The great divide

Harold Meyerson on America's split

This year, America's largest union federation, the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO), has lost several of its major unions. Initiated by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and swiftly joined by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), among others, the split clearly represents a considerable loss of funding and support for the AFL-CIO. But the reasons for the split are less obvious. After all, the unions that have left share the liberal-democratic orientation of those they have left behind, and demographically they are targeting the same kinds of workers.

The motivation behind the split, say the unions' leaders, is that they want a greater emphasis on organising. This makes sense for the SEIU - it is probably the most accomplished organising union in the world. Indeed, under its former president John Sweeney (now president of the AFL-CIO) and current president Andy Stern, the union has tripled in size over the past 25 years, from 600,000 to 1.8 million members. But the Teamsters and the UFCW have only recently begun to devote serious planning and resources to organising, and are certainly not among the most effective unions in this field.

Much will no doubt be revealed when this new formation of unions - yet to be officially named - lays out its plans at its first public event, scheduled for 27 September. There is talk that the new group will have its own organising capacity, distinct from that of each member union, much as the old CIO had. And given the disparities in organising ability among the unions, this is certainly hoped for.

But the political consequences of the split look a good deal murkier. The most contentious dispute since the secession was announced at the AFL-CIO's July convention concerns the state and local bodies of the federation - that is, the groups that perform most of the voter registration and mobilisation work during election seasons. The efficacy of these groups varies widely, but the best of them constitute the most serious ground operation in democratic and liberal politics. The transformation of California, for example, from a Republican to a Democratic state, was hastened and in no small part accomplished by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labour, which mobilised hundreds of thousands of new immigrant voters.

At the time of the AFL-CIO convention, Stern and the Teamsters' president, Jim Hoffa, both instructed their local affiliates to continue their participation in the local labour councils. But an indignant Sweeney, reeling from the financial hit of the unions' split (which will cost the national AFL-CIO an estimated $30m in dues out of its annual $125m budget), forbade any such participation. In states and cities where the members of the three departed unions were disproportionately concentrated, this was a prescription for disaster. In California, for example, a ballot for a special election to be held in November contains some draconian anti-union provisions. If the councils break apart in this state, where the three unions account for half the council members, the ability of labour to wage a co-ordinated campaign against those measures (and in particular to have SEIU activists, who far outnumber those from other unions, knock on members' doors) could be seriously curtailed. Faced with a revolt from his own local councils, Sweeney partly relented, though he is still duelling with Stern over the terms of those unions' continued participation.

Not surprisingly, the split is a matter of great concern for Democratic Party leaders, who understand that labour's political programme is the linchpin of their electoral ground game. In the long term, it's not clear if the new formation can significantly bolster organising. In the short term, it's not clear if labour can hold together the one serious progressive political operation in America today. Stern argues that unless labour can reverse its declining numbers, there won't be enough union members to elect decent progressives, even with the best political programme in the world. And with the share of unionised private sector workers in the US now down to 7.9 per cent, it's hard to disagree with him. Labour doesn't have a lot of time to turn things around.

Harold Meyerson is a columnist for the Washington Post, editor-at-large of the American Prospect and political-editor-at-large of the LA Weekly