A new dawn for American workers?

There are really two ways of looking at the founding convention of the Change to Win Federation which took place in St. Louis on Tuesday. On the one hand, some journalists called it a “dog and pony show”, meaning a carefully stage managed event that was designed to cover up what was essentially an unprincipled split in the American trade union movement. The other view was that this marked a turning point in American labour history, an event comparable to the birth of the CIO in 1935. Having sat through the entire convention, I’m not sure both views are mutually exclusive.

The convention was organized by seven unions which broke away from the AFL-CIO, the sole national trade union center in the United States for the last 50 years. Unlike Italians, Americans have little experience of multiple national trade union centers, and the very idea that there could be more than one is a radical one. To those unions which have chosen to launch a new federation at this time, the issues are simple enough. It is not a question, they would say, of whether unions should do this or that, or make this a priority and this not. It is a question of the very existence of unions in the United States. It has become increasingly clear to some — not all — American trade union leaders that the catastrophic decline in union membership in the last generation, dropping from 35% of the workforce to 8% (in the private sector), raises into question the very existence of unions. If the decline continues, they argue, in a few years, there will be no unions at all. Furthermore, they way, we can feel the effects of living in a country where unions have become so weak. Hurricane Katrina proved that.
The unions that have broken away to form the new federation include the country’s largest, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), headed by the charismatic Andy Stern. The SEIU has grown by hundreds of thousands of members in the last few years by using imaginative and aggressive organizing campaigns. None of the other six unions founding the new federation have had anything like this success; in fact, most of them have suffered from declining membership. They are hoping that some of the SEIU’s “magic” will touch them as well, and concretely — that making Tom Woodruff, the architect of the SEIU’s success, into Change to Win’s organizing director will mean that all the unions will now grow rapidly too.
Everyone will have their own views of what the highlight was of this one day affair. For me, it was Woodruff, pacing around the stage, using PowerPoint to show the problems unions face, the challenges they need to meet. He showed off the gross inequality in America, and reviewed some of the salaries and benefits enjoyed by corporate bosses. He gave one example of a CEO who had a house with 25 bedrooms and 30 bathrooms and asked — “What kind of man is so full of shit that he needs 30 bathrooms?” The crowd roared.
Bruce Raynor, the firebrand president of UNITE HERE — a union which brings together clothing and textile workers with hotel and restaurant workers — also brought the crowd to their feet with a series of angry messages. He talked about how some companies, such as United Airlines, stole workers pensions from them and demanded that bosses like that should be put in jail. But he also had a clear message of hope, harking back to the days when his predecessors founded the CIO in 1935. He said that at the time, being a steelworker or an auto worker was not considered a great job. But the unions made those great jobs, turned those workers into middle class people. Unions can do the same for janitors and for nursing home workers today, he said.
So yes, it was all a bit of a dog and pony show, and some of it would have been incomprehensible to an Italian trade unionist (such as the singing of the national anthem, the prominent display of national flags, or the blessing of a Protestant minister). But maybe it was also a bit more than that. The Change to Win federation is talking about spending $750 million dollars a year on organizing — something unheard of in the history of the labour movement in the United States. They are putting battle-tested organizers like Tom Woodruff in charge of the task. It was easy to be cynical in St. Louis this week, but it’s also possible to be hopeful. Maybe this is a new dawn for American workers.