“Change to Win” May Do Just That

In my earlier post I expressed the fear that the formation of the new Change to Win labor coalition might split the labor movement so much that in its already weak state it would fragment. It’s impossible to predict one way or the other, but I’m slowly coming around to a more hopeful view and I’ll give my reasons below. First of all, I should re-emphasize that I am somewhat naive and untutored on the US labor movement. But I do believe that an anti-corporate, internationalist domestic polity based on solidarity is a necessary condition for a world order that respects human rights and true democracy, not to mention produces a just and equitable society. The Change to Win coalition promotes this kind of polity, in an institutional setting in which millions of US workers are engaged. That alone should garner the support (or at least the interest) of US progressives.

But of course the real question is: While the coalition works towards building “a movement for working people that can confront and restrain corporate power in both the workplace and the community,” (from the coalition’s Constitution) and ensuring “that global corporations respect [international] workers’ freedom to form unions and negotiate agreements that raise living standards toward their highest level”; and while the coalition works towards ending “Wal-Martization” (“a global phenomenon” for which “a global approach is required,” according to the group’s manifesto)– will the coalition be contributing to the breakup of the already weak US labor movement?

Some say yes, and I focused on that side of things in my previous post. My particular fear came from the statement by Business Week that “a split in the labor movement would be a boon to corporate America.” Clearly, this is a true statement. But I allowed myself to see through corporate eyes, which perceived that trying something different will lead to a split in the movement. This might not be the case at all.

Jonathan Tasini, who operates the Working Life website says that the media are interpreting the formation of the new coalition as a “split” perhaps prematurely and in general are not asking the right questions.

[N]ot a single reporter asked about any of the organizing plans the new coalition has afoot. The answer might have been–we’re still working on that. But, heck, ask the question. Because the media rarely spends this much energy on labor issues, consumers of the information have no context in which to understand the complexities of how the labor movement operates (or doesn’t operate).

Those making the most of the potential split are “16th Street [AFL-CIO headquarters]…, …a small circle of labor leaders and activists, and…the press.” Tasini proposes the following scenario:

[What if] the Change To Win Coalition actually is able to try some interesting campaigns or projects. Maybe one or more unions leaves the AFL-CIO and the coalition evolves into a new umbrella. It should, then, be judged on its success or failure. If it succeeds, workers have more power. If it fails, it goes away or becomes irrelevant. End of story.

Sound worth a try to me.

And it’s not so clear to me that the business community is rubbing its hands with glee at the new coalition’s founding. Tasini published a memo by union-busting law firm Morgan Lewis that warns its clients

It is now likely that next month’s [AFL-CIO] convention will be a watershed event. The Change To Win Coalition unions say they are planning to submit a series of resolutions and constitutional amendments designed to create a labor movement of “real power and true strength” for employees…

What happens next will begin to define the future of the labor movement, and could significantly impact employers. If the Coalition’s members follow through on their threats to disaffiliate from the Federation later this year, employers can expect an increased interest in union organizing. This could be especially true for the nation’s largest non-union employers [read: Walmart]. For employers with existing unionized workforces, this means increased pressure to execute some form of neutrality and card-check recognition agreement. For employers with unions from both competing factions at their facilities, competition for better wages, benefits and other terms and conditions of employment is likely… The last several years also have seen a significant increase in the amount of collaboration between U.S.-based unions and their international counterparts. That collaboration could increase significantly. Finally, more union mergers should be forthcoming.

This is encouraging. What is also encouraging is that this movement to reform or leave AFL-CIO is being led by the SEIU, a union which has had incredible success in recent years, particularly in my home state of California. While overall US union membership has decreased from 35% of the workforce in the 1950s to about 10% today, the SEIU has tripled its membership in the past 25 years. Monday’s LA Times, gave a brief overview of some of the SEIU’s successes. For example, the well-known Justice for Janitors grassroots organizing and solidarity campaign which brought together thousands of poor workers to fight for their rights.

Since taking to the streets of Los Angeles with massive protests in the mid-1990s, …Local 1877 has grown to represent 28,000 janitors throughout the state [of California]. Most have won substantial raises and fully paid family health insurance under new contracts.

Similar campaigns have been waged for workers in hospitals, nursing homes, building security, commercial laundries and tourism — all areas that are likely to expand in the service economy.

Each one started with a carefully considered game plan that examined the strengths and weaknesses of entire industries and the major players in them. The unions then looked for ways to help cooperative employers while pressuring those who resisted in every way they could — working with political and community allies behind the scenes, staging attention-getting public protests, contacting customers and suppliers of targeted employers, running boycotts and sometimes launching well-financed strikes.

The goal typically was to win an agreement from employers to not fight the union’s attempt to sign up members.

Not all efforts have panned out. Faced with rising healthcare costs and intense competitive pressures, and convinced that a union would only add to their burdens, many employers are determined to keep organizers out.

But the campaigns that have succeeded prove that organized labor can grow even in a tough political and economic environment…

It’s possible that the new coalition may succeed where the ponderous AFL-CIO has failed. Rather than splintering unionized employees into two increasingly powerless and adversarial camps, maybe the formation of the new coalition will force the AFL-CIO to change to stay afloat. Regardless, the SEIU has already shown that it can increase the quantity of union members, improve the democratic and grassroots quality of union activism, and build solidarity across borders. These elements of the Change to Win manifesto are prerequisites for a better society at home and a dismantling of the US corporate-imperial juggernaut abroad.

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