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Laborıs Civil War
Source Steve Zeltzer
Date 05/06/02/03:59

The Sweeney revolution is deŜnitely over. But is the Sweeney era? Inside
the tumultuous battle over laborıs future.

By Harold Meyerson
Web Exclusive: 05.25.05
www.prospect.org

On Tuesday, May 3, 167 of the AFL-CIOıs 426 employees reported to work to
Ŝnd that their positions had been eliminated. Whole divisions were being
scrapped, publications abolished, programs terminated. Some departments were
being consolidated, and 61 new positions being created within them, but the
house that Federation President John Sweeney had built was, by Sweeneyıs own
decree, being partially torn down.

The Field Mobilization Department -- a nebulous division that employed 67
Ŝeld reps for disparate assignments across the nation -- was being merged
into the political program, with 30 positions eliminated outright. The
federationıs monthly magazine, America@Work, was being discontinued. The
policy ofŜce was being reduced in size and merged into a joint operation
with the legislative ofŜce. The International Affairs Department, which
director Barbara Shailor had transformed from the planetıs last bastion of
Cold War vigilance into its most effective proponent of global social
democracy (and brought 20,000 unionists from around the world to the Seattle
demonstrations of 1999), was to be abolished and merged into the Solidarity
Center, with a greater focus on union-building endeavors.

Two days later, much of the staff gathered in the Presidentıs Room at
AFL-CIO headquarters to meet with Sweeney and his chief of staff, Bob Welsh.
Amid understandable wailing and gnashing of teeth, Welsh was emphatic about
one point: Staffers whoıd lost their jobs should direct at least some of
their anger at a coalition of insurgent unions. As quoted by labor blogger
Jonathan Tasini, Welsh told the crowd that ³unions representing 40 percent
of the federation put forth proposals to cut the staff of the federation in
half. Itıs against this background weıve made tough choices.²

The ³background² Welsh alluded to was a sustained and unprecedented barrage
of demands from some of the largest unions that the AFL-CIO all but
dismantle its existing structure in order to devote half its resources to
organizing. The federation, they said, should rebate half the dues of those
member unions with credible organizing programs of their own (about $35
million a year, they estimated) and devote an additional

$25 million in royalties from the AFL-CIOıs credit card to organizing as
well. Sweeney and his supporters had rejected those moves, but now, facing
the possibility that some of those unions might leave the federation
altogether, they were instituting a smaller ($15 million) organizing rebate
program of their own, which was one reason why the ax was falling.

Many today fear that the cuts at the AFL-CIO presage a bloody succession of
self-inŝicted wounds within the movement. With a sometimes startling
ferocity, union leaders are accusing one another of indifference to the
erosion of laborıs strength and a chronic incapacity to do anything about
it. While the Ŝrst accusation is largely bogus, the second is sadly true --
save for a handful of unions that have transformed themselves into
successful organizing machines. Today, the leaders of some of those unions
have embarked on a campaign -- which may take the form of a rancorous
challenge to Sweeneyıs re-election -- to reshape the movement along the
lines of their own organizing-oriented unions. At the same time, some of
them are threatening to leave the AFL-CIO if Sweeney prevails -- a parting
likely to weaken laborıs vaunted political operation and possibly set union
against union in a scramble for members. Itıs a moment of both peril and
opportunity for labor, though peril looms as much the larger of the two.

* * *

Itıs nearly a year since Andy Stern, the president of the Service Employees
International Union (SEIU), Ŝrst threw down the challenge to Sweeney and the
AFL-CIO, telling wildly cheering delegates gathered in San Francisco last
June for the unionıs quadrennial convention that it was time either to
³change the AFL-CIO or build something stronger.² Of all the attacks Sweeney
had weathered, this might have been the unkindest cut: The SEIU was his old
union, and Stern had been the young Ŝrebrand whom Sweeney had plucked out of
a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, local 25 years earlier and promoted to
organizing director. Stern had done his job too well: While the rest of the
labor movement was shrinking, the SEIU doubled its membership during
Sweeneyıs tenure to 1.2 million, adding an additional 600,000 new members
since Stern succeeded him in 1996. It was now the federationıs largest
afŜliate, home to 11 percent of the federationıs members and source of 11
percent of the federationıs budget. And now Stern was hurling ultimatums:
The federation had to put vastly more money into organizing and compel the
merger of smaller unions unable to organize into larger ones. Either the
AFL-CIO would shape up or the SEIU would ship out.

