeles, the SEIU spent years trying to persuade state government to authorize counties to set up boards that would act as employers for purposes of setting pay and benefit scales. After delivering massive support to Gray Davis in his successful 1998 campaign for governor, the union finally prevailed.

    A similar process was in play in Illinois, a state where the SEIU lacked the clout that it had built in California. To build the strength it needed, the SEIU restructured itself after Stern became president in 1996, a controversial project that the successes in Illinois have vindicated. Where once the SEIU had had numerous small and disconnected locals in state, today, after a number of mergers, it has a few large ones—one for each sector in which the union is active. “We told our members we had to build up our political arm in order to grow, so we increased the locals payments to the state council,” says Balanoff. “And we took a huge risk with Blagojevich.”

    In 2002, Congressman Rod Blagojevich ran in a hotly contested Democratic primary for governor of Illinois. Unions were all over the map during the primary, but the SEIU joined AFSCME in supporting Blagojevich, not only with money but, for the first time in an Illinois election, with large numbers of ground troops. The union provided roughly 1,000 precinct walkers in the primary campaign’s final weeks, with an estimated 400 coming in from Wisconsin and Ohio, and Blagojevich eked out a 1-percent victory over his rivals. (The Democratic primary was decisive; state Republicans were too damaged by scandal to mount a serious candidacy of their own.)

    In exchange for its support, the SEIU won a specific commitment from Blagojevich: an executive order that created collective bargaining rights for the state’s 25,000 home-care workers. For a number of years, the SEIU’s Local 880 had been a legislative advocate for those workers, though it could not represent them in a collective-bargaining relationship absent a legal process to do so. With his executive order, Blagojevich removed those workers from legal limbo, and the SEIU won the vote of the members to represent them at the bargaining table.

    On February 18 of this year, Blagojevich signed an equivalent order for the state’s 48,000 child-care workers, decreeing that a representation election be held within 42 days. The SEIU had already collected many thousands of signature cards from those workers (it had 24 organizers collecting those cards since last year), enough to ensure its presence on the ballot. Within a couple of days, AFSCME also assigned organizers—hundreds of them, from across the nation—to collect such cards, too.

    AFSCME criticized the SEIU—indeed, it was part of the former’s Article 21 argument in opposing the SEIU’s Article 21 petition—for obtaining contracts for the home-care workers, and seeking contracts for the child-care workers, that would undercut the standards of other public employees by having no health coverage, no pension benefits, and no workers’ compensation coverage. AFSCME represents state employees who do enjoy such coverage. “We’ve been representing state employees for 30 years,” Illinois AFSCME Executive Director Henry Bayer said last Thursday, “and now SEIU has created a class of employees and signed away their benefits. And Andy Stern says that the AFL-CIO has to enforce contract standards, that that should be a new Article 21 criterion? They came in here and cut our standards!”

    Under reforms proposed by the SEIU, and backed by AFSCME, Article 21 would be amended so that an umpire such as Williams would have to take contract standards into consideration when judging whether a union should have exclusive rights to organize workers. But even if that change passed, argues the SEIU’s Balanoff, it wouldn’t pertain to the home-care and child-care workers given the current finances of state governments. “The reality is that the current struggle is to get them collective-bargaining rights,” he argues. “Once we got that [for home-care workers], we got them a 34-percent raise. And we got a committee to explore ways to get health insurance; we need to find a way politically to get the money. But the immediate opportunity is for those workers to have bargaining rights.”

    Ironically, Illinois is one place where AFSCME and the SEIU have often enjoyed a decent relationship, where both unions are known for having progressive leaders and a good deal of organizing smarts (it’s no accident that both backed Blagojevich). Even more ironically, many of the SEIU’s greatest successes—most certainly, in organizing child-care and home-care workers—are the result of its learning to play politics in the manner of AFSCME, which has long used its election-day clout to elect governors who’d recognize public-sector unions. In the past decade, under Stern’s leadership, the SEIU has played the politics-to-organize card expertly, and nowhere more so than in Illinois.

