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Issue 32

Unite to Win

By Ken Allen and Don McIntosh

Given an anti-union White House, growing employer attacks on unions, and a legal framework that gives management every advantage, can the union movement survive into the future? Can it stop its decline as a percentage of the workforce if it continues to operate as it does now? Sparked by a controversial proposal called “Unite to Win” by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the country’s largest union, a nationwide debate is breaking out within organized labor about how to stop its own extinction.

Ken Allen and Don McIntosh recently devoted an episode of their show Labor Radio to discuss the most contentious aspect of the SEIU proposal. Labor Radio is a weekly program about working people, the labor movement, and organizing broadcast on community radio station KBOO, 90.7 FM, in Portland, Oregon. Tom Leedham and Leslie Frane were among the several guests to talk about various ways to restructure the union movement. Tom is the President of Portland-based Teamster Local 206 and a nationally-known progressive labor leader who has twice run for President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters against conservative Jimmy Hoffa, Jr. Leslie is the Executive Director of SEIU Local 503, also known as the Oregon Public Employees Union. As a member of the international executive board of her union, she was privy to discussions within SEIU that led up to that union’s challenge to the labor movement to undertake thorough reform.

This article is based on an abridged version of their discussion…

This discussion has been reported on quite extensively in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. It’s a debate that, for some, has been long overdue. Can you tell us, first, how it came about within SEIU?

Leslie Frane: Within SEIU, we’ve been talking for years about the problem of decreasing union density, by which we mean the fact that an ever-declining percentage of American workers belong to labor unions. We’ve tried within our own union to reverse this trend by spending more resources on organizing unorganized workers — on bringing new members into our union — because we recognize that the power of our current members depends on numbers. Our power depends on numbers, so the more members we have, the stronger we are as a collective. As a result of putting more resources into organizing, we’ve managed to grow, but not enough to reverse the overall national decline in union density, which has us all very worried about the future of the labor movement.

Can the union movement survive without dramatically changing its structure, Tom?

Tom Leedham: I think there has to be some serious changes in structure, but elsewhere as well. This debate and discussion is long overdue, and is very necessary, if only to point out some of the problems that we face.

Leslie, I want to ask you about some of the details of the proposal that your union is pushing. Most American unions have local chapters that are chartered by national bodies that are headquartered either in DC or New York. The national bodies are usually referred to as internationals because they often have some local chapters in Canada. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is one example of an international. Teamsters Local 206, on the other hand, located in Portland, is an example of a local. Most American unions are affiliated in this loose, voluntary federation of unions called the American Federation of Labor - Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). The AFL-CIO, in turn, has national, state and local structures which coordinate political efforts, and serve other functions as well. So the crux of this proposal that SEIU is pushing is for a major restructuring of the AFL-CIO itself. Am I right?

Leslie: That’s right. Within the labor movement, the members are the union. We like to concentrate as much power as we can at the local level. We’re a democratic institution. Our members make all of the decisions about their contracts, about whether or not to strike, about electing the officials that make key decisions in terms of the policies that unions follow. So, because so much of our power is concentrated at the local level, for really key ideological reasons, there has been historical reluctance to give the AFL national authority to make decisions about merging unions, for example. Decisions about how locals spend their dues dollars. I certainly understand that reluctance. We want to maintain a democratic tradition in which power is centered in the members.

The problem is that the employers that we deal with, over the years, have become much more centralized themselves. In most labor movements, we no longer deal with locally-based employers, but rather national corporations and often multinational corporations. If we’re not structured in a way in which we can deal with those large national and multinational corporations as equals then we can’t make progress on behalf of our members. No small local can confront a multinational corporation and win. We need to combine together, and combined together, we need to be able to make decisions as a group.

So part of the SEIU’s plan would concentrate more decision-making power into the hands of the AFL and convert it from a loose federation into a body where some decisions are made centrally. We think that’s necessary to confront the challenges that we face which, as I said, are becoming much more focused on the national and, in fact, the international level as well as globalization continues.

There are about 60 or 70 different international unions currently in the AFL-CIO. Probably the most controversial part of the SEIU proposal is to force the merger of some of those international unions. Can you explain how that would work?

Leslie: Yeah. The SEIU plan is really a blueprint and a lot of the details are not worked out, partly because we know that we need to work those out collectively.

Some multinational corporations bargain separately with as many as eight or nine different international unions. It is essentially a divide and conquer strategy on the part of the corporations. It means that, instead of combining the power of nine international unions, instead of having all of the members of all of the different locals within them speak as one, we’re divided into nine less-powerful groups. If those unions merged so that they had joint, coordinated bargaining — so that the workers had a combined voice, and if necessary could set a joint strike deadline for one contract — imagine how much more powerful we would be.

Now, getting from here to there is complicated. How we do that [in a way which is] consistent with recognizing the need for rank-and-file democracy is something that, I think, requires a lot more conversation and a lot more discussion, but it just isn’t acceptable to continue along a track where our members are divided while the bosses are united. That’s a path to the defeat of organized labor.

What’s been the reaction of some of the other unions to the merger idea?

LF: I think that that’s been the hardest for folks, because people are very proud of the individual traditions and cultures within their unions. Particularly for smaller unions — even though they may recognize that as a small union, frankly, they don’t have the power to make as much progress as they would like for their members — they are wary of the idea of supporting a platform that could mean that that union becomes part of a bigger union.

I think we all struggle with the question of control versus power. The smaller the unions are, the more an individual local or individual leader can control their destiny. The larger they are, the more power they have, but there also is a diminution of control. I think that’s tough for people to get their heads around. We recognize that any process of mergers, again, would have to respect democracy. We would need to figure out a process where any decisions that get made are not made by individual union leaders in order to increase their power, but rather in a way that determines what is best for the particular group of workers.

We think that healthcare workers are best represented when they are in a union that represents lots of healthcare workers. Similarly, we think that industrial workers are best represented by a union that has lots of industrial workers. That is how the union is able to have a voice in the industry, and not just in a specific workplace.

But how we figure out how to get from a system that has 60 affiliates, some of which are just too small to have the type of power they need to make progress on behalf of their members — how we get from 60 to whatever smaller number would be appropriate, I think is going to be a challenge.

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