And not just the SEIU. For several years, it had allied itself -- for a time
in a now-disbanded coalition called the New Unity Partnership (NUP) -- with
a number of other unions with ambitious and successful organizing programs
(there werenıt many). The unions included the Laborers, headed by Terry
OıSullivan; the Union of Needletrades, Textiles and Industrial Employees
(UNITE), headed by Bruce Raynor; and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant
Employees International Union (HERE), headed by John Wilhelm (the latter two
merging in 2004 as UNITE-HERE). Alarmed by laborıs decline -- unions
represented 35 percent of the U.S. workforce when the American Federation of
Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) merged back
in 1955; today, they represent a scant 12.5 percent, and a sickly 7.9
percent of the private sector -- these leaders had long been calling on the
AFL-CIO to do more to address the crisis.

As early as 2002, Wilhelm asked the federation to consider a huge campaign,
beyond the capacity of any one afŜliate, to unionize Wal-Mart, Americaıs
largest employer, whose policies and practices reduced the living standards
not only of its own 1.2 million employees but of countless others at its
thousands of suppliers and subcontractors. With labor under assault, Wilhelm
said, unions had to make tough choices (for which his own union staff, which
he had pared down largely to organizers and corporate researchers, could
serve as a model). The federation, he argued, should be spending 75 percent
of its budget on politics and organizing. This was war; sacriŜces would have
to be made. ³We have to blow up the AFL-CIO bureaucracy,² he told a Los
Angeles labor forum in February. ³The staff should be cut by at least 50
percent.²

Along the way, the NUPsters picked up some allies -- chieŝy, the Teamsters
and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) -- to form a bloc
constituting roughly 40 percent of the federationıs 12.5 million members. At
the AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in Vegas in early March, the
insurgents presented their proposal that the federation rebate half the dues
payments of those unions with substantial organizing campaigns in their core
industries. If unions were to grow, every dollar not spent directly or
indirectly on organizing was a dollar wasted.

Vegas proved to be a bloody ground. A coalition of unions representing 60
percent of the federationıs membership beat back the insurgentsı resolution.
Led by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees
(AFSCME) and the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the majority
grouping argued that serious organizing was impossible given the erosions in
labor laws once intended to protect unionsı rights to organize. The proper
goal of the AFL-CIO, this faction argued, should be to elect a Democratic
Congress and president whoıd pass new laws permitting workers to organize
again. To that end, the executive council, in a meeting marked by rancorous
exchanges between Stern and AFSCME President Gerald McEntee, passed a
resolution doubling the size of its political budget.

The differences between the two camps were in part experiential. AFSCME is
entirely a public-sector union that lives and dies by political elections,
and when Republicans captured the governorıs ofŜces in Indiana and Missouri
last November, their Ŝrst move was to rescind collective-bargaining rights
for the stateıs public employees. Most manufacturing unions, the United
Steelworkers most prominently, lined up with AFSCME, too; unions that had
seen their core industries exported to other, cheaper-labor countries found
little to like in the NUPstersı call to bolster organizing only in unionsı
core sectors. Directing more funds to organizing the dying manufacturing
sector didnıt impress such unions as a good use of money at all.

