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AFL-CIO split: When the Kings of Labor fall out

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On 25 July two of the biggest US unions withdrew from the AFL-CIO trade union federation. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Teamsters left the federation criticising the incumbent AFL-CIO president, John Sweeney, for failing to stem the losses in union membership.

Two other unions, Unite Here (textile and hotel workers) and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) look set to join them. The split came four weeks after the four breakaway unions formed the “Change to Win” coalition, in an attempt to boost union membership. The four unions together make up about 40 per cent of the AFL-CIO’s membership. SEIU president Andrew Stern and Teamsters president James Hoffa Jnr said that their decision to leave the AFL-CIO was difficult but necessary and, in a statement, Hoffa said that it was a “new era for American workers."

UFCW president Joe Hansen said there was little hope of reconciliation. “Our differences are so fundamental and so principled that, at this point in time, I don’t think there’s any chance there will be a change in course."

Ten years ago, when Sweeney successfully challenged AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, he campaigned on a similar platform, promising to reverse the decline in union membership. Since that time, the collapse of the AFL-CIO has continued unabated. Private sector unionisation dropped to 7.9 per cent in 2004, down from 10.3 per cent in 1995. This is the lowest private sector unionisation rate since 1900, when US unions represented just 6.5 percent of the workforce.

Stern could point to the fact that his union has seen membership soar from 625,000 in 1980 to 1.8m today, including 50,000 members in Canada. But the SEIU is almost alone when it comes to reversing the decline in union membership in the US. The Teamsters membership, under Hoffa’s leadership, has remained steady at around 1.4m members.

George Bush’s re-election, complete with Republican control in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, has also contributed to the split. The AFL-CIO “invested” almost $44 million in the Kerry and Democratic Party congressional campaigns, with SEIU activists frequently playing an essential part in getting out the vote locally. With the re-election of Bush many rank and file unionists correctly demanded to know why so much money had been poured down the drain of the Democrats.

But the key question is: was it wrong to spend money on politics, or was it wrong to spend money on the politics of a bosses’ party? Anna Burger, president of Change to Win, criticised the Sweeny leadership for spending “too much on politics and not enough on organising” and called for a massive reallocation of $22.5 million of the AFL-CIO’s budget from political action to organising drives.

This is a totally false counterposition. Workers need a party that fights against the ruling class in the political field, just as they need trade unions to defend them against their own bosses. Just as their bosses constitute an exploiting and oppressing class, so workers of all industries and services form an exploited class that needs to fight together.

The capitalist class has always used the state to weaken and bust union organisation. The infamous Taft-Hartley Act is only the tip of the iceberg. The USA’s labour laws, both federal and state, are some of the most anti-union in the world, and can only be resisted by fusing together political and industrial action.

Furthermore, the working class is oppressed, not just in the workplace, but in all aspects of society. It has interests diametrically opposed to the ruling class when it comes to the racist death penalty, immigration controls, the Iraq war and global trade laws. It needs political organisation - a party - to fight for its interests or it will be further weakened in relation to its economic exploiters, the capitalist class.

So what is the character of the split in the AFL-CIO? In one sense it is an inter-bureaucratic dogfight and not a straight left/right question of militancy. The “Change to Win” platform has emerged from unions with established and entrenched bureaucracies that, to some degree, are advocating a further centralisation of power. But it is also a real response to the acute crisis in the American trade union movement, which has seen its membership shrink massively over the last twenty years.

In the US unions the rank and file have next to no influence over the unions’ policies and almost not way of holding grossly overpaid union leaders to account. The union leaders are almost literally Kings of Labor. Stern, on an annual salary of $230,000, has unsurprisingly not issued calls to address the “democratic deficit” within union structures, even though he has a rhetorical emphasis on accountability when it comes to spending members’ money.

It would be hard to argue against an emphasis on “recruitment, recruitment, recruitment” - though the SEIU’s recognition successes have not always been as noble as the “justice for janitors” campaign depicted in Ken Loach’s film, “Bread & Roses".

Still, the Stern formula has worked in roughly doubling SEIU membership over the past decade, albeit in sectors that cannot be “outsourced” from the USA. He also raises the question of “global unionism” and has pushed for links with the TGWU around First Bus, the UK-based transport giant that has become a notorious union buster in the US.

While clever tactics around contract negations, community unionism and focusing on core sectors of workers will bring recruits, boost union funds and maintain the high salaries of the union leaders, these are not a recipe for reviving the US labour movement or improving the pay and conditions of workers in the US.

Overall, there has been an almost uninterrupted stagnation/decline in real wages for the majority of the US workforce since the mid-1970s. While the union-related wage differential certainly exists, some analysts have argued that real wages in unionised workplaces are simply declining at a slower rate than in the economy as a whole.

What both sides of the split are opposed to is class struggle unionism: policy that sets its sights on taking on US bosses and their corporations, while at the same time politically preparing unions members for the inevitable clash with the US state that such a policy would lead to.

The Change to Win Coalition has criticised the AFL-CIO’s ’emphasis on politics’. In fact Hoffa and the Teamsters are soft on the Republicans, and probably the softest on the Bush administration and its anti-worker policies. The SEIU, despite being seen as one of the ’left’ unions in the US, gave the Democrats $65 million for the 2004 election campaign and even gave the Republican governors association $500,000.

In a discussion with leaders of the American Trotskyist movement in the 1930s, Leon Trotsky, co-leader of the Russian Revolution, then in exile in Mexico, insisted on the need for the American working class to break with the two-party system and construct its own party. To concretise this task he proposed raising the demand for the construction of a labor party.

Trotsky proposed that this call should be linked with a programme of transitional demands, challenging business secrecy, establishing workers’ control of industry, etc. In that way, the most politically advanced workers could be won to a socialist perspective.

The foundation of a mass workers party, based on independent working class action, is still a burning necessity for US workers and their organisations. For too long, organised labour in the US has been tied to the “friends of Labor” in the bosses’ Democratic party.

Whether or not another split in the US labour movement leads to a rise in union membership, as it did in the 1930s, will depend on the activity of rank and file unionists and socialists, not on the Kings of Labor. If the bureaucrats are finally terrified about their declining membership and competing with one another to organise, it could create favourable conditions for an initiative from below.

But to prevent the bureaucrats from doing sweetheart deals with sections of the employers and sabotaging other unions’ organising drives, the building of a militant rank and file movement is vital.

This movement will ensure solidarity between unions, unity in action at workplace and local level. It can prepare a future unification of the unions on a democratic basis. Militant class struggle methods - all-out strikes, occupations, boycotts, supported by the communities of the working class and the racially oppressed - are essential to the any successful mass unionisation drive in the era of out-sourcing, neo-liberalism and globalisation.

For a mass unionisation drive using class struggle methods!
For a rank and file movement in and across all the unions!
For a mass working class party, based on the unions and won to a revolutionary programme!