Unions at war
Organized labor splinters just as it finally decides to join the international movements against American empire. How did this happen – and can workers recover?

By David Bacon

IN CHICAGO'S CAVERNOUS Navy Yard conference center July 26, delegates to the annual AFL-CIO convention were lined up at the four microphones scattered across the floor. San Francisco's Nancy Wohlforth stood at mic number two. She'd been waiting for this moment for two years.

The mic went live, and she stepped forward. Wohlforth is a slight woman, but her voice cut through the various conversations across the floor, stopping them dead. With the intensity and anger of a 21st-century Mother Jones, she began to give her fellow delegates a dose of straight, unvarnished truth.

"All we hear are the lies and deceit of the Bush administration," she called out, "that put us in Iraq on a false pretext, and keep us in Iraq for absolutely no good reason except to enrich his cronies in Halliburton." Her voice rising, she pointed to a group of Iraqi workers who'd braved the long, dangerous journey from Baghdad to get to the convention.

"I'll tell you what they want," she thundered. "They want an end to the US occupation." Applause broke into her speech. "They want it now, and not yesterday." The applause got stronger. "Because as long as we are there, they can never really achieve self-determination and build a truly democratic state."

She brought the house down.

Wohlforth, whose face breaks into sharp angles around flashing eyes, is a voice for San Francisco in Washington, DC. As secretary-treasurer of the Office and Professional Employees Union, she's now one of the highest-ranking labor leaders in the country. For two years, she and her antiwar cohorts in US Labor Against the War fought the long battle that finally put the Iraq war on center stage at the annual gathering of the country's biggest union.

This was their moment of triumph. Not one speaker rose to defend a war policy that has caused revulsion throughout US unions, and the AFL-CIO passed a resolution calling for the "rapid withdrawal" of US troops from Iraq.

But just as the labor movement was taking this historic step in opposing the war, it was also sacrificing its own unity in an orgy of internal strife. The day before Wohlforth's speech, three large unions left the AFL-CIO federation, not over international politics, but over procedural disagreements on how to respond to the decline in labor's political and economic power.

Just as US organized labor came together with international antiwar and social justice movements, it was cannibalizing itself at home. Many labor activists came away from the convention shaken by the dichotomy and wondering where to go from there.

In an interview with activist Alan Benjamin after the convention, for an article he's writing on the split, Wohlforth called it "a very bad day for the labor movement." From her observations, most union members don't understand why it had to happen. "Even I am having a hard time understanding what it's all about," she said, "and I've been in the labor movement for a very long time."

For labor activist Bill Fletcher, while the debates over war and union strategies caused big rifts, they never came to grips with labor's basic problem: "We have to be prepared to talk about something we've been afraid to say out loud – that capitalism is harmful to the health of workers," he told the Bay Guardian. "Something is fundamentally wrong with the priorities of this society, and we have to be courageous enough to say so."

The home front

The Bay Area was well represented during the convention's war debate. Tim Paulson of the San Francisco Central Labor Council connected the dots for his fellow delegates between the war and the problems facing workers closer to home.

"All this money that is being spent on bombs and occupation could have been used for health care, jobs, and infrastructure," he told delegates. "It could have been used for the things that working men and women value. That's what we believe in."

But the question now is whether unions can regain the standing to push these priorities and values.

Nationally, unions face a serious crisis of declining numbers. Just after World War II, unions represented 35 percent of US workers. Today only 12 percent of all workers, and 8 percent in the private sector, are union members. They're mostly concentrated in the urban areas on each coast, and the former industrial belt of the Midwest, leaving workers in large parts of the country on their own in dealing with their employers.

Declining numbers translate into a decline in political power and economic leverage. New York and California (with one-sixth of the AFL-CIO's members) have higher union density than any other states. But even here, labor is facing an all-out war with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. One measure on the governor's fall special election ballot threatens to shred the ability of California's powerful public worker unions to engage in any meaningful political action.

So this might not be such a good time for labor to split ranks, but that's just what has happened. On the first day of the convention, two unions quit the labor federation: its largest union, the Service Employees International Union, with 1.8 million members, and the 1.1 million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Following the convention's end, one more union pulled out, the United Food and Commercial Workers.