* * *

Stern, whose union has organized 49,000 child-care workers in Illinois and
41,000 home-came workers in Michigan this spring, emphatically disagrees.
³Other than when jobs are going overseas,² he says, ³thereıs not an employer
where -- with enough time, money, and strategy -- you donıt have a
legitimate shot at building a union. Others think you have to legislate
ourselves out of the problem -- elect friendly ofŜcials, pass labor-law
reform. We think you have to grow your way out of the problem.² Stern is all
but contemptuous of those leaders who despair of organizing, calling them ³a
group of leaders who are defeated, who believe they canıt grow.²


By the end of the Vegas meeting, the movementıs cracks had widened to
chasms. UNITE-HERE considered disafŜliation; Teamster ofŜcials talked
secession, too.

Sweeney returned from Vegas, then, facing a double threat: Some unions were
threatening to pull out, and Wilhelm was sounding out support for a
challenge to Sweeney (whose current term will be up at the AFL-CIOıs
convention, July 25­28, in Chicago). The threats were interconnected: If
Sweeney couldnıt keep the unions from leaving, perhaps Wilhelm could. ³The
longer [this Ŝght] goes on without being resolved,² one union president said
in April, ³the more problems John Sweeney has. He canıt assure his
colleagues he can manage this.²

In late April, Sweeneyıs problems were compounded when four of the insurgent
unions -- the SEIU, UNITE-HERE, the Teamsters, and the Laborers -- abruptly
moved to dismantle the crown jewel of the federationıs operation, its
political program. They informed the federation that they were withdrawing
the names of their members from the AFL-CIOıs political Ŝles, the
computerized list with which labor wages its national, state, and local
campaigns. The action threatens to undermine the foremost voter-mobilization
campaign in the Democratic Partyıs universe.

Facing mounting threats, Sweeney responded. The May 3 layoffs he announced
were part of a massive restructuring of the federation along the lines that
his critics had suggested. In addition to the $15 million set aside for
organizing, he called for the establishment of Industry Coordinating
Committees to plan organizing campaigns, like the Wal-Mart effort, that no
one union could take on.
³If this had happened two years ago, the NUPsters would have applauded,² one
federation insider noted. But the dissident leaders quickly made clear that
Sweeneyıs reforms were too little and too late -- and that Sweeney himself
had become the issue. ³John Sweeney and the people around him are not
capable of carrying through the reforms,² UNITE-HEREıs Raynor told me.

Indeed, in speeches to a Teamster conference in Las Vegas on May 9, Stern,
Wilhelm, Raynor, OıSullivan, and Teamsters President James P. Hoffa made
cumulatively clear the growing intensity of the split in labor. ³The
American labor movement at the level of the AFL-CIO has lost its way,²
Wilhelm told the Teamsters. ³Itıs lost its energy. Itıs lost its hope. And
thatıs a crime Š . We arenıt going to accept it Š . And weıre going to teach
the AFL-CIO that they shouldnıt accept it, either!²

Ever since the merger of UNITE and HERE one year previous, Wilhelm had been
the logical candidate to challenge Sweeney. His credentials as an organizer
and strategist were beyond dispute -- and nowhere more so than in Vegas,
where he built the hotel local from 17,000 members to more than 50,000
through a program of member mobilization that other unions could only dream
about. His bona Ŝdes as a social visionary were in good order, too: It was
Wilhelm whoıd persuaded the AFL-CIO to reverse its historic opposition to
undocumented immigrants and to become, in fact, the nationıs leading
advocate of immigrant rights. Unlike Stern, heıd taken care to maintain good
relations with most of his fellow union presidents. As AFL-CIO presidents
are elected by the presidents of the federationıs afŜliated unions, and not
the rank and Ŝle (which means just 15 men determine the outcome of the
election), this was no small virtue.

