Strategy Debate: What Will Save the Labor Movement?

To date, the debates about the future of the AFL-CIO have centered around positions issuing from the tops of three major unions. Each union projects its existing leadership style as the cure for ailing unions. And included in the mix are proposals for some innovative strategies—many of which have been advocated for decades by reformers and others at the grassroots of the labor movement.

A recent conference sponsored by Queens College and the journal New Labor Forum in New York drew hundreds for a sharp debate around these questions. The competing positions are starting a debate that will be fought out at the AFL-CIO Executive Council in February and the AFL-CIO Convention in July.


Taking off from proposals originally put forward by a four-union coalition, the New Unity Partnership, is a 10-point program from the Service Employees (SEIU). (See SEIU’s website and discussion weblog, A central thrust is the need for a centralized restructuring of the AFL-CIO and its affiliates.

The Unite to Win site posts a list of steps for changing the face of labor, including: a coordinated national strategy for organizing Wal-Mart; a national campaign for universal health care; protecting organizing rights; expanding the geographical reach of unions in right-to-work states; and seeking to increase the diversity of the movement’s leadership.

What has grabbed the most attention, however, has been SEIU’s proposals to reshape unions to match employers. Along these lines, unions must become larger and more centralized. Smaller unions should merge into larger ones and smaller local unions should be consolidated into larger locals.

According to SEIU President Andy Stern, change in the labor movement is not possible “under labor’s current structure of 60 unions, each marching to its own drummer, most with members in multiple industries, with 40 having fewer than 100,000 members.”

SEIU calls on the federation to have a plan by 2006 to bring all affiliates in line with its vision of industrial density. Three lead national unions in each industry would then be tapped by the AFL-CIO Executive Council to draw up strategic plans for workers in defined industries, crafts, and employers. AFL-CIO heads would hold the authority to force mergers, revoke union charters, or “transfer responsibilities” from unions in “consultation with the affected workers.”


In response to these proposals, Larry Cohen, Vice President of the Communications Workers (CWA), has presented a position from his union titled “American Labor—Working Together.” CWA’s proposal points in a different direction from SEIU’s.

Instead of focusing on structure, CWA advocates making existing unions more member-driven and bolstering their strength to win strong contracts. For Cohen, “the ability of workers to self-organize and build their own unions—either through our organizations or by creating new ones—must be the cornerstone of any labor reform effort.”



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CWA’s proposal sees member mobilization, with an emphasis on a stronger shop steward system, as a key element for collective bargaining, organizing, and political action. “Union democracy is not a slogan,” the proposal claims, “it must be a reality in everything we do.”

Recognizing that strikes are critical weapons in collective bargaining, CWA calls on the AFL-CIO to help expand strike benefits to $200 a week. It also calls on unions to: increase support to community-labor groups like Jobs with Justice; democratize central labor councils; and fight for health care and pension reforms.


Following on the heels of both of these positions in early December was a document from the office of Teamsters General President James Hoffa.

The Teamsters’ proposal backs much of the Unite to Win plan—particularly the parts that favor mergers—while calling other attempts to build a greater strategic role for the AFL-CIO impractical and potentially divisive. Hoffa voices support for restructuring as the best method for labor revival and presents a practical vehicle for that reshuffling: money.

According to Hoffa’s plan, unions that devote at least 10 percent of their budgets (the amount currently spent by the Teamsters) to organizing their “core industries” would be eligible for a rebate of half of the per capita member “tax” they pay to the AFL-CIO. Similarly, rebates and subsidies would be available for bigger unions seeking to merge with smaller ones.

The Teamsters—who have folded three small unions totaling over 100,000 members into their ranks in the last year alone—would have much to gain by such a proposal.

In response, Stern praised Hoffa and the Teamsters’ proposals, saying: “They show that if smart, dedicated people put their minds to it, we can find creative solutions and inspire new ideas.”


Sharp debate on the course of the AFL-CIO is a healthy development. It raises some questions: Will these ideas rally more working people to build unions—either new or existing? Will they feel that they “own” this debate and that have something to gain or lose by having a voice in it?

View all three proposals.