Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The great schism of 2005

Or not. Depends on how you look at it.

Yesterday at the AFL-CIO convention, the Teamsters, together with at least one smaller union, and perhaps as many as five others, left the AFL-CIO and announced that they will be setting up a competing organization.

Pundits were quick to declare that this was a terrible blow the Democratic Party, as a less unified labor movement would somehow damage the ability of individual unions to turn out their members. Conservatives were gleeful at the news.

Methinks they protest too much. Let me say that my grandfather was the president of a union in New York City during the 1930's, and that I was myself involved several years ago with helping to organize a union at a former workplace, and then was elected as a worksite representative (essentially a shop steward). I take pride in the fact that I have never crossed a picket line or purchased a nickel's worth of goods or services made by scabs. I have more than occasionally (and something I hereby pledge to do more often) paid a little more for a product that bore a union label than for a competing item that was cheaper but did not.

I might also add that I have never been a big fan of the Teamsters, and certainly their proclivity towards independence has been at times irritating (such as when they have often endorsed Republicans in the past, including Ronald Reagan). It has certainly been documented that the Teamsters of yore had strong ties to organized crime, in particular through the (presumably) late father of current Teamsters' president James P. Hoffa.

That said, I am relieved at the split and wish the Teamsters well, because fundamentally THEY ARE RIGHT. AFL-CIO boss John Sweeney and other people at the head of that organization seem to have taken a very passive stance, in which they bemoan declining union membership but do very little about it except collect dues and lobby Congress. James Hoffa (who is not your father's Jimmy Hoffa) was elected as a reformer, and has done so effectively. He is also right when he says that unions need to become both more assertive in organizing workers, and also reconnect with Americans and make the case why they should have the protection provided through collective bargaining. These are trying times, and such concerns as spiraling healthcare costs, outsourcing, suddenly insecure pensions and reclassification of workers so that they don't qualify for traditional benefits have hit many people who may have felt secure in their positions just a few years ago. An aggressive labor movement would be able to capitalize on these things, as in fact they have in Arizona behind the leadership of state AFL-CIO director Michael McGrath (just this morning the Arizona Republic carried an article stating that overall union membership in Arizona rose from 113,000 to 145,000 last year and Teamster's membership had risen 30% in Arizona during the same period). Keep in mind that Arizona is a 'right to work' state so no one has to join a union unless they believe it would benefit them to do so, and this makes the rise last year even more in contrast to what is happening elsewhere. Of course, here, there are good relations between the local AFL-CIO and the Teamsters, also in contrast-- success breeds success.

As to partisan politics, there is no reason why two competing labor organizations can't still provide the same organization to workers as one can. They still have the same local leaders and the 'foot soldiers' in place. The current split does not prevent them from cooperating on a campaign that is in the interest of both. True, the Teamsters are more likely to endorse Republican candidates on occasion, but then if that provides a spur to Republicans to take constructive action on issues affecting workers then the overall goal of an America where more people can afford to raise a family is still attained.

I wish that this split hadn't happened, but I am relieved that the shoe has dropped. Given the 'do-nothing' attitude I have seen from the national AFL-CIO recently about issues that are basic to everyone, and need to be broadcast far from the halls of Congress, I believe it was inevitable, and with that, it may be just the medicine that is needed for the AFL-CIO.


peppylady (Dora) said...

so in the future where will union play in? My dad worked on the railroad and belong to teamsters. This been quite a few years ago. My dad dead been dead for over 25 years.
I thought union should got involved with profit sharing. Peppylady

Eli Blake said...


I believe that unions can be a strong force in the future if they play things right.

James Hoffa, as much as I may disagree with the Teamsters about some things, sees the ball much more clearly than his counterparts in either the AFL-CIO or many of their member unions which seem intent on guarding their slice of a shrinking pie. He instead sees the need for a more involved, active and outreaching union movement. With a more powerful labor movement, many things, including profit sharing, can become possible.

It can be done, as it has here. If you read the article I linked to, it mentions that 3200 America West ticket agents were added to the union fold last year, but even without them, union growth in this state was at an unprecendented rate.

All it took was leadership which could tap into the unease and in some cases sense of betrayal that many workers feel from the Bush administration, with job after job either sent overseas, or their pensions jerked out from under them, or their healthcare costs jumping up faster than their paycheck.

The same conditions exist nationally. But to take advantage of it, you need leadership with a vision and the drive to go in and organize, and I don't see that from the current leadership of the AFL-CIO. Hence, the split.

Eli Blake said...

Oh, and, Congratulations that your father was a union man. That is something to be proud of.