Wilhelmıs was hardly the most Ŝery speech the Teamsters heard, however. That
came from Stern, who documented the decline in labor numbers and declared,
³Thatıs what John Sweeney doesnıt get. Thatıs what those other unions donıt
get Š . If unions think that the labor movement can allow this to happen,
they can kiss my ass!²

* * *

For American labor, the season of blood and knives has arrived. Longtime
allies have turned on one another; personal relationships have frayed.
Sweeney himself, endeavoring to hold things together, ascribes some of the
tension to the times. ³We have to understand,² he told me, ³that the
political climate of the past four and a half years is the worst in modern
labor history. Itıs made us angry and frustrated.²

Indeed, whole sectors of organized labor look to be on the brink of
crumbling. Airline unions are powerless to stop the shredding of their
membersı contracts. The once-mighty United Automobile Workers (UAW) is stuck
in an industry whose two largest employers, General Motors and Ford, seem
poised for huge cutbacks. Seventy thousand supermarket workers in southern
California last year waged a long and bitter strike only, in the end, to
accept pay cuts and reduced health beneŜts for new hires. The Bush
administration is gunning for unions as well, with a distinct possibility
that the three Bush appointees to the Ŝve-member National Labor Relations
Board may wholly or partially invalidate the ³card check² method of
unionization -- under which employers agree to forgo an election once a
majority of workers have signed afŜliation cards with the union -- that has
been the main way that unions have organized workers over the past decade.

Time was when workers seeking to organize could hold fair elections under
the terms of the National Labor Relations Act -- but that was a long time
ago. The steady and sickening decline in membership since the AFL and CIO
merged 50 years ago has resulted in large part from the realization of
employers that they could violate the terms of the act with impunity.
According to research from Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Cornell
Universityıs Center on Labor Education Research, employers threaten to close
their work site in 21 percent of organizing drives, and one worker in 20 on
such campaigns is Ŝred -- both tactics proscribed by the act, but for which
the penalties are negligible.

Even at the time of the merger, a small number of labor leaders -- most
particularly, the UAWıs legendary Walter Reuther -- saw that unions had to
do radically more to boost their membership, which had not grown as a
percentage of the workforce for a decade. But Reutherıs sense of urgency was
not widely shared, as Solomon Barkin, the in-house intellectual for the old
Textile Workers Union, noted in a brilliant paper, preŜguring todayıs
debate, that he wrote in 1961. Unions were resting their great organizing
drives of the ı30s and ı40s at their own peril, Barkin argued. The economy
was growing in those sectors where unions were missing.

As Barkin saw it, labor could not effectively move into growing sectors of
the economy because the CIO, in the 1955 merger, had lost the debate with
the AFL over the crucial question of how the new federation would be
structured. In the ı30s, when the CIO itself hired the organizers and
planned and executed the organization of such hitherto unorganized
industries as auto and steel, ³The regional ofŜces of the CIO, unlike the
AFL, became the headquarters for many union campaigns,² Barkin wrote. CIO
President Reuther wanted the AFL-CIO organizing department to retain that
capacity, but AFL President George Meany, who became AFL-CIO president at
the 1955 merger and served in that position until shortly before his death
in 1979, insisted on a more federated structure.

³The dominant belief in the central body,² Barkin wrote caustically, ³is
still basically that of the old AFL -- that the responsibility for new
organization rests with the individual internationals.² Such a system could
never adequately organize new industries. The AFL-CIO, he argued, should
³have the authority to initiate campaigns in those areas and among those
groups where it feels no adequate efforts are being made Š . Vested rights
of national unions must not be allowed to stand in the way of the
transcendent interests of the movement as a whole.²

Barkinıs fears proved as prophetic as his suggestions were unheeded. For 40
years after the merger, the AFL-CIO, and most of the union movement it
headed, was indifferent to organizing. In the ı60s, led by AFSCMEıs Jerry
Wurf and the American Federation of Teachersı Albert Shanker, huge
breakthroughs were made in organizing public-sector workers, but the decline
of private-sector unionism continued unchecked. Not until 1995, after two
decades of decline, when Sweeney ousted longtime AFL-CIO President Lane
Kirkland on a platform of boosting laborıs organizing and political clout,
did the federation even turn its full attention to the challenge of
rebuilding the movement.

