SPOKESMAN: I turn this gavel over to the next president of the AFL-CIO: John Sweeney.
JEFFREY BROWN: Ten years ago, John Sweeney took over as president of the AFL-CIO. He was widely regarded as a reformer who could help revitalize the labor movement. Sweeney spoke to the NewsHour's Jeffrey Kaye in 1997.
JOHN SWEENEY: I believe that the work that you see the unions and the AFL-CIO doing now and organizing is an indication that we're going to turn the numbers around and the -- you will see a steady building of a stronger labor movement.
JEFFREY BROWN: But the long-running decline of the labor movement has only continued. In the 1950s, unions represented about 35 percent of the American workforce. Today, just 13 percent of workers belong to a union and in the private sector just 8 percent. Now, a rift is developing within big labor itself affecting its future direction, and perhaps, survival.
The Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, the largest of the AFL-CIO'S members, has threatened to leave the labor federation unless dramatic changes are made. In Washington today, SEIU President Andrew Stern was joined by the heads of four other unions to announce the formation of a new group called the Change to Win Coalition, demanding, among other things, much stronger organizing efforts by the AFL-CIO.
ANDREW STERN: Our goal here is to build something stronger, and that's just what we did here today. We made a commitment that we go well past the AFL-CIO regardless of what happens and regardless of what each individual union decides to do, that we've decided that we need a labor movement that grows stronger, not smaller.
JEFFREY BROWN: The five coalition members represent five million of the nation's 13 million union workers. They'll now take their demands to next month's AFL-CIO annual convention, when John Sweeney will run for a new term as president.
JEFFREY BROWN: And joining us now to discuss labor's struggle is Charles Heckscher, director of the Center for Workplace Transformation at the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University and Jonathan Tasini, president of the Economic Future Group, a national consulting group and a longtime writer on labor and economic issues. Welcome to both of you.
Jonathan Tasini, starting with you, what does this new coalition group want?
JONATHAN TASINI: I think they want to try to turn the labor movement around. The labor movement is dying and their basic issues are they want to put more money into organizing and go out organize the global employers and national employers and try to turn the labor movement's misfortunes around. I think they also want to force some changes in the structure of the AFL-CIO.
JEFFREY BROWN: When they talk about organizing efforts, where do they see that potential?
JONATHAN TASINI: Well, the fact is that when you're almost less than 8 percent in the private sector, there's nowhere to go but up. Certainly the large employers like Wal-Mart, we talk about the Wal-Martization of America, Wal-Mart would be a key target; the hotel industry, much of the service industry, many telecommunications industries and computer. There's a lot to organize.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Heckscher, what does John Sweeney and much of the AFL-CIO still with him, what's their response?
CHARLES HECKSCHER: Well, at this point, they believe they can put more money into organizing within the existing structure of the AFL-CIO and that will help turn things around. The new coalition wants to go much further, put more money in, make a more radical change.
But I think the issues between the two have not yet fully crystallized. What is going on now is really a reexamination of the foundation, the basic strategies of the labor movement, a rethinking of its identity and nature at a level, which hasn't been done since the 1930s.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, tell us a little bit more about that, Mr. Heckscher. It is right to see this current struggle in the context of a broad decline in the labor movement?
CHARLES HECKSCHER: Yeah, this is not a family feud. This is a real outcome of a deep transformation in the society and the economy, and an attempt by the labor movement to come to terms with it. And it has been a struggle that's been going on for many years now and has now reached a point where a number of people, including the Service Employees Union feel it's a crisis and that we need to put everything back on the table, rethink issues from the beginning.
JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see it that way as well?
JONATHAN TASINI: Yeah, I think Charles is right. I want to add one point that I think overlays this entire discussion. It's important to talk about what's going on in labor movement. We have to look at what is happening out there in the marketplace. Never before has the labor movement seen the kind of anti-union, aggressive attempts by corporations to bust unions and break unions and prevent people from organizing.
It is almost impossible to organize a union under today's labor laws. People are fired every day, disciplined. It's an extremely hard environment to organize. Having said that, what the five unions - I call them the insurgents - are trying to do, is as Charles said, pour more money into organizing, take much more radical steps and in some way, tip the balance back towards workers so they can try to organize despite the legal barriers to that.
JEFFREY BROWN: Some of the things that are often talked about as having weakened labor are only growing; the globalization of the marketplace, for example.
JONATHAN TASINI: Right. Certainly globalization - but let's go back, stay here in the United States. I mean, even if globalization was happening, if there was a reasonable framework under which workers could organize here, I think every poll shows continuing support for unions. Forty million more Americans would want to be in unions if they had a chance to organize inside the labor movement.
You mentioned the global economy. One of the things that I've noticed in the two camps is nobody really has really figured out the question of China. And I do not think that the labor movement can survive if someone does -- we do not figure out how to solve the question of China, both not just at the low end, but within a couple of three years China is going to be competing with the United States at the high skilled area, too.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Heckscher, how do you see these outside forces affecting this struggle and the response from labor to them?
CHARLES HECKSCHER: Well, I think it is - these do represent fundamental shifts in the economy that are transforming the lives of everyone and labor has faced these before in its history and what has happened is there have been splits before, most notably in 1935 when the CIO split from the AFL, and that generated a great deal of creative thinking and new forms of organizing and a new way of developing strategy within the labor movement.
I think we are at that kind of moment now where the structures of labor that would develop around mass production, large industries, auto and steel and so on are no longer matched very well to a global and increasingly professionalized economy and that new forms of organization are needed to make -- to play the role of representative of the worker's voice.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mr. Heckscher, I asked Mr. Tasini this before, but when this new group talks about new efforts in organizing, where is the potential for new union members?
CHARLES HECKSCHER: Well, one answer is what Jonathan said which is that they're everywhere. The question is what is strategic. And that's really the question that Andy Stern and SEIU are raising. Where do you have to go to get some real weight in the economy and in the society so that labor's voice will be heard clearly.
And that is almost certainly, in companies like Wal-Mart, which is transforming the service economy and in some of the large growing international finance and banking sectors and so on which are also having a huge impact on an increasing number of workers' lives. So it's not just -- one of the things that Stern is stressing is let's not just organize anyone we can get our hands on or anywhere, let's really think in a unified strategic way about how to grow the labor movement.
JEFFREY BROWN: Jonathan, in what ways does the outcome matter to those people outside the labor movement?
JONATHAN TASINI: Well, I think you can trace the decline in wages. You can trace the elimination of defined contribution of pensions, the lack of health care that everybody is suffering in America to the decline of unionization. When unions are strong, workers have bargaining power. When unions are strong, people's wages are protected. When unions are strong, people have more rights in the workplace.
And the labor movement has always raised wages not just for people it represented, but wages for everyone and benefits. And to the extent that again we see what Charles referred to as the Wal-Martization of America, I think you can tie that directly to the decline of unionization.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Heckscher, a brief response on that, the implications here?
CHARLES HECKSCHER: I think it's clear we are in uncharted territory as the labor movement declines because there has never been a real industrial democracy, which has not had a healthy labor movement. The labor movement acts as a way of resolving disputes and representing interests in a fair and orderly way.
And without that, we have -- what we did have for a period in the 1930s of initially cynicism and disaffection, which you can see in some of the polls and ultimately the possibility of real conflict. So I think it is in everyone's interest to develop not necessarily the familiar forms but some form of employee representation, which will make those interests heard.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Charles Heckscher and Jonathan Tasini, thank you both very much.
CHARLES HECKSCHER: Thank you.
JONATHAN TASINI: Thank you.