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A Divided Labor Movement

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The labor movement is deeply divided. You’d like to think that every labor union would be behind a larger progressive effort to create social and economic democracy. But you would be wrong. Between the building trades cozying up to Trump and especially the Laborers, whose president Terry O’Sullivan openly advocates for projects that will burn up the planet in order that his members can have jobs and opposes solar and wind because there aren’t enough jobs, in fact, the labor movement is really divided over these questions.

Just when the AFL-CIO regained some political momentum through wins at the ballot box and on the picket line, it’s running into internal division about whether to prioritize broader progressive causes over core workplace-policy issues.

That’s not necessarily a new debate within the world’s largest worker group, which includes relatively conservative building trades and unions at the left end of the spectrum. But officials at some of the federation’s member unions say the conflict has reached a crescendo coming off a November election in which Democrats took control of the House and a number of state governor’s offices.

In Pennsylvania’s congressional races, some AFL-CIO unions worked to elect a Democrat who opposed raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and backed a Republican over a liberal environmentalist. The federation also split over whether to support the Democratic candidate for governor in deep-blue Maryland even though he was once one of its members and backed traditional labor causes.

Member unions have been on both sides of debates over the Dakota Access Pipeline and other infrastructure projects, whether to work with groups including Planned Parenthood to push for single-payer health care, and efforts to scuttle Brett Kavanaugh‘s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Labor does not have a unified agenda and that makes it hard for us to make the case that we’re as powerful as we once were,” one official at an AFL-CIO member union said.

A few thoughts here.

First, the labor movement is incredibly diverse. This is sometimes not realized even by liberals and leftists. The Laborers have almost nothing in common with SEIU; the Carpenters and the AFT represent very different workers. Moreover, the AFL-CIO is not a very strong organization. It is very much not the labor movement. Not only are many unions not members, but it is a constituent federation. Richard Trumka is not the lord of the labor movement. Any union can leave the AFL-CIO if it chooses. Trumka knows what the right position is on most issues. But he faces a delicate situation because he can’t anger his members too much.

Second, the fact that SEIU and other more progressive unions left the AFL-CIO to start Change to Win, a pointless exercise that massaged Andy Stern’s ego, but did nothing to jumpstart the labor movement, hurts here. SEIU is one of the largest and most politically progressive unions. With them not in the federation, it gives more power to the trades.

Third, the decline of the industrial unions really hurts. Most of the building trades were always politically conservative, often defending white privilege and uniting with employers on many issues. When the union movement was at its most powerful, it was unions such as the UAW and Steelworkers who were pushing that more comprehensive agenda. These are remnant unions at this point, while many others are gone entirely. That hurts.

Fourth, the public sector unions are pushing a progressive agenda on issues such as health care. That makes sense. But on climate, because it isn’t directly related to their core missions, they don’t take on LIUNA and the other reactionary unions who want to build no matter the cost. That leaves a vacuum. The UAW especially might have filled that vacuum at one point. But if anything, with the last auto factory jobs disappearing, its members would also unite with employers to save themselves, for however briefly.

Fifth, this is all part of the political costs of deindustrialization and outsourcing. When unions such as the UAW or the International Woodworkers of America, which I study, felt jobs were stable, they could make new and aggressive demands of employers and government. This is why you saw these unions support environmentalism in its early years. It was only when the economic rug was pulled out from under them and neither Democrats nor Republicans had any real plans for what would happen to union workers that they began turning away from that more left-leaning agenda.

Sixth, unions simply do not have the power to win major changes to help them without allies. Unfortunately, part of building trades culture going back forever is to operate without broad-based alliances. It really didn’t work all that well for them a century ago either. But that was the core of the old non-politically aligned American Federation of Labor. The CIO changed that to some extent, but most still operate this way. But that doesn’t work well when you represent only 10 percent of American workers. The article linked above concludes:

Labor groups got a big win earlier this year when they helped roundly defeat a Missouri right-to-work referendum that would have banned fees for nonunion members covered by collective bargaining agreements. That kind of effort, which reversed a trend of red states going right-to-work, is where some members want the AFL-CIO to devote more of its attention.

It’s also an example of how having a big tent of friends can pay off. Progressive groups including Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club urged voters to reject the right-to-work initiative. They argued that unions have helped close the pay gap for women and that many health and environmental safety workers are union members.

“Labor is no longer big enough to win a lot of the fights by itself,” a former AFL-CIO official said.

Indeed. If only the trades would realize this.

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