For a time, all was bright. Hiring Steve Rosenthal as the AFL-CIOıs
political director, Sweeney poured resources and talent into the
federationıs election work. Laborıs political program became the model for
all voter-mobilization efforts, and by 2000, laborıs share of the electorate
had risen to 26 percent (from 14 percent in the last Kirkland-era election
of 1994). Sweeney created an organizing department within the federation,
and he raised the organizing budget -- for a while, at least -- to 30
percent of its total expenditures, and set that goal for member unions. He
told the afŜliated unions that labor needed to grow by a million members a
year for the next 20 years to regain its strength at the time of the merger,
and for a time, the federationıs weekly news bulletin, Work in Progress,
kept a running total of the number of new workers organized that year.

Midway through 2004, however, Work in Progress quietly dropped its running
total of new members; the Ŝgures were so low they could only constitute an
admission of failure. Only a handful of unions have reached the 30-percent
target, and many unions have abandoned organizing altogether. The unions
that have made the change to organizing mode come from both the pro- and
anti-Sweeney camps: the SEIU, UNITE-HERE, and the Laborers among the
oppositionists; AFSCME and the CWA among supporters; and the American
Federation of Teachers (AFT), whose presidential preference remains murky.
But changing to organize entails persuading members to increase their dues
heavily to fund such a transformation, the hiring and/or training of
hundreds of organizers, and the development of crack corporate research
teams. Though the AFL-CIO Organizing Department has offered excellent
training programs, most unions havenıt been willing to make that leap. One
survey of California unions in 2002 found that just Ŝve internationals
employed 48.9 percent of all the organizers in the state; the SEIU alone
employed 22 percent of them.

Two departures from AFL-CIO staff signaled the limitations of Sweeneyıs
success. In 1997, Richard Bensinger, the federationıs Ŝrst organizing
director, was asked to leave; his constant exhortations to organize had
begun to rankle the internationalsı presidents. And after the 2002
elections, Rosenthal, a close friend of Sternıs, left to form a massive
³527² voter-mobilization organization, America Coming Together. Midway
through George W. Bushıs Ŝrst term as president, it was clear that the
Sweeney revolution had stalled. ³With Rosenthalıs departure,² said one union
staffer, ³it became acceptable for those behind the Sweeney revolution to
trash it.²

In the eyes of his critics, Sweeney did not push his colleagues hard enough
for change. Raynor calls him ³a consensus builder -- thatıs his hallmark.²
This was not, in the parlance of the dissidents, a term of praise. But when
Stern began arguing that the AFL-CIO should abandon a search for consensus,
a debate erupted over the how-tos of union organizing. CWA Executive Vice
President Larry Cohen and a number of other CWA leaders criticized the SEIU
for top-down organizing, arguing that educating and mobilizing the rank and
Ŝle, through a system of hyperactive shop stewards, is the only way to
ensure union democracy and growth. In the CWAıs view, the SEIU moves more
like an army than a democratic union.

But it moves. Cohenıs arguments arenıt entirely wrong, but they are
prescriptions for disengagement with the bulk of the American workforce
until such time as the law changes or American workers revolt en masse.
³Look, if CWA shop stewards all go on leave to work in nonunion workplaces,
Iıd agree with CWA,² says one SEIU ofŜcial. ³People with a radical past are
focusing on the 8 percent thatıs unionized. They donıt see that the movement
is on its deathbed.²

* * *

But how does a movement devoted to servicing that 8 percent organize the
other 92 percent? How does a movement rooted in the Northeast, the Midwest,
and on the West Coast organize in red-state America, where it needs to boost
its numbers if the Democrats are to become a competitive party at the
national level? How does it organize Wal-Mart, which is rooted in the red
states?

