American Labor Facing Civil War

By Michael Zuckerman of the CBS News Political Unit.

A civil war is erupting in the American labor movement, with Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), leading the charge for reform.

Meeting with reporters recently in his Washington, D.C., headquarters, Stern contended that unions "cannot exist by looking backward" and must have the "strategies, resources, and leadership" to organize workers in the new economy.

Yet when the conversation turned to the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor federation, Stern remarked, "They don't quite get it."

The 1.8 million-member SEIU is the fastest growing union in the country at a time when labor's ranks are shrinking nationwide.

In the 1950s, nearly one in three American workers was in a union, while today that number is closer to one in eight; and when public workers are excluded, only one in twelve workers is in a union.

The outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, an increase in employer hostility to unionization and a complicated and often cumbersome legal process have contributed to the decline.

To reverse this decline, the SEIU has joined forces with the Teamsters, UNITE HERE, UFCW, and the Laborers in forming the Change to Win Coalition to challenge the leadership and direction of the AFL-CIO. Bruce Raynor, general president of UNITE HERE, in announcing the coalition said, "The labor movement, personified by the AFL-CIO structure, has been unsuccessful in standing up for working Americans."

The alliance was bolstered last month with the announcement that the 520,000 strong Carpenters Union will join the Change to Win Coalition.

The dissidents are demanding that more resources be devoted to strategic organizing, instead of political action. "We don't believe that throwing money into a political process and ignoring organizing will get the job done," says Joe Hansen, president of the UFCW.

The coalition's proposals also center on offering a dues rebate to unions that reach a certain organizing threshold, merging smaller unions into large unions to build industrial strength, and streamlining the AFL-CIO's bureaucracy into strategic functions such as organizing large employers such as Wal-Mart.

Stern calls the current AFL-CIO a "smorgasbord of ideas and activities" that does not have a unifying strategy to organize the 91 percent of unorganized workers in America.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney responded to his critics by saying in a statement that "now is a time to use our unity to build real worker power, not create a real divide that services that of corporations and anti-worker politicians."

Sweeney has tried to avoid a split in his organization by proposing to double the federations organizing fund to $22.5 million per year, and reorganizing the structure of the AFL-CIO. Most recently, the federation's executive board voted to give the federation power to enforce contract standards and protect unions that are engaged in industry-wide organizing from interference. Sweeney also dismissed nearly 25 percent of the federation's headquarters' staff.

Yet Sweeney's critics are not satisfied.

Hansen, in a letter to Sweeney, said the federation's proposal "continues the status quo and doesn't provide for genuine reform to build worker power."

The Change to Win Coalition has responded to the latest proposal by saying that "The AFL-CIO leadership has adopted many of the words and phrases of the Change to Win Coalition without adopting the principles."

The 58 affiliates of the AFL-CIO will descend on Chicago's Navy Pier at the end of July to elect the federation's leadership and consider the proposals for reform.

The first order of business is a proposed change to the delegate structure of the convention to accurately represent the membership of unions such as SEIU. The Change to Win Coalition represents 35 percent of AFL-CIO membership, but only has 9 percent of the delegates to the convention.

If changes are not made, many of the Change to Win Coalition unions will have a hard time staying in the AFL-CIO and Stern's executive board will meet on the final day of the convention to determine its future course.