CitationDownload as .RIS
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2006, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
USA trade unions split
In the 1950s the AFL-CIO affiliated unions represented one-third of the USA workforce. In June 2005 its 56 affiliates could only lay claim to represent one in 12 workers employed in the private sector. Today the AFL-CIO, according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics represents 15.5 million of the country’s 120 million workers. It has an annual budget of $120 million. Most USA workers have no experience of trade union representation. Within this context of declining union membership a debate has arisen within the US trade union as to the purpose and future of the AFL-CIO. This debate came to a head prior to the 50th Convention of the AFL-CIO held in Chicago in July 2005. The AFL-CIO had come into being in 1955 by a merger of the American Federation of Labour (AFL), founded in 1886, and the Congress of Industrial Organisation (CIO), founded in 1935. It was a voluntary merger and the AFL-CIO has few powers over the behaviour of its affiliates.
The Change to Win (CTW) coalition
The CTW coalition centres around five major trade unions – the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Teamsters, the Labourers, the United Food and Commercial Works Union all UNITE HERE which represents garment, hotel and restaurant workers. These five unions represent one third of the total trade union membership in the USA. They consider that if the decline in the number of trade union members in the USA is to be reversed then there must be a change in the role and function of the AFL-CIO to one of the large scale organizing of USA employees. For these unions the problem for US unions is their reluctance to organise. They want to streamline the Federation while at the same time giving it substantial power of over affiliates with particular emphasis on the need for each union to focus its organising efforts on a strategic economic sector – its core industry.
The proposals of the CTW trade unions which cover re-structuring and resource allocation include:
Affiliates should receive a rebate on their affiliation fees if they meet their organising criteria goals. The CTW unions argued that of the AFL-CIO total budget of $120 million, 60 per cent ($72 million) should be spent on organising campaigns. The AFL-CIO is only prepared to increase such spending to $30 million (25 percent of its total budget).
Unions be merged into much larger but few unions equipped to take on multi-national companies and large chain stores, such as Wall-Mart.
Membership of the AFL-CIO Executive Council be limited to the largest affiliates.
The organising efforts of affiliates be segmented carefully by industry sector to eliminate wasteful union competition. The authority of the AFL-CIO over affiliates would be increased to enable it to mandate co-ordinated organising and bargaining campaigns.
Ensure that specific unions are given the responsibility to build strength and density in specific areas, such as health care, retail services, transportation, etc.
The CIW unions also favour a change in the leadership of the AFL-CIO. They consider its President John Sweeney operates on the basis of always trying to find a consensus for change and, therefore, will always shy away from making the radical changes necessary to enable the Federation to become an organising institution. At the time when the AFL-CIO needs to demand more organising activity from its affiliates Sweeney’s consensual approach is seen by the CIW union as inappropriate.
The AFL-CIO approach
The AFL-CIO unions accept the need for change if trade union membership in the USA is to increase. They recognise the need to increase the amount of resources devoted to organising workers (see above) but do not believe the problem is solely the result of an unwillingness to organise. They see the decline of membership also being the result of the USA government’s free trade policy which has caused many jobs to be lost to outsourcing and de-localisation and to the weakening of employment legislation designed to give employees protective employment rights. The solution to these two problems is seen to lie with political lobbying to obtain a reversal of the Federal government’s economic and employment law policies. The AFL-CIO believes in spending more money, not only on organising campaigns, but also on political campaigns to finance Democratic Party candidates with a view to getting more labour friendly candidates elected to political decision-making bodies. The CTW unions support a much lesser priority to changing the external movement in which US unions co-operate.
The Chicago Convention
The Teamsters and the SEIU decided to boycott the Convention as they did not believe they could convince the delegates to support their view. Subsequently these two unions together with the United Food and Commercial Workers disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO.