Labor -- all wings of labor -- has been moving slowly toward a collective
Wal-Mart strategy for some time now, particularly since the UFCW, which
would have jurisdiction, plainly stated that organizing the behemoth is
beyond its capacity. The one union leader who has been calling for such a
campaign for years is Wilhelm. ³There are clearly some seminal campaigns,
important to society as a whole, that no one union can do on its own,² he
recently told me. ³Wal-Mart cries out for an AFL-CIO approach.² For
starters, Wilhelm and his fellow dissident presidents suggest that the
federation devote its $25 million a year in credit-card royalties to a
long-term Wal-Mart organizing campaign -- a proposal that Sweeney has not
embraced.

Which doesnıt make Wilhelm a ³top-down² guy. From the history department at
Yale (his alma mater, whose clerical workers he organized in the mid-ı80s)
to the cocktail waitresses at the Luxor (one of the Strip hotels represented
by the Vegas local whose size he tripled), Wilhelm has been uncommonly adept
at building rank-and-Ŝle organizing committees, mobilizing thousands of
workers, and winning groundbreaking contracts.

As president of HERE since 1998, Wilhelm built what is surely the leanest
union staff of any major international, hiring organizers and corporate
researchers in part through savings achieved by killing off other
departments (health and safety among them). Wilhelm taking over the AFL-CIO
might be a little like a guerrilla leader whoıs fought in the hills for many
years Ŝnally occupying the capital.

Wilhelmıs critics complain that his union is not merely lean but
understaffed and disorganized, that Wilhelmıs record as a manager leaves
much to be desired. They also note that HERE has endorsed Republicans --
among them, New York Governor George Pataki, who assisted HERE in winning
collective bargaining at tribal casinos. Wilhelmıs record of strategically
endorsing Republicans may commend his candidacy to such centrist union
leaders as the International Association of Fire Fightersı Harold
Schaitberger, another occasional GOP endorser who has not been aligned with
the dissidents but who recently sent a blistering letter to Sweeney
excoriating the AFL-CIO presidentıs management of federation affairs.

In many ways, a Wilhelm presidency would be less the negation of Sweeneyıs
than its logical successor. An articulate speaker as well as a skilled
negotiator, Wilhelm would provide the kind of public presence labor needs if
it is to become more of a movement and less of a rickety federation
incapable of the kind of death-defying organizing campaigns it needs to
survive.

But Wilhelm has yet to declare his candidacy. With most federation
presidents still supporting Sweeney, the dissidentsı campaign plan -- other
than to threaten the dissolution of the federation should Sweeney be
re-elected -- remains unclear. ³SEIU fouled up this campaign from the
beginning,² says one union leader, when Stern raised the specter of
disafŜliation back at the SEIU convention in July of 2004. ³In the year
leading up to the most important [U.S. presidential] election in decades,²
said Steelworkers President Leo Gerard late last year, ³we didnıt need any
damned distraction.²

While the 71-year-old Sweeney is well liked personally by labor leaders
across the spectrum, it was by no means a given that he could have
engendered support for another term as AFL-CIO president before the current
controversy began. When he took ofŜce in 1995, he pledged heıd serve for 10
years, and it was widely expected heıd step down this July. ³Sweeney wasnıt
thinking of running again,² says one of the AFL-CIO presidentıs associates.
³But Andy didnıt just anger him; he infuriated a number of [presidents of]
afŜliates, who asked John to run again.²

Should Wilhelm run, this cross will be his, not Sternıs, to bear. A few
union presidents fairly bristle with cultural resentment at Stern, and, to a
lesser degree, Raynor and Wilhelm, whom they see as having set themselves up
as hip leaders in an otherwise square movement. ³Why did they do the NUP
thing at all?² one leader wonders. ³It came off as a clique, as guys who
thought they were better than everybody else.²

On Monday, May 16, a wholly different group of union leaders -- including
the presidents of the AFT, the UFCW, the Fire Fighters, and the
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers -- convened to discuss their
own ideas for alternatives to Sweeney. Itıs by no means a given that these
unions would support a Wilhelm candidacy, but the meeting raised the
prospect of yet another insurgency and even deeper problems for the
AFL-CIOıs current administration.

