From December 10, 2004
edition of The Chief: The Civil Service Employees' Weekly
New York City
Disagree on How to Change
Unions At Odds on Strategy
By RICHARD STEIER
EVEN AS THEY assess the damage done to the labor movement's cause by the
re-election of President Bush, leaders of some of the most progressive
unions in this region are sharply at odds on how to begin their recovery.
During the opening day of a two-day conference Dec. 2 at the City
University of New York, both a press briefing by prominent labor leaders
and a panel discussion made it clear that although they share anger and
apprehension about the prospect of four more years of Mr. Bush, they are
divided on how to rebuild the clout of unions in this country.
"This is not a problem that American workers don't get," Bruce Raynor, the
president of the garment workers union known as UNITE HERE, told reporters
midway through the opening day of "Labor at the Crossroads: Competing
Visions, Alternative Strategies, and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement."
'Crying Out for Help'
"They are crying out for help," he continued. "It's up to the American
labor movement to give them the vehicle to turn things around."
One obstacle facing those assembled is a continued disagreement over which
direction that vehicle should be heading. There continue to be signs of the
same divisions that came out roaring at the AFL-CIO's emergency meeting of
top leaders in Washington, D.C. a week after the Presidential election.
During that sitdown, Service Employees International Union President Andrew
Stern called for a change in the course that AFL-CIO President John Sweeney
has charted in order to vastly improve organizing efforts throughout the
country. Mr. Stern proposed using $25 million in royalties that the AFL-CIO
receives annually from a Union Plus credit card for this purpose, while
also taking half the dues that AFL-CIO affiliates pay and devoting them to
Mr. Sweeney seemed less than impressed by the proposals: a week later,
during an appearance at Columbia University, he told a reporter that the
way to restore organized labor's strength was "to do more of what we have
During last week's press briefing, however, SEIU National Building Service
Director Steve Lerner remarked, "If we do the same things we've done for
the last 30 years, then we've destined ourselves for further decline."
'Nuts Not to Change'
Mr. Raynor echoed that sentiment, saying that unions would be "out of our
minds" not to change their tactics in winning support from workers,
organizing them, and then translating those gains into electoral strength.
"We have to face the fact that we lost a Presidential election," he said.
"I think there's much more openness to discussing these issues than there
was three months ago."
Some of the changes would require ending traditions that remain popular in
some unions in order to have more money available to fight those battles.
"We don't need to be giving out Christmas turkeys; we need to be
organizing," Mr. Raynor said.
The SEIU has proposed reducing the number of unions in an attempt to
achieve greater power in particular industries by consolidating workers
under a single banner. Mr. Raynor endorsed this idea, but Gregory Junneman,
president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical
Employees, had a more ambivalent view.
"In some cases, it's absolutely necessary for unions to merge," he said.
"In others, like mine, the members don't want to go there."
And Communications Workers of America officials, who have been strongly
resistant to the SEIU's proposed changes, continued to insist that Mr.
Stern was seeking a "top-down, megalocal" kind of labor movement that would
do nothing to eradicate the insulated, sometimes-corrupt leadership of many
prominent unions that have lost sight of their members' views and
aspirations. They contended that additional organizing efforts had to
feature prominent roles for rank-and-file workers.
During the panel discussion on the importance of union democracy that was
moderated by Professional Staff Congress President Barbara Bowen, Steve
Early, an international representative for CWA District 1, said, "If you
don't have an effective voice in your union, you're not going to have an
effective voice at work for too long."
'Calcified and Corrupted'
He laced into Mr. Stern's leadership blueprint and his comment several
years ago that union members were less interested in direct elections of
their officers than they were about making sure that their needs were serviced.
Not engaging members in union operations will eventually create "calcified,
corrupted, staff-dominated union bureaucracies," said Mr. Early, who is
based just outside of Boston but whose district includes New York City.
He cited as a prime example District Council 37, which under Victor
Gotbaum's leadership had been "the paragon of the progressive labor
movement in the '70s." Twenty years later, with Stanley Hill in charge and
the rank and file less involved in the union, Mr. Early said, DC 37 had
become "a cesspool of corruption, indictments ... members couldn't even
count on a contract ratification vote."
Need Members Active
Gregor Murray, a Professor in the University of Montreal's School of
Industrial Relations, said nurturing membership activism had been a key to
successful unionism in Canada, where the most effective organizations are
"the unions that have steward structures, that can get members to the
The greatest challenge unions in both countries face, he said, is
convincing members that the issues that labor is championing have real
relevance in their lives. Surveys of Canadian union members, he said,
showed that they unanimously believed in the need for unions, "but people
don't necessarily buy into the basket of union values that are being offered."
That is why, he told the 70 or so activists gathered into the meeting room
in the basement of the CUNY Graduate Center, labor has notably less success
in enlisting volunteers than does the National Rifle Association, whose
members have a more natural and obvious community of interest. The value
that was most embraced by Canadian union members in the survey, Mr. Murray
said, was "democracy."
Not Easy to Achieve
Ms. Bowen, who four years ago gained election by promising greater member
participation while accusing the old PSC regime of having grown isolated
from members' concerns, said convincing the rank and file to play a more
active role in union affairs "proves much more difficult than one might
think." Ideally, she said, progressive labor leaders should make members
"feel ownership of their union. I don't feel we've achieved it yet in our
In taking questions from the activists in the audience, it became clear why
even those who already are engaged in union democracy feel some reticence.
One union official lamented the fact that the CWA International's newspaper
does not include either a letters to the editor section or points of view
that are at odds with its leadership.
Mr. Early conceded his point, adding ruefully that most national union
newspapers "are just propaganda vehicles."
Another activist questioned what protection those who weighed in on behalf
of breaking away from the AFL-CIO would have if the SEIU and other unions
pushing for reform ultimately settle their differences with Mr. Sweeney.
'Sucks Out the Life'
Other audience members took issue with Mr. Murray's complaint that a
"megalocal" "sucks the life out of the labor movement."
David Kranz, a member of Local 1199, pointed to a situation in Buffalo
where his union alone had both the savvy and the political clout to keep a
troubled hospital from closing.
Another activist who works in a New Jersey health-care local that is
affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers said the consolidation
of unions in the same industry into a single large entity that is being
advocated by Mr. Stern makes sense. "You can't build power in an industry
where people are divided into hundreds of unions," he maintained.
Earlier, at the end of the press briefing, Mr. Raynor had been asked
whether labor's declining influence could be measured in factors that go
beyond its currently representing only 13 percent of the American
workforce, compared to 35 percent 50 years ago.
Fewer and Less-United
Not only are union members badly outnumbered by evangelical Christians, a
reporter noted, but they are less-unified: national exit polls showed those
who are part of organized labor gave 65 percent of their votes to John
Kerry, while 80 percent of the evangelical Christians polled supported
"Let's not forget our flocks are often the same," Mr. Raynor responded,
arguing that, particularly in states like Ohio, many union members are also
evangelicals. For that reason, he said, it is less urgent to worry about
whether the labor movement could have done a better job of convincing its
members that they should share union leaders' fears about what a second
Bush Administration would mean for workers' rights than it is to focus on
bringing the unorganized into the fold.
"I think it's a question of us getting bigger," Mr. Raynor said.