TOPICS > Economy

Labor Leaders Look to Revitalize Movement in Era of Decline

March 9, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY KAYE: To understand how the economy and the strength of labor unions have changed, go back to August 1992.

A mariachi played a Mexican farewell tune as workers ended the last shift at the last automobile factory in southern California.

The employees at the General Motors plant, all of them unionized, earned paid vacations, health and pension plans and averaged what today would be $21 an hour. Today, the plant on the site of the old factory is a shopping center, where non-union workers make barely more than minimum wage, with few fringe benefits. “This block is a metaphor for our times,” says labor analyst Kent Wong.

KENT WONG: What we see has happened to the GM plant right here in Van Nuys is a reflection of the shifts in the economy, where we’ve gone from a manufacturing or an industrial-based economy to a service-based economy.

JEFFREY KAYE: With the rise of a service economy, union membership has plummeted, and labor leaders are arguing over how to revitalize their movement. The debate was prompted in large part by this man, Andrew Stern.

ANDREW STERN: It is time! It is so long overdue that we join with our union allies and either change the AFL-CIO or build something stronger that can really change workers’ lives!

JEFFREY KAYE: Stern is president of the 1.7 million member-strong Service Employees International Union, the fastest growing union in the country. The SEIU’s success has come mostly from organizing poorly paid, often immigrant workers in the service economy, such as security guards, health care employees and janitors.

The union is the AFL-CIO’s largest affiliate, but Stern has threatened to pull out of the federation unless it makes dramatic changes.

ANDREW STERN: We’ve made the decision that if nothing changes in the AFL-CIO, we’re leaving.

JEFFREY KAYE: The AFL-CIO is a shadow of its former self. Fifty years ago, when the American Federation of Labor merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations, labor was among the most powerful political forces in America.

KENT WONG: Unions back in the ’50s represented about 35 percent of the US workforce, so fully one-in-three workers was a member of a union.

Today, the percentage is under 13 percent. And in the private sector, meaning in the non-governmental sector, only 9 percent of workers in the US are organized.

JEFFREY KAYE: To help workers regain economic and political power, Stern says the AFL has to change its structure and financial priorities.

ANDREW STERN: It’s about providing a vision to workers about how they can win. That’s what we did in our union. We gave them a vision about how they can win.

JEFFREY KAYE: In its battles with employers, the SEIU has favored national and industry- wide strategies. That’s what it did five years ago to win a contract and wage increases for striking janitors in Los Angeles.

ANDREW STERN: And all of our members from all around the country actually struck buildings in different cities, poured resources into the strikers, because we understood we needed to be coordinated where in the past we would have let each local union, each market, you know, make it or break it on their own.

JEFFREY KAYE: Similarly, says Stern, the labor movement would be stronger nationally and globally with better coordination. He wants to force the Federation’s 58 unions, which often compete with each other, to merge into around 20.

Stern also wants to slash the AFL-CIO’s budget by returning 50 percent of dues money to individual unions for labor organizing drives.

ANDREW STERN: We’re actually talking about trying to get unions focused, you know, on an industry, have a strategy for the industry and then have the resources to accomplish that.

That’s what the AFL has to do, have to get people focused on the right industry, make sure of their plans and make sure of their resources.

JEFFREY KAYE: Stern’s brash critiques have put him at odds with his former mentor, John Sweeney, who headed the SEIU before Stern.

ANDREW STERN: I turn this gavel over to the next president of the AFL- CIO, John Sweeney.

JEFFREY KAYE: Ten years ago, Sweeney won the presidency of the AFL-CIO with Stern’s backing. Sweeney’s reform slate ousted the old guard with promises to reinvigorate the labor movement.

But union membership dropped. And today, with his own leadership under assault, Sweeney says he wants change as much as Stern.

JOHN SWEENEY: Andy’s very bright, he’s a visionary, but it’s one thing to have the vision and promote change; it’s another thing to get majority support for those changes. And I have always strived for consensus to build positive programs, and Andy doesn’t have as much patience.

JEFFREY KAYE: The stage for a showdown was set last week in Las Vegas when union leaders gathered for their annual winter meeting.

Closed-door sessions turned into a debate about labor’s priorities. Sweeney came with a plan to direct more funds to political activity rather than labor organizing, which Stern advocates.

JOHN SWEENEY: Workers are squeezed and hurting. We’re making a long-term plan to build a majority for working families in state houses and city governments, as well as the Congress and the White House.

JEFFREY KAYE: Sweeney said Labor’s political priority should be a campaign to fight the president’s privatization plans for social security.

JOHN SWEENEY: This will be the labor movement’s biggest issues mobilization ever.

JEFFREY KAYE: As Sweeney mustered his forces, Stern and SEIU leaders worked to build alliances with other unions. And in a public show of unity, leaders of four major unions– Teamsters, food and commercial workers, laborers and the union representing hotel and garment workers– joined Stern in calling for reform. Teamsters’ president James Hoffa read their joint statement.

JAMES HOFFA: We believe that a massive shift in resources and focus to organizing and growth in our unions’ core industries and sectors is the only path to rebuilding worker power in the workplace and in the political process.

JEFFREY KAYE: The alliance tempered Stern’s threat to pull out of the AFL-CIO

ANDREW STERN: First thing, it was lonelier in November than it is now. And I feel well supported by having three of the four largest unions in the federation at this table, along with the most — two of the most dynamic unions. So I think we are now in the middle of an enormously important discussion, and we’re going to keep evaluating things, you know, as this discussion continues.

JEFFREY KAYE: These union leaders lost the first round. Their push to direct more funds to labor organizing was turned down.

ANDREW STERN: The AFL’s proposal will put less money into organizing than the AFL’s currently spending today. That’s not a plan to win. That’s fake change.

JEFFREY KAYE: And the threat to leave, is that still on the table?

ANDREW STERN: You know, if the policies that the AFL-CIO’s passed at this meeting become the ultimate policies that are successful, that’s not the kind of AFL-CIO we would want to be part of.

JEFFREY KAYE: Stern’s most radical proposal, to force unions to better coordinate and to merge, didn’t come to a vote at the Las Vegas meeting. Sweeney says he has facilitated mergers and welcomes more, but not with a heavy hand.

JOHN SWEENEY: There’s such a thing as democracy. The workers themselves have to participate in a merger. This is not about just banging heads together and forcing them to merge.

JEFFREY KAYE: In July, the AFL-CIO will hold its next convention, and delegates will be asked to vote on proposals designed to reverse organized labor’s downward slide.