New union federation born in the USA

St. Louis, Missouri struck me as an odd place to choose to hold the founding convention of new labour movement in the United States. It is not actually that easy to get to and there are few tourist attractions around to make the place particularly appealing. But when I heard that in this city, nearly a fourth (22%) of all workers belong to a trade union, I began to understand. (In the USA today, some 8% of private sector workers belong to unions, down from 35% a generation ago.) St. Louis symbolizes a time in America when workers could join unions and better their lives.

The seven unions which met here this week have decided to call themselves the Change to Win federation. They have broken away from the AFL-CIO, the national trade union center formed 50 years ago. And their inspiration clearly comes from the launch of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) back in 1935. One of the seven union leaders here, the fiery Bruce Raynor of UNITE HERE (a union uniting clothing and textile workers with hotel and restaurant workers), spoke about what things were like 70 years ago. Back then, he said, being a steel worker or an auto worker was not considered a great job. Unions made those great jobs — made those workers into middle class people. And unions can do the same today, he said, for health care workers, for janitors, for all the low-paid, non-unionized workers in America today.
Raynor’s union has joined together with such giants as the Teamsters (headed by James Hoffa, son of the legendary Jimmy Hoffa) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which is the largest and fasting growing union in the country. While other unions seemed to be in terminal decline, the SEIU grew by some 900,000 members in recent years. The architect of that success has been their organizing director, Tom Woodruff. Woodruff has been named to be organizing director of the new federation, which will devote — it claims — $750 million a year to organizing new workers into unions. Three fourths of the budget for the federation will go directly into organizing. Its bureaucracy will be tiny, and its leadership small. Hoffa said the new federation needed to be a ‘lean, mean organizing machine’.
The federation seems to be putting less emphasis on such traditional goals as politics and legislation, but this is because it takes a different view of what unions must do these days. For the unions in Change to Win, the question is not whether unions should do this or that, but whether they should exist at all. For that reason, everything they do is now focussed on organizing. Even their support for political candidates will be determined by this. If hypothetically a Republican politician supports changes in the law that makes union organizing easier, and the Democrat does not, the Change to Win unions will back the Republican — even if that candidate is wrong on a whole range of other issues. That’s how central rebuilding the labour movement is to their vision.
Critics have pointed out that the split between the seven Change to Win unions and the rest of the American labour movement is somehow unprincipled. And one journalist called the St. Louis convention a “dog and pony show” — a stage managed affair with little democracy and genuine debate. Which might well be true. But as you listen to the SEIU’s Andy Stern, or the brilliant organizer Tom Woodruff, you begin to get the point. And the point is that without a radical change in the way unions do business, there will be no more unions within a generation here in America.
The federation already made history on its first day by naming a woman, Anna Burger, as its chair. This is the first time that a national union federation in America has done so. (One can imagine the cigar-chomping construction union boss George Meany, who lead the AFL-CIO in its early years, spinning in his grave.) And they named as the number two in the federation Edgar Romney — the highest ranking African-American trade unionist in America, ever.
Change to Win is going to try to do strategic organizing in a way it has never been done before in America. While its proposals to merge unions in the AFL-CIO into industry-wide giants was not adopted, the new federation will streamline unions along industrial lines. And they mean not only not to compete with one another, but not to compete with unions which remained in the AFL-CIO. On the eve of their convention, the SEIU announced an important no-raiding agreement with the state, county and municipal workers union, AFSCME. And they are fighting to remain members of state labour federations and city labour councils, despite the opposition of the AFL-CIO’s national leadership.
The federation has also expressed its support for the formation of strong global unions to meet the challenge of global corporations. Concrete examples of cross-border solidarity were given, including the Gate Gourmet dispute in Britain, and the efforts to unionize First Student bus drivers in the USA.
Probably the most moving part of the convention was the repeated testimony by rank-and-file workers about their struggles to form unions. I know this may come as a shock to trade unionists in the Nordic countries, but in the USA, if you try to form a union you are likely to lose your job. There are huge and powerful corporations which will be familiar to you (such as Wal-Mart, Federal Express and McDonald’s) which do not tolerate unions in any of their workplaces. To hear about the people organizing in such hostile environments was truly inspiring. These people are real heroes.
Maybe the split is unprincipled, and maybe these seven unions could do all this within the context of the AFL-CIO. But listening to stories of the campaigns of school bus drivers working for the British-owned First Group, or the workers at uniforms giant Cintas, you just have to hope that Andy Stern and his colleagues are right, and that this really is a new beginning.