All three are large and important unions in northern California. SEIU locals include 790, which represents public workers from San Francisco to Stockton; 535, a statewide union for social service workers; and United Healthcare Workers, one of the largest union locals in the country. Teamster locals throughout the Bay Area represent workers in trucking and transportation, warehousing, food processing, and numerous other private industries. The United Food and Commercial Workers is the union in grocery stores and meatpacking companies.

The three unions that withdrew from the AFL-CIO have organized a new labor coalition, called Change to Win, which also includes other unions that have not pulled out (at least not yet), the most significant being UNITE HERE. The union's Local 2 has been involved in an epic struggle with 14 of San Francisco's largest, most luxurious hotels.

Other UNITE HERE locals represent workers in the garment and laundry industries. Change to Win also includes the United Farm Workers, the Laborers International Union, and the Carpenters Union (which pulled out of the AFL-CIO several years ago.)

This is a very contradictory moment in the life of US unions. Public attention has focused on this split among unions, which is largely a bureaucratic shift whose impact is still unclear. Yet the impact of the debate on the war – taking place within a federation that has given political cover to US foreign policy with few exceptions – will reverberate for years The AFL-CIO supported the Vietnam War. Internal struggles eventually led to the withdrawal of support for Reagan's wars in Central America. But the current resolution is the first time the federation has called for ending a war waged directly by US troops, and for their return home.

The groundwork for this change was laid by a new generation of antiwar, pro-solidarity activists who were young marchers during Vietnam and rank-and-file militants during the Central American interventions, and who are today leading unions. Some of them may have forgotten, or chosen to forget, those roots. But many have not.

Like Wohlforth, they're tired of seeing their movement remain quiet when the US military is used to prop up an economic system they're fighting at home. The labor movement may be awash in internal dissention over its structure, but it is growing surprisingly single-minded over the Iraq war.

Peace and solidarity

Brooks Sunkett, vice president of the Communications Workers of America, gave one in a train of passionate speeches on the convention floor, saying that the government had lied to him when it sent him to war in Vietnam three decades ago.

"This war seems very similar to that war," he declared. "Lies were told to me then, and lies are being told to me now."

Henry Nicholas, a hospital union leader in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, told delegates that his son, who has served four tours of duty in Iraq, is now threatened with yet another.

From the point when it became clear that the Bush administration intended to invade Iraq, union activists began organizing a national network to oppose it, US Labor Against the War (USLAW). What started as a collection of small groups, in a handful of unions, has today grown to become a coalition of unions representing more than a million members.

Watching from the visitors' gallery were the Iraqi union leaders to whom Wohlforth had pointed. One of them had traveled to the United States two months ago, with five other union activists, to plead the case for Iraqi workers. For 16 days they traveled to more than 50 cities, urging their US union counterparts to take action to end the occupation (see "The Other Insurgents," 6/22/05).

"We believed strongly that if unions in our country could hear their Iraqi brothers and sisters asking for the withdrawal of US troops, they would respond in a spirit of solidarity and human sympathy," said Gene Bruskin, one of USLAW's national coordinators. "We were right."

The debate at the convention was the answer to the call. Starting in San Francisco, 18 resolutions calling for troop withdrawal poured into the AFL-CIO from unions, labor councils, and state labor federations across the country. As the convention began, however, AFL-CIO national staff tried to substitute another resolution that called for ending the occupation "as soon as possible," which is unsettlingly close to the language used by the Bush administration.

Delegates at the convention who are in the USLAW network then called for substituting the phrase "rapid withdrawal" of the troops. Knowing a fight was in store, and suddenly unsure of their ability to win it, AFL-CIO staff agreed. When the proposal for rapid withdrawal was put on the floor, the SF Central Labor Council's Paulson made clear that "when you say 'rapidly,' that would be the same as 'immediately' – and that is why we are going to support this resolution." The new language was adopted with the votes of an overwhelming majority as the AFL-CIO staff gave up their position of caution and accepted the federation's new direction.

The resolution marks a watershed moment in modern US labor history. It is the product of grassroots action at the bottom of the US labor movement, not a directive from top leaders. The call for bringing the troops home echoes the sentiments of thousands of ordinary workers and union members, whose children and families have been called on to fight the war.

Beyond the grotesque realities of war itself and the lies that triggered it, Bush administration actions in Iraq have directly attacked workers. After banning labor organizing in oil fields, factories, and other Iraqi public enterprises, US military and political operatives have begun to engineer the sell-off of those enterprises to foreign corporations, with a potential loss of thousands of jobs – and the income needed to rebuild the country.