* * *

If Wilhelm and unity do not prevail, what then? The SEIU will surely secede;
whether by itself or with others is as yet unclear. ³Under the right
circumstances, everyone would be ready to go with SEIU,² says one dissident
leader. But those circumstances would involve a mass secession, and itıs not
clear how many unions are willing to initiate that game of chicken. ³My
organization has never threatened to pull out of the AFL-CIO,² Laborers
President Terry OıSullivan told me at the March executive-council meeting,
³and has no intention of doing so.² McEntee, for one, believes that all the
unions but the SEIU are blufŜng, in order to gain leverage for Wilhelmıs
candidacy. The Amalgamated Bank of UNITE-HERE, for instance, is vulnerable
to huge withdrawals of union deposits should UNITE-HERE opt out of the
AFL-CIO. (The CWA has already withdrawn $50 million.)

Blogging two days after the dissident presidentsı speeches to the Teamsters,
Stern wrote glowingly of ³the combined strength and proud histories of the 5
million union members represented by our unions [the dissident coalition].²
But if all were to leave and set up a rival federation, the new group would
lack the clear deŜnition of, say, the CIO, which was united around the
principles of industrial unionism and activist liberal politics. The
dissident unions may all argue for the imperative of organizing, but while
the SEIU, UNITE-HERE, and the Laborers have transformed themselves into
kick-ass organizing machines, the Teamsters and the UFCW have made no such
transition. Similarly, the Ŝve unions occupy a fairly broad political
spectrum: In 2004, the Teamsters were Dick Gephardtıs biggest supporters,
while the SEIU was a gaggle of Deaniacs.

Even if the SEIU goes off all by itself, many union ofŜcials believe that,
in the words of one, ³a Hobbesian world [will be] created.² Some fear that
the SEIUıs vaunted organizing machine will Ŝght other unions for new, and
maybe current, members -- fears Stern takes pains to allay. ³Our intention
is not to start a war,² he says. ³Weıd work with the AFL-CIO on everything
that makes sense. We have no intention to start any campaign where an
AFL-CIO union is already organized. But if somebody goes against us? God
help the union that picks that Ŝght.²

Whatever the case, the act of disafŜliation is sure to complicate the life
of the AFL-CIOıs state federations and central labor councils that wage
their political and lobbying campaigns with money and activists provided by
the SEIU. In Los Angeles -- home to the most politically potent labor
council in the land, and one in which the SEIU is the dominant union --
council leader Miguel Contreras (who died, suddenly and prematurely, on May
6) was already building a series of parallel organizations to preserve a de
facto, if no longer de jure, uniŜed political operation.

But the biggest question is whether secession would help labor grow. The
resources that the SEIU would gain from not paying AFL-CIO dues come to a
little more than $10 million a year -- real money, but a small fraction of
the SEIUıs total organizing budget. Labor needs to pool its resources, not
divide them, to have even a chance to grow. It needs to redirect resources
from unions and sectors and states where unions have maintained a presence
to those sectors and states where they do not yet exist. It cannot wait
until labor law is reformed to begin this project. Laborıs present business,
if it does not organize, is the business of dying.

These changes require something more than a federated structure to direct
unionsı affairs; they require the recreation of a movement. Thatıs why the
thrust of Wilhelmıs as-yet-undeclared candidacy is so crucial to laborıs
survival. At the same time, thatıs also why the prospect of the crumbling of
laborıs central body, and the internecine warfare that may break out in its
wake, is so perilous.

³Where the hell is Moses when you need him?² OıSullivan said in his talk to
the Teamsters in Vegas. ³I mean, parting the Red Sea is nothing compared to
the challenges we face as a movement.² With no Moses on the horizon, and
with the future of Americaıs working and middle class very much at stake,
labor now needs to make its own miracles.

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect.

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