The Situational Ethics of Union ‘Raiding’

by Steve Early

Steve Early

Steve Early

No subject arouses the passion of labor officials more than “raiding.” In his blustery maiden address as president of the AFL-CIO, Rich Trumka won thunderous applause this week at the federation’s convention in Pittsburgh by announcing that anyone daring to “raid an AFL-CIO union will find 1,000 organizers coming to the rescue of that union.”

In unions that too often treat their own members like chattel, there are few threats greater, within the “house of labor,” than an affiliate which tries to steal the dues-paying “property” of another.

The very term used to describe this activity conjures up images of unfriendly Native American visits to the first European colonies in North America. In labor circles, “raiding” almost always has a negative connotation.

Unless, of course, your own union is the one dispatching the “raiding party.”

The AFL-CIO has had “no-raiding” rules in effect for 54 years. These have made it harder for legitimately disgruntled workers to switch unions. Generally, they’ve only been able to replace their existing bargaining representative with an “unaffiliated” union such as the United Electrical Workers (UE) or the National Education Association. Or form a small independent union of their own or hook up with a former AFL-CIO affiliate.

A number of major unions have ended up in that last category since 1955. A few have been expelled for corruption (like the Teamsters and other mobbed-up labor organizations in the late 1950s).

Some unions disaffiliated and then regrouped with fellow defectors in formations such as Walter Reuther’s short-lived Alliance for Labor Action (that included the racket-ridden Teamsters) or Andy Stern’s four-year old Change To Win (CTW) coalition, now equally troubled and down to only five of its original seven affiliates.

Whatever their roots or rationale, schisms in the “house of labor” are invariably accompanied by much-feared “rogue union” activity.

That’s why, in Pittsburgh this week, AFL-CIO conventioneers called a brief halt to their torrent of speeches and resolutions about corporate misbehavior to deal with a menacing labor miscreant and outlier—Doug McCarron’s United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC).

The 500,000-member UBC left the AFL ahead of other CTW unions, saying its per capita dues were being wasted on ineffective “New Voice” programs launched by the now-departed John Sweeney. Then, in 2005, the Carpenters joined CTW. Then, last Fall—in a development concealed by CTW until this month–the UBC stopped paying dues to Stern’s new federation as well.

A week ago, McCarron made it official—he has quit Change To Win, several steps ahead of John Wilhelm’s UNITE-HERE, which reaffiliated with the AFL-CIO yesterday.

In the meantime, McCarron’s critics say, he has been undercutting AFL construction unions by offering contractors wall-to-wall labor agreements designed to replace other skilled tradesmen with his own members, who will be employed for less pay under more “flexible” work rules.

Not surprisingly, this has made his fellow building tradesmen–plus manufacturing and even public employee unionists–quite irate.

Mike Sullivan, general president of the Sheet Metal Workers, was among those convention delegates who denounced the Carpenters and bemoaned the “millions of dollars” spent “defending the rights of members who don’t want to be in their union.”

Tom Buffenbarger, president of the Machinists (IAM), declared that “this is not just a building trades issue. This is an issue for all others” in the federation (as indeed it is, since the IAM has lately been poaching truckers from the Teamsters).

These more conservative speakers were joined by former UE organizer Ken Allen, now the top AFSCME official in Oregon and a past Labor Notes conference participant. Allen blasted both the UBC and SEIU, headed by Andy Stern. (Stern’s top-down “modernization,” centralization of control over bargaining, and forced consolidation of locals has often been compared to the Carpenters’ own restructuring under McCarren).

Allen told the convention that affiliates “who left in 2005 opened the door for all kinds of trouble… SEIU and the Carpenters are doing the bosses’ work when they raid our unions.”

All of these speakers favored adoption of Resolution 70, which calls for the creation of an AFL-CIO-backed “Carpenters’ Organizing Committee”—if and when the UBC fails to return to the fold like UNITE HERE, and, in the future, stick to its own jurisdiction.

The resolution was passed unanimously. Its sponsors clearly hope that Carpenter “raiding” will be curbed by an AFL threat to recruit carpenters to a new entity that would compete with the UBC (a move some might liken to “raiding” as well).