"This is not liberation. It is occupation," said Ghasib Hassan, a leader of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, one of the unions that sent its members to speak in the United States. "At the beginning of the 21st century, we thought we'd seen the end of colonies, but now we're entering a new era of colonization."

Rapid withdrawal means more than just bringing US soldiers home. Calling for it puts US workers on the side of Iraqis, as they resist the transformation of their country for the benefit of a wealthy global elite.

The other war

The debate over Iraq highlights an important problem, however. Union members are becoming more sophisticated, and better at understanding the way global issues, from war to trade, affect the lives of people in the streets of US cities. But the percentage of union members is declining, and the organization they need to put that understanding into practice is getting smaller. Deeper political awareness alone will not change the world.

In the months leading to the convention, Iraq was not the main subject of debate in unions. In fact, it was often submerged in a much different discussion, in which participants mostly talked about their own struggle for survival against the hostilities of Bush and his corporate cronies.

The best local example of the issues at stake is the yearlong saga of San Francisco's hotel workers. Inspired by the idea of unions in many cities around the country sitting down at the same time with giant hotel operators, hotel workers nationally are demanding a common expiration date for all their labor agreements – 2006.

Most have won it; San Francisco is the main holdout.

The city's Multi Employer Group refuses to agree. It represents hotel operators, including multibillion-dollar corporations like Hilton, Intercontinental, Starwood, and Hyatt, that manage hotel properties around the country and the world. They understand that if the union forms a common front of workers in city after city, they'll be able to win a new standard of living that individual local unions can't achieve on their own.

Hotel workers are also trying to avoid the bitter experience of grocery workers in southern California two years go. There, 40,000 workers struck the grocery chains of Safeway, Albertsons, and Ralph's for five months. In the end they were forced to accept substantially lower wages and worse conditions because the chains kept stores open, making profits, in the rest of the country. The lesson for unions here was that regional bargaining with huge multinational companies no longer works. What was lacking was solidarity – the ability to act together.

In wages, benefit cuts, and lost pensions, California workers have paid a high price for sticking with an outmoded way of organizing themselves. By contrast, the San Francisco dockworkers' union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, beat a lockout of its members three years ago. The union won because in the 1930s and '40s, it was very smart about the same issues.

Longshore workers used to be considered bums and derelicts. After the San Francisco General Strike of 1934, they won the ability to negotiate a single contract with all the shipping companies on the West Coast, covering all the ports. As a result, longshore wages are now among the highest of US industrial workers. Solidarity worked.

So last year, many unions began making proposals for changing the way they operate.

A new strategy

The discussion started in San Francisco, at the SEIU's August convention, when President Andy Stern called for deep structural change. Then, after labor lost the 2004 presidential election, the union issued a 10-point proposal called Unite to Win. It immediately stirred intense controversy, and other unions responded.

The most controversial item of the 10 points would give the AFL-CIO the authority to require small unions to merge into ones large enough to have strength to bargain and organize. The federation would also make sure that workers in the same industry would no longer be split among many unions.

"Take the airline industry, where unions are divided by craft, by companies, by union, and nonunion," Stern told us. "We have to look in the mirror and be honest. When we divide the strength of workers, and we don't have a united strategy, workers pay the price."

Many unions vehemently disagreed that they should be forced to merge. Eventually, however, the debate collapsed into an argument over money. Unions that formed the Change to Win Coalition want the AFL-CIO to rebate half of the money they contribute in dues, to fund strategic campaigns to organize new members.

AFL-CIO president John Sweeney (himself a former president of the SEIU and Stern's mentor) said the federation should increase spending on organizing but put even more into election campaigns. In reality, both sides advocated increasing the resources for both organizing and political action – the difference was over the proportion going to each.

Was the issue worth splitting the labor federation?

Eliseo Medina, SEIU vice president for the union's Western region, says yes. "No one is going to save us – no politician or public official, no matter how well-intentioned," he told us. "We can only save ourselves. To do that, we need to reach out and bring a lot more people into our movement. Politics is part of the solution, but we must also mobilize the millions of workers who would join a union if given the opportunity.

"We felt we need to rebate 50 percent of per capita back to unions willing to organize in those core industries, or about $50 million. The AFL-CIO was only willing to go as high as $15 million, with the rest of the resources allocated to politics. That was a clear-cut difference – what they proposed was just not sufficient to do the job."

