New Unity Partnership: Five Union Presidents Launch Bid to 'Revolutionize' AFL-CIO

Seeking to reverse the declining fortunes of American unions, the presidents of five unions have initiated a plan for sweeping changes in the labor movement. This initiative, dubbed the New Unity Partnership (NUP), focuses on organizing strategies and centralizing the governing bodies inside the federation.

The ideas driving this new plan stem from ongoing discussions and debates around how best to jump-start unions in the United States.

THE DENSITY DEBATE

Late last year, SEIU Director of Building Services Stephen Lerner drafted a document titled “Three Steps to Reorganizing and Rebuilding the Labor Movement.” (See Labor Notes' summary or the full document.)

Lerner argued that declining union density is the key problem facing the U.S. labor movement today. “Density, the percentage of the total workforce, sector of the economy, industry or labor market that is unionized,” wrote Lerner, “is critical to labor’s ability not just to bargain effectively but also to organize on scale in the private sector.”

How could this problem be solved? Lerner proposed that organized labor “consolidate into large sectoral/industry unions that have the resources and focus to unite millions of workers.”

But carving up new jurisdictions of existing members and unorganized workers seemed possibly undemocratic and certainly unworkable. Who would decide where to draw the new lines? And would members be given any say in the matter?

THE MEANS

The NUP appears to have such a reorganization in mind, and most union members could only have learned about it by reading a September 15 Business Week article.

Business Week describes the NUP as a “mini labor federation,” designed by and composed of the Service Employees Union (President Andy Stern), the Hotel and Restaurant Employees (John Wilhelm), UNITE (Bruce Raynor), the Laborers Union (Terence O’Sullivan), and the Carpenters Union (Doug McCarron).

Four of these unions are in the AFL-CIO. The fifth, the Carpenters, left the federation in 2001 due to allegations of building trades raiding and other jurisdictional issues.

According to Stern, the unions will begin to hire staff for the NUP on a temporary basis. This staffing up signals that the partnership is moving from informal discussion to a real organizational form.

Long-term plans for the NUP are still not clear and may not be known until late 2004. In a Business Week interview published on-line, Stern states that while radical changes to the AFL-CIO are likely necessary, they should not be forced until after the 2004 presidential elections.

NEW TURF

Internal NUP documents written before the August 6 AFL-CIO executive council meeting, titled “AFL-CIO Agenda for Change” and “Union Growth Partnership,” reveal that the architects of the NUP have already begun redrawing jurisdictional lines for organizing the unorganized, presumably without the input of the AFL-CIO and other unions.

Some of the proposals are logical: the Carpenters and Laborers, for instance, would focus on organizing within the construction sector. Similarly, proposed alliances that would unite participating unions in bargaining and organizing efforts with common employers or industries are welcome and needed.

Other proposals, however-such as assigning non-food retail workers to UNITE-seem problematic. Since retail has traditionally been seen as the United Food and Commercial Worker’s jurisdiction, one wonders how and why the NUP has chosen UNITE, the garment and needletrades union, to take over organizing much of the retail sector.

Another way that the unions might seek to redraw jurisdictional boundaries would be through raiding.

An internal SEIU document from 2002, titled “Options for Working with Labor Partners toward a New Labor Movement,” reveals two courses of action being considered by the international: “Actively violate Article XX/XXI” and “Organize in other unions’ jurisdiction.”

CENTRALIZING THE AFL-CIO

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The NUP’s plans for local labor bodies look equally problematic. According to internal documents, the partnership has discussed plans to “drastically consolidate” central labor councils, or “make them a part of State Fed[erations].”

The AFL-CIO would appoint full-time Chief Operating Officers for CLC’s, while the labor council president’s position would be reduced to part-time. Further, state federations and CLC’s would no longer be funded directly by local unions, but would instead rely on per capita funds from the AFL-CIO.

Stern recently told Business Week that he’s seeking to “revolutionize” the AFL-CIO, partly through “constitutional changes.”

Another signal that the NUP may push for more centralized authority within the AFL-CIO is an item from the “Agenda for Change” entitled “Review All AFL-CIO Charters”: “Evaluate all affiliates charters to determine performance in their assigned jurisdiction, and their ability to grow/represent workers in their AFL-CIO granted charter.”

In his original article, Lerner asserted that “the majority of unions are too weak to organize and win.” Another item on the NUP’s agenda is increasing the “approval of mergers.”

What would happen to unions that don’t meet the NUP’s standards when their charters were reviewed? Similarly, how would the NUP plan deal with smaller independent unions that the NUP sees as “external threats?”

One section of the “Agenda for Change” identifies two “external threats” that the NUP will need to address: anti-union right-to-work efforts and the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association. (see page XXX)

The NUP plan also includes replacing the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Department with a “Strategic Growth Department,” and reducing or eliminating the AFL-CIO’s Education, Field Mobilization, Health and Safety, and Civil and Human Rights Departments.

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

The NUP presidents have shown an apparent willingness to work with antiunion politicians. Last summer, Stern, O’Sullivan, and Wilhelm urged fellow union officials to “follow their example by giving $1,000 or more to the re-election campaign of Dennis Hastert.”

Hastert, a Republican and currently Speaker of the House, is a longtime foe of unions. Most recently, he fought hard to make sure the House passed a bill slashing workers’ overtime benefits.

In an article in this September’s The American Prospect, Harold Meyerson noted that Stern, Wilhelm, McCarron, and O’Sullivan all bought tables at a recent Republican Congressional Campaign Committee dinner.

Now, the NUP has listed meeting with Karl Rove-President Bush’s key strategist-as one of their first political objectives. At the same time, Stern told Business Week that defeating Bush in the 2004 elections is the AFL-CIO’s “main role right now, and it should be.”

LAW OF THE JUNGLE

Labor Notes unequivocally supports thoughtful, impassioned, inclusive debate about organizing strategies. That leaders of the five unions behind the NUP are thinking long and hard about how best to organize the unorganized is a positive sign.

They need now, however, to think about the best way for this strategizing to take place. Five men sitting around a table cannot determine the future of the labor movement, nor decide who will and won’t be included in this future.

The quality and characteristics of an organizing drive shape the way a union functions once the drive is over. Likewise, the character of these organizing debates will determine the way the labor movement as a whole functions in years to come.

Organizing is important. Density is important. But these are just two variables in a complex equation that adds up to workers power. Democracy, militancy, and a broader social movement orientation will all be essential components in a revival of the U.S. labor movement’s fortunes.

If debates over labor’s future are inclusive and democratic, there is reason to be hopeful. If they are exclusive and secretive, we will end up with the law of the jungle. Big unions will push out the smaller because they can. Raiding will be rampant. Constitutional changes will be made to suit the needs of those in power.