Opinion was divided on the likelihood of this actually happening. In a rare, unscripted dissent from the convention floor, an Operating Engineer from Chicago expressed skepticism about the COC scheme and demanded to know why other Change To Win defectors weren’t getting similar treatment.

Sal Rosselli, interim president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) formed last winter to replace SEIU in California, was at the convention as a guest, along with fellow organizer John Borsos. They certainly would have welcomed material aid for NUHW’s challenge to Stern—the product of real rank-and-file initiative and workplace organizing, not mere resolution-passing and posturing by the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department.

Overlooked in the Resolution 70 debate was a passing acknowledgment that inter-union competition may also have a positive impact–a fact often unappreciated, even on the labor left.

“The UBC president has made me a better representative,” said a Painters’ union official from Philadelphia during the debate last Wednesday. (He remained upset about the $9 million his union has spent keeping the UBC at bay).

This candid Painters’ rep was admitting to other delegates that McCarren had forced him to work harder and be more responsive to his members’ job-related concerns. If he didn’t, the siren call of the Carpenters might succeed in luring them (or local contractors) away.

And that’s why what’s routinely denounced as “raiding” is not always just resource-wasting, management-assisted, “business union” poaching. Raiding can also take the form of a workers liberation movement—like the bottom-up effort of California healthcare workers to build NUHW as an alternative to SEIU, after Stern appointees took over their model local, removed elected leaders down to the steward level, and then proceeded to offer McCarron-style contract concessions to major employers that previously had to deal with a member-driven union.

If the UE hadn’t “raided” the company union that previously represented (in shoddy fashion) the workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago, would there have been an inspiring and nationally-publicized sit-down strike last December? Would their now-successful union campaign to keep the plant open under new ownership have succeeded as well? Not very likely.

Far more unionized workers, like the captive health care industry members of SEIU in California, should have the same “employee free choice” of a new and better union if their old one lets them down. When that starts to happen on a wider scale, we might even see more workplace situations where the rhetoric of AFL-CIO convention resolutions is actually matched by NUHW-style organizing and the shop-floor militancy long associated with the small but feisty UE.

Steve Early worked as a Boston-based CWA organizer, negotiator, and strike strategist for 27 years. He was involved in organizing campaigns that pitted CWA against AFSCME, AFT, OPEIU, the IBEW, and various independent unions. He is the author of “Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home” (Monthly Review Press, 2009). He can be reached at

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4 Responses

  1. Thank you Steve. I like the article and I agree but I do think perhaps you should disclose personal interests. We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard than right-wing journalists and Stern’s parrots. I especially think it’s a mistake for you to report on NUHW without disclosing that Rosselli and Borsos hired your child…

  2. I’m an agnostic on the question of raiding. In some circumstances, it can genuinely lead to a better outcome. I have participated (both on the initiating and the receiving end of) raids. However, if it is institutionalized as a ‘go-to’ mode of member recruitment, then we may just end up playing circular firing squad. I’m much more in favor of union elections with multiple unions on the ballot. As an organizer, the times I’ve been involved in those elections, it has often led to a group of more committed activists with a deeper connection to their coworkers. After all, they had to win many of those coworkers over in the election process. But I’m agnostic, not really convinced one way or the other.

  3. Funny the AFL_CIO was not concerned when the CNA an affiliate dropped 30 organizers into Ohio during a winter snow storm to disrupt 1199’s Merch Health Partners campaign preventing 7500 healthcare workers the right to become fellow union members. Althought i guess this might not technically be a raid since they had no intention of even organizing the workers they just ran a vote no to SEIU campaign.

  4. I started reading Steve Early’s piece on union raiding and about pucked when I ran into this: “The very term used to describe this activity conjures up images of unfriendly Native American visits to the first European colonies in North America. In labor circles, “raiding” almost always has a negative connotation.” Native Americans defending their land from colonizers is nthing like union raiders. This is a blatant put down of indigenous folk. I could not read further.

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