Others were not so sure. Some simply opposed dividing labor's strength while it is under attack. But others felt the debate hadn't gone far enough. Labor activist Fletcher is one of the latter.

After Sweeney was elected in 1995 and brought with him a reform administration, Fletcher became the labor federation's director of education and later Sweeney's assistant. Forced out over his radical politics, he's become an outspoken critic of the slow pace of change in US unions.

"Our unions suffer from a profound conservatism, a failure to recognize the kinds of changes that are going on, and therefore our need for a very visionary movement," he said in an interview. "Most of the present leaders really should retire. They've made certain wrong assumptions about the politics and economics of this country. Unions are not accepted by the governing elite. They're not accepted by capital."

Fletcher and others argue that while much effort is spent fighting at high volume about the money that should go to hiring organizers or running election campaigns, there's too little debate over the direction in which labor is headed. Lost, for instance, have been the high ideals of organizing and defending immigrant workers, which gave hope to millions of the undocumented after the AFL-CIO's convention in Los Angeles in 1999. There, a similar upsurge from labor's base forced another change in basic policy onto the convention's floor. Unions rejected their former position of support for employer sanctions, the provision of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act that makes it a federal crime for an undocumented immigrant to hold a job.

Two years ago, UNITE HERE initiated the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. In contract negotiations, Local 2 has defended immigrant rights while demanding hotels take down the de facto color line against African American workers. This is the kind of change in unions many members would like to see. Yet today two bills are moving through Congress that would actually strengthen employer sanctions. Both would establish huge new guest-worker programs, like the bracero program of the 1940s and '50s, bringing immigrants to the United States under temporary visas to supply the labor needs of big corporations. Immigrant rights advocates have traditionally opposed these programs as exploitative – virtual involuntary servitude. One of those bills, the Kennedy-McCain Bill, is being supported by some of labor's national political operatives with no discussion in union locals and among rank-and-file members over its impact on labor and immigrants.

Fletcher called for taking principled stands and criticized the Washington Beltway deal-making that even progressive unions engage in. The debate, he said, has got to get much sharper.

Holding it together

In the meantime, unions in San Francisco, and its labor council, have to survive. No one knows quite what to expect as labor gets ready for a new season of political and economic strife. San Francisco has a more difficult problem than most: Josie Mooney, the executive director of the city's big public workers union, SEIU Local 790, is the council's president. So far, Mooney hasn't tendered a letter of resignation, and the SEIU's Medina says, "We need to continue working together at the local and state level, and hope the AFL-CIO takes the same position."

Around the country, unions have close relationships they hardly want to cast aside. Further, most councils are very dependent on the dues income from unions who now belong to the Change to Win Coalition. If they are forced to function without it, they'll have to lay off staff and cut back on activity. Councils do most of the heavy lifting during elections, like the one coming in California in November. Union members troop down to council phone banks, walk precincts at night or on weekends in mobilizations organized by councils, and even decide who are labor-friendly candidates in council meetings.

If this structure blows apart, unions have a lot to lose. As many see it, in a fight between elephants, the ordinary people who do labor's work have to avoid getting squashed. Working together with unions that have left the federation is not unprecedented. The AFL-CIO-affiliated American Federation of Teachers, for example, cooperates with the independent National Education Association. In San Francisco, their two affiliates merged several years ago to form the United Educators of San Francisco. Sweeney has already issued one statement, however, that some AFL-CIO staff scornfully call "the company line." It says unions that withdraw from the federation can't continue to participate in local councils as full, dues-paying delegates with a vote.

The SF labor council's Paulson is waiting for the dust to settle. "I really see what will happen next as an extension of the debate we've had so far," he told us. "Our SEIU, Teamsters, and UFCW locals were part of the labor movement before the convention, and they're still our brothers and sisters now. I think we ought to offer our national leaders an anger-management program."

So he's just going to try to draw on the feelings of unity and courage expressed in the antiwar resolution and stay focused on the real enemies: the antilabor power brokers in Sacramento and Washington.

"I think we're just going to go on doing what we've always done," Paulson predicted. "We have too much at stake in increasing solidarity among workers to throw it all on the scrap heap now."

For more from David Bacon, an acclaimed labor writer, go to www.dbacon.igc.org. His book, The Children of NAFTA, was published last year by the University of California Press.

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