    All of which makes the debate that roiled the labor movement in Vegas more ironic still. There, the SEIU and its allies argued that organizing needed to take precedence over politics and that the AFL-CIO needed to rebate dues to unions with viable organizing programs, while AFSCME and other unions argued that the federation’s politics budget should take precedence over organizing. The success of the SEIU, and AFSCME before it, is proof positive, however, that union growth is likely to happen when unions have a vibrant political and organizing program and a strategy that consistently combines the two.

    In an odd way, then, the Illinois episode undercuts two of the arguments that the SEIU has been making in the current debate roiling labor: that organizing trumps politics and that it could do better outside the AFL-CIO than inside. Score two polemical points for AFSCME—and 48,000 new members for the SEIU.

    Harold Meyerson is the Prospect’s editor-at-large.

    Copyright © 2005 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Harold Meyerson, “Labor War in Illinois”, The American Prospect Online, Mar 29, 2005. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to


    Posted by Burned Out Baby Boomer  on  03/31/05
  3. Let’s use this piece and play the what if game. We should start with a basic understanding that along with the items the article spoke of, the NEA spends an inordinate amount of money on political campaigns. Let me be clear, that’s not a condemnation, but the basis for this discussion.

    I see other unions who have made that same commitment to politics. They are predominantly in the public sector, and the reasons are obvious.

    Here’s where the what if comes in...what if the AFL-CIO got out of the politics busines and only were involved in worker issues. God knows there are enough agenda items that would attract workers attention.

    How cool would it be if their ONLY function was setting the tone for a dialogue regarding national health care; pensions; social security; worker safety; worker education and empowerment; wage disparity...the list is endless.

    The idea that each union would then become responsible for their own level of political involement would be discretionary. Some would jump in with both feet, others may well avoid it like the plague. Some would see democracy as the driving force of growing their unions, others may see politics as their salvation, still others may encourage increasing the member/worker participation as the key. Workers could and would choose their unions based on what their needs, wants and interests were.

    What i’m saying is the AFL-CIO would not be dictating who we endorse and what members are organized and by whom. They would simply become a think tank for the future of work and what roll and rights workers would play in it. I know that sounds minimizing, but i see them able to move from what looks like little more than an arm of the democratic party to a force that could inpire and motivate a nation.

    Strategy counts, just ask the republicans who have moved mountains since the Nixon era. It was a planned takeover with a concerted strategy to push everything to the right. Shits is, it has worked beyond their wildest imagination.

    Someone in another post mentioned the fear the middle class was drying up and going away. Worse than that, the right has convinced people they are actually a part of it. By shoving credit card debt (was that really 25 million dollars organized labor was given to push credit cards?) down workers throats we have convinced even the poorest of workers they are living the American dream. Walmart’s own Lee Scott has bragged their retail workers are treated well, even if they are working under the poverty levels.

    This battle over the future is being won by the rich and the arrogant. We know the AFL-CIO has had NO success in changing it. While they have dabbled in pieces of the debate, it has always been left to simmer due to the need to fix it politically.

    We can’t win that fight. However we can win the battle for workers minds; over right and wrong; over the need for greed by a handful of super-rich pigs. Even my republican friends who are still working see what is happening. They see their jobs, their incomes, their health insurance and their ability to retire all being taken from them.

    It is time to take drastic measures. It is time for the AFL-CIO to become more than it is by doing less and focusing on a clearly defined mission that is purely outcome driven. Having no stake in political races or what workers belong to what unions; they simply could provide tools and training for locals, internationals and central bodies. They could begin to reach workers like never before in their long storied histroy.

    We have the potential to make this work. The lesson from the teachers union is they have the answers to their own problems. Why should the AFL-CIO be mandating who they merge with or even how they operate? Unions who do the right things will flourish, those that cling to the crap from the past will die.

    Pie in the sky? Maybe, but it sure beats the snot out of arm wrestling over whether a worker belongs to this union or that. Seems to me, that choice should be left to the worker. If we start from that basis, attraction rather than promotion, we have a much better chance to succeed.


    Posted by Burned Out Baby Boomer  on  05/05/05






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