LaborTalk for November 17, 2004

Stern’s Proposals to Restructure AFL-CIO
Have Flaws and Raise Many Questions

By Harry Kelber

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and the 51-member Executive Council have tried for nine years to reverse the decline in union membership by making union organizing their top priority. They set an example to their affiliated unions by budgeting 30% of their revenue for organizing.

They hired hundreds of bright, young African-American and Latino organizers. They built coalitions with religious organizations and communities. They held numerous training classes, seminars and workshops to develop a cadre of top organizers. At AFL-CIO conventions, they passed strong resolutions about organizing and held endless meetings on the subject.

Nevertheless, with all the money, time and energy they spent on organizing, the AFL-CIO's membership continued to decline. Sweeney and the Executive Council have been abysmal failures, but that hasn't stopped them from wanting to be re-elected for four more years.

Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, a fast-growing union that boasts 1.6 million members, believes he has the answer to labor’s organizing difficulties. In SEIU’s 10-point program, Unite to Win, Stern says the AFL-CIO should allocate “all of its $25 million annual royalties from Union Plus credit card purchases” to support organizing projects. And he adds: “Challenging Wal-Mart should be its first project.”

Choosing Wal-Mart as the first organizing project makes no practical sense at all, since the United Food and Commercial Workers has spent millions of dollars over many years and has not been able to organize even one of Wal-Mart’s 4,750 supermarkets. What would Stern do differently, except pour more money into the organizing campaign?

Stern and his union may have an exemplary record in organizing hospital and home care workers, but they still haven’t unionized any major industrial corporation of 15,000 or more workers. Bruce Raynor, president of UNITE HERE, a close associate of Stern in the New Unity Partnership, has been trying to organize the 17,000 workers who produce Cintas uniforms since March 2003, without any success. What evidence is there that Stern and his associates will succeed, even with the best of intentions?

The SEIU program emphasizes the importance of union density and market share for strengthening labor’s bargaining power. Of course, union density matters, but you can only get it by recruiting a huge number of new members. What new organizing strategies does Stern propose that are different from those that have resulted in failure?

Stern’s high-powered media campaign also advocates reducing the number of AFL-CIO international unions from about 60 to 20 or fewer, claiming that the enlarged unions with greater resources would be in a better position to organize and bargain with large corporations.

Even if, for argument’s sake, we assume the validity of Stern’s restructuring plan, who would decide which unions are to be selected for the favored 20 and which are the ones to be left out? What happens to unions that don¹t accept the plan? How long will it take for the restructuring to be completed, and what happens in the meantime? Will members have any say about what course their union chooses?

Far from bringing unity to the labor movement as the SEIU program suggests, it would invite contentious debate and division within and between unions that might go on for some time, leaving union members confused about their future.

Stern has declared that if the executive council won’t go along with his restructuring plan, he’ll pull out of the AFL-CIO and start his own labor federation. That kind of arrogant ultimatum is not likely to win supporters for his cause.

Meanwhile, the International Association of Machinists says it will quit the AFL-CIO if Stern has his way. Other unions may also adopt the Machinists’ stance. Unions may end up fighting each other to the advantage of giant corporations.

While Unite to Win is getting considerable media exposure, it is not winning many converts outside of the SEIU membership. Union members are disturbed about what may happen to their health care and pension benefits if their union is forced into a merger with another union to comply with Stern’s plan.

The problem with both the Sweeney and Stern approach to mass union organizing is that they depend almost exclusively on their own “in-house” strategies. Neither has developed — or sought to develop — an enthusiastic following among rank-and-filers in the building trades, manufacturing and professional unions. Even the smartest of generals can’t win battles without loyal, committed troops.

We need labor leaders who can inspire an army of union volunteers to join in massive organizing campaigns across the country, supported by a unified labor movement. Are there any labor leaders around with the know-how and courage who can take on that role?

Our weekly “LaborTalk” column is posted every Wednesday at our Web site: Union members who want information about the AFL-CIO rank-and-file reform movement should visit

HomePublications LaborTalkContact us