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This Day in Labor History: September 27, 2005

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On September 27, 2005, several unions, led by the Service Employees International Union, left the AFL-CIO to start an alternative federation entitled Change to Win. The idea was to create a federation dedicated to organizing American workers instead of administrating the slow end of the American labor movement. However, it did not work out as planned, largely because of the egocentric nature of then SEIU leader Andy Stern, who could see the problems of American labor but did not have any good solutions.

People, very much including those who are labor friendly, overstate the power of the AFL-CIO. The American labor movement is very much a messy coalition of a lot of different organizations with a lot of different agendas. That’s still true today, even though there are far fewer international unions than there were 50 years ago. Some are quite left, others are politically conservative. Some are dedicated to organizing the masses, others to ensuring good pay and benefits to a very few specialized workers. Some engage heavily in politics and others don’t. Some are very pro-environmental and others are anti-environmental. Whoever heads the AFL-CIO has to manage all these different groups and their outsized personalities. It’s a really difficult job. The AFL-CIO is not the labor movement. Any union can leave the federation at any time. Moreover, a union doesn’t even have to be a part of the federation. And if it’s not, it doesn’t have to pay dues to it, an incentive.

What a federation does do is attempt to coordinate united action by organized labor, which is important in a nation with so many labor unions. Most European nations have a few very large unions. The U.S. has dozens of largely small unions with a few big ones. The AFL-CIO head is the spokesperson for the movement and who people look to for leadership. It has often failed in the second part of that, usually reflecting the conservative nature of the American labor movement, going all the way back to the AFL’s founding in 1886. In the entire history of the federation, it has had all of 6 leaders–Samuel Gompers, William Green, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, John Sweeney, and Richard Trumka. The CIO did have more progressive leaders in John L. Lewis, Phil Murray, and of course Walter Reuther. But even Lewis was a Republican who turned on FDR in 1940.

The limited power of the federation plus its conservative leadership has long frustrated many in labor. That’s especially true as the labor movement has declined and the federation has not put nearly enough resources into organizing to fight it. John Sweeney, president of SEIU, was elected federation president in 1995, in a big upset over the established power structure. His program did reinvigorate the federation to some extent, created Union Summer to train new union activists, and urged internationals put more money into organizing. This remained active into the administration of Richard Trumka. But for SEIU, which had done a better job of organizing workers than any union in the last thirty years, the federation was a constant source of frustration.

In 2003, SEIU president Andy Stern finally spoke out about the federation’s struggles. He led a group of five unions to create the New Unity Partnership that would push the AFL-CIO to commit to organizing. SEIU, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE), the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, and the Laborers International Union of North America formed this coalition. But it did not satisfy Stern. And in 2005, these five unions, along with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers, left the AFL-CIO and formed their own federation: Change to Win.

The idea behind Change to Win was to revitalize the labor movement like the split of the CIO from the AFL in 1937. But it didn’t work. Sure, SEIU kept organizing. But the structural issues within the labor movement were beyond the capability of even the best organizing efforts to change. Corporate control over the National Labor Relations Board, the ability of employers to delay and union bust, the extreme difficulty of organizing in most the country due to racism and restrictive state laws, the loss of the big industrial workplaces at the cornerstone of industrial unionism; there wasn’t much anyone could do about this.

Moreover, it was clear very quickly that this was more about Andy Stern’s outsized ego than about any bigger strategy. Stern saw himself as a Silicon Valley-esque DISRUPTOR of organized labor and he brought the same big head and overconfidence to this new federation as those people do when they DISRUPT whatever industry they are making money on today. The group of unions involved didn’t make a lot of political sense. They were nearly as at odds as the rest of the labor movement. SEIU and LIUNA often have starkly different politics. It and the Carpenters are long-standing unions that are very good for their members but also are not huge organizing unions either.

By 2009, Change to Win was already falling apart. Five of the seven affiliated unions started talking to the AFL-CIO about returning to the fold. The Obama administration encouraged this, preferring to have a united voice in labor if possible in order to make it easier to set policy. And the unions realized that they had gotten absolutely nothing from CTW. But the talks, led by David Bonior, led to nothing. The Carpenters left that summer. UNITE and HERE merged and then went through a civil war, with a third of its members joining SEIU and the rest re-affiliating with the AFL-CIO that fall. LIUNA went back to the AFL-CIO in 2010. In 2013, the UFCW did the same.

Today, all that Change to Win has left is SEIU, the Teamsters, CWA, which is affiliated both federations, and the United Farm Workers, which may have moral authority in the American labor movement but has at most 10,000 members. James Hoffa of the IBT is the head of CTW as well. Those unions do good things. The Fight for $15 was funded by SEIU for instance. But there’s also no particular way in which being part of CTW makes any difference here. It’s not as if it couldn’t do that within the AFL-CIO. What it does do is take the most important union in the country out of the conversation for the labor movement writ large. SEIU is a leader on many policy issues, especially immigration, racial justice, and health care. The labor movement has not always been good on these issues at all, as we saw in negative reactions to Medicare for All plans in the 2020 Democratic primaries. Even today, many unions are more concerned with their own negotiated health care plans for members than health care in the country as a whole. You would what would really make a big change in that conversation? SEIU and its nearly 2 million members, with all the money that membership brings with it.

Stern left SEIU in 2010 and became a big Universal Basic Income promoter rather than focus on union power. He heavily influenced Andrew Yang’s single-minded focus on UBI, with all the problems that entails. It really makes sense, as both Stern and Yang are pretty similar types.

This is the 372nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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