The Convention, however, authorised probably the most sweeping changes in the history of the Federation Sweeney was re-elected and it was agreed:
To create industry co-ordinating committees to bring together unions which represent workers in an industry, employer, occupation or region. The committees would be responsible for establishing contract standards and a strategic organising plan for that industry. They will also establish joint political and legislative programmes designed to increase bargaining power and membership growth. All affiliated unions with membership in the industry are to participate and to be bound by the standards and organising plan.
To change the core rules used to settle disputes over raiding and organising jurisdiction to permit if an affiliate undercuts industry contract standards another affiliate to have the right to try to organise those workers.
To set up a 20 member executive committee to include the presidents of the 15 largest unions plus four members who would bring diversity to the committee among women and people of different origin as well as by union. The old Executive Committee was mainly advisory and little had decision-making power.
To establish a commission to make recommendations on union mergers and how the AFL-CIO would support these mergers. The Commission is to present its report by February 2006.
To require all central Labour councils in a state and the state federation to do joint budgeting and planning for two years.
To provide re-bates to affiliates for organising.
Despite these changes three unions – the SEIU, the Teamsters and the UFCW decided to disaffiliate from the AFL-CIO continuing to complain the Federation is still not putting enough emphasis on organising membership and too much on political campaigning.
There is a fundamental split between the two competing groups. The unions that remain loyal to the AFL-CIO represent the skilled construction trades, steelworkers, autoworkers and machinists, and find it difficult to recruit millions of new members. The large sector of their members are paid amounting to $30-$50 a hour if indirect labour costs are included. There are few new jobs being created in these areas in today’s USA. Indeed many job continue to be lost by outsourcing etc. The CTW unions, on the other hand, represent the lesser skilled trades – warehouse workers, dishwashers, garment workers, chicken pluckers, asbestos removers and farm workers – who are fortunate to make $10 per hour. These low wages unions have the potential to increase their memberships. The President of the SEIU, Andy Stern, has a reputation as a legendary organiser and the CTW unions are hoping to learn from his methods. Stern’s critics, however, argue he has exaggerated the number of workers he has organised.
There are critics of both groups of unions. They consider the debate between the rival groups is about structures and not policies. They bemoan the lack of building coalitions with now organised labour constituencies such as religions and environmental groups and the lack of active grassroots education and mobilisation campaigns to challenge the corporate and political right agenda. There is also a group critical of both groups on the grounds that neither is discussing the real issues affecting the majority of working Amercians, namely declining real wages, the outsourcing of jobs across the skill and pay spectrum, and racial and gender inequity. In short the real economic concerns of workers are not being addressed.
These are those who believe that the real motivation of the CTW unions is to save money in affiliation fees. The Teamsters, for example, has financial difficulties. The CTW unions have difficulty retaining members. To accuse the AFL-CIO of not putting sufficient emphasis on membership organising and too much on political campaigns is a cover for wishing to maintain organising inability by cutting expenditure in affiliation fees. The three unions that have left the AFL-CIO contribute $28 million to that organisation’s total revenue of $120 million.
There are some observers who welcome the split in US labour unions arguing that competition among unions will create more dynamic unions and will form force labour leaders to be accountable to their constituents. They point out that the heyday of organised labour in the USA, from the split of the CIO from the AFL in 1935, until the merger in 1955, occurred during another civil war within the labour movement. They argue these years constituted a vibrant labour movement full of drama and passion that inspired labour activists. As unions battled for the allegiance of workers the rival federations grew exponentially in membership numbers, and union membership reached its highest point in US history.
Those who hold the view inter-union competition is essential for the revitalization of US trade unions believe that when organisations are forced to compete for the support of potential members it provides the necessary leverage to force union leaders to be accountable to the interests of their members. In a competitive environment, a union leader who does not deliver improved wages and other conditions of employment risks losing out to a more responsive rival. This view, however, fails to recognise that industrial relations external environment of 1935-1955 is very different from today and that the lesson to be learned from history is that competitive trade unionism enables the employer to divide and rule employers to the detriment of their employment conditions.