Viewpoint: Reunification without Democracy--What’s the point?

Members of the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, and the National Education Association joined to march in the presidential inaugural parade. The presidents of 12 unions met January 7 to discuss forming one big labor federation, healing the 2005 split. Photo: Jim West/ .

The decision by some big unions to split from the AFL-CIO and form Change to Win in 2005 was top-down. Local union leaders were not consulted, much less rank-and-file union members.

Now leaders at the top appear to be moving toward reunification—again with no involvement of local leaders or members. But neither decision has had much effect on the working men and women who pay the dues.

CTW unions typically criticized the AFL-CIO for too much emphasis on politics and not enough on organizing. Earlier discussions (some referred to it as a debate within the labor movement) centered on the structure of organized labor and the need for consolidation of unions around industry segments.

Missing from the debate was any discussion of how decisions within the labor movement are made and how the decision-makers are chosen. There were lots of comments about the need for change and stodgy, ineffective leadership, but barely a whisper about the accountability or worker involvement that real democracy would bring.

Three and a half years later, few working people could list any accomplishments of the breakup, if they’re aware of it at all. Is the talk of reunification now an indication that the problems earlier reported have been addressed?

It doesn’t seem that way. Unions that complained of too much emphasis on politics spent record amounts of political money in both 2006 and 2008.

Organizing has continued to be largely the responsibility of individual unions rather than multi-union efforts, not significantly different than prior to the split. For unions like the Teamsters that have increased organizing numbers, it’s unlikely that they would credit that success to any umbrella organization.

If everyday union members have experienced anything as a result of the split, it is likely to be weaker local and state labor organizations, which has meant less member mobilization across unions for mutual support. Jobs with Justice has had to try to fill this gap.


Best-Selling Book

Secrets of a successful organizer

A step-by-step guide to building power on the job. Buy Now. »

There may be new and compelling reasons to rebuild one “House of Labor.” The Employee Free Choice Act, if passed in its current form, will lead to more union members, but it will also motivate employers to shop for compliant unions.

At the first sign of legitimate organizing, they’ll rush to sign up their employees with corrupt or company-oriented unions rather than having to deal with honest, more militant labor organizations. A new federation must establish a strong and fair judicial process to minimize employers’ ability to union-shop.

Reunification seems to be on the table primarily because President Obama has expressed a preference for dealing with just one federation. We should insist that the president listen to diverse voices of labor, not just one top leader.

Mending the split will, however, give cover to leaders deserving of criticism. It’s rare indeed for a federation president to openly criticize a member organization or its leadership.

Clearly at this time of challenge, labor needs more inclusion, more debate, and more accountability. Without these basic democratic concepts we risk finding ourselves in the same position three years from now.

Tom Leedham is the secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 206.


Anonymous (not verified) | 02/03/09

I fail to see how the two federations, or their member unions, have held one another accountable or kept the other guy honest. From where I have sat, the competition has been over members, sectors and political influence, NOT ethics or union democracy.

There are more than a few decent sentient grown-ups left in the labor movement capable of looking beyond affiliation to pass judgement. On the political stage, it makes more sense to me for labor to present a unified force to be dealt with rather than two entities to be played against each other. And when it comes to members and potential members? They don't really give a good g-d about the letters after the name, they'd like service, power and democracy.

So what's the point again?

Dan Mariscal (not verified) | 02/03/09

President Obama's preference of dealing with one unified union entity sounds good....on paper. The fact is that this will support centralization of unions' power and leaves the rank and file, as well as democracy, out of the equation, and put Washington-based bureaucrats at the helm. Who the hell wants that? The proposition over WHO will wield this much power scares me, especially given the union cannibalism, corruption and tribal wars that have already transpired.
I can see the advantage in dealing with one union entity, but the union waters are still to choppy to set sail for...."a threeee hour tour".

Anonymous (not verified) | 01/31/09

yah seiu had months of discussion where any staff person who disagreed would be volunteering to get themselves fired at a later date on trumped up charges. interestingly seiu left the afl pretending to be the militant left wing, and now they return as the "we love the boss and the boss loves us" union on the afl's right wing. If Andy Stern announced that henceforth SEIU was a candied yam, Bucky boy would jump up and down and yell I love candied yams. What a goof.

Buck Eichler (not verified) | 01/30/09

As a local leader and a Statewide Board Member of SEIU 503, I need to say that we had months of full membership discussions and debate before voting to disaffiliate with the national AFL-CIO. (Soon thereafter, we reaffiliated with the State AFL-CIO.)
Furthermore, you are equating militancy with honesty, ergo, anything less than militancy translates into being a "company union" a term so loosely used it betrays a devestatingly profound ignorance of labor history.
In any event, you seem to be trying to reopen wounds to prevent us from finding our way back into unity with one another. I predict your efforts will not succeed. Identify with the militant faction if you wish. Even if you don't comprehend labor history, at least you can become a part of it, preserved in some dusty museum somewhere.