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Union split reflects crisis in US labour
THE national convention of the AFL-CIO trade union confederation in Chicago on 25 July, on the 50th anniversary of its foundation, saw it split into two blocs.
Philip Locker, Socialist Alternative, US
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) - the largest and fastest growing union in the country headed by Andy Stern - along with the presidents of the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, Labourers, UNITE HERE, and the Carpenters' unions, have all formed the Change to Win Coalition and broken with the remaining unions headed by AFL-CIO president John Sweeney.
The background to the split is the deep crisis facing US labour and how to deal with it. Real wages are falling for most workers. Jobs, skilled or unskilled, are insecure. Millions are losing their health insurance, and corporations are hacking away at pensions.
Only 7.9% of private-sector workers are in unions, the lowest level since 1901. In total, 12.5% of all workers are unionised, down from an historical high of 33% in 1954.
But are the policies that the Change to Win Coalition propose capable of rebuilding the trade unions?
It's worth remembering that when Sweeney came to power in 1995 in the first contested presidential election in AFL-CIO history as an "insurgent", many said he represented a radical change. Sweeney, like Stern, was president of the SEIU, and the central plank in his platform was "organise the unorganised".
Ten years under Sweeney has seen a major increase in funding for organising, with literally hundreds of millions of dollars spent, along with stepped-up donations to the Democrats also totalling hundreds of millions. Despite this, union membership has continued to fall, while workers' conditions continue to deteriorate.
In reality, Stern, who supported Sweeney in 1995, is only offering a more aggressive version of the project Sweeney has promoted.
But the problem the labour movement faces is not a lack of money or resources. The real issue is: around what policies, programme, and strategy are these resources to be deployed?
WHAT IS needed is a programme and strategy that can win real gains in workers' living standards and effectively resist the employers' offensive. On that basis, the unions would be able to grow by leaps and bounds.
This is demonstrated by the history of how the unions were built in the first place. The labour movement saw its biggest growth following the 1930s depression, when strikes fought for bold demands that would seriously transform workers' living conditions - and won.
Today, neither the Sweeney nor the Stern wings link the struggle for unionisation to fighting demands on wages and benefits. Instead, they mainly put forward vague calls for "dignity and a voice at work".
The present outlook of the union leaders flows from their acceptance of capitalism as the only possible system and the need for 'Corporate America' to make profits and be 'competitive'.
US capitalism has been in crisis for over 30 years. This is the root cause of the attacks on wages and benefits, as employers look to cut costs to defend profits. If you accept that capitalism is the only system, when the bosses keep demanding concessions, you concede and look for ways to protect corporations.
To effectively take on the giant corporations, like Wal-Mart or McDonald's, requires a serious mass mobilisation of the membership and the wider working class in determined struggle. This is extremely difficult to accomplish on the basis of moderating your demands to those which management is willing to pay.
Fortunately, there is great hope for a revival of the union movement. But it lies not with the present collection of union leaders. It lies with the growing demand and desire of workers to organise due to attacks on their living conditions.
In The Socialist 11 August 2005: