Greg Anrig, Jr. argues in this article at TPM Cafe that the battle for control of the AFL-CIO between its current president, John Sweeney, and the head of SEIU, Andy Stern is like the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It doesn’t matter because they both are going to get killed in the end. I really disagree with this outlook.
Now there’s no question that the labor movement in the United States is declining at a precipitous rate. The last vestiges of its strength are being attacked by industry and the government with great vigor. No doubt they pat themselves on their backs every night for their success in eliminating organized labor.
But is the situation as bad as Anrig thinks? Yes and no. Again, there’s no question labor is in a tough spot here. But that’s why we need Andy Stern to succeed. Stern wants to reorganize what’s left of organized labor in order to survive. He wants to get rid of many of the small and ineffective unions that are cluttering the landscape and consolidate the rest into defined spheres of influence so that you don’t have UNITE/HERE organizing most of the hotel workers but CWA also having a bunch. Rather, let’s put them all in one union that represents all the organized hotel workers.
Furthermore, Stern wants to make all the unions commit to putting a large amount of their resources into organizing. As much as industry and government have eroded labor’s power in this country, the reluctance of most unions to organize new workers has played an equally large role. There are some good unions that organize hard–SEIU, UNITE/HERE, CWA, AFSCME, and some others. But when was the last time you heard about the Machinists’ Union having a big strike? Or what about the Laborers? The Electricians? Not in a damned long time. Labor may not be able to do a lot at this point about sending American industry overseas. That fight has been lost. But labor can push to gain footholds in new industries. It can further organize the industries where it is already strong, such as government workers, medical workers, and service workers. It can push harder for legislation to overturn anti-labor laws like Taft-Hartley. This will take a lot of work. And Sweeney, once a reformer, opposes some of the program and certainly Stern’s powerplay. Many of the unions, especially the old AFL trade unions have little to no interest in organizing the world. But if Stern can win, the future of labor in America doesn’t have to be Butch and Sundance’s last moments in Bolivia. Who knows if labor can regain the power it had between 1937 and 1970, but it can become a major force in American life again with the right leadership. I believe that this is necessary for the future of America and I believe that Andy Stern has the best ideas of anyone on the labor scene right now and therefore deserves the full support of all progressives.