Back in the Big Labor Fold

by Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson

Last Thursday, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW)—the 1.3 million-member union of retail workers, chiefly supermarket employees—announced that it was leaving the breakaway mini-labor federation, Change To Win, and rejoining the AFL-CIO. Of the six unions that left the AFL-CIO in 2005 to form Change To Win—the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Teamsters, the UFCW, UNITE HERE, the Laborers, and the United Farm Workers (UFW)—only SEIU, the Teamsters, and the Farm Workers (the last with probably fewer than 10,000 members) remain. Two-point-zero-something unions do not a federation make, but then, Change To Win, despite all its lofty ambitions, never amounted to a federation.

At its outset, Change To Win proclaimed a distinct strategic purpose. Though its seven initial members (for a brief time, it included the Carpenters) represented diverse sectors of the workforce—truckers, nurses, janitors, hotel workers, supermarket employees, and construction workers—almost all of them held jobs that couldn’t be offshored or easily digitized. At its founding convention in St. Louis in September of 2005, SEIU Vice-President Tom Woodruff told delegates that there were 44 million non-union workers in the non-offshorable sectors that Change To Win unions represented, and that the new federation would wage massive organizing campaigns to unionize them. “We can’t run small campaigns any more,” Woodruff said. “We have to figure out how to organize whole nationwide companies, whole sectors and whole markets.” To that end, Change To Win established a strategic organizing center, staffed by some of labor’s most brilliant economists, organizers, and tacticians.

But Change To Win quickly discovered that the same impediments to organizing that had made it nearly impossible to unionize private-sector workers when its member unions had belonged to the AFL-CIO were still very much in place now that they belonged to the new federation. A series of innovative campaigns to encircle Wal-Mart by organizing its supply chain ran up against a host of obstacles: the port truck drivers who brought Chinese imports to Wal-Mart’s warehouses were classified as independent contractors rather than employees; the hundreds of thousands of workers who staffed those warehouses, and those of other major retail outlets, were employed by a revolving door of temp agencies. Despite highly inventive legal and organizing strategies, the efforts to unionize these workers failed. The synergistic campaigns of multiple Change To Win unions to organize whole industries never got off the ground. Indeed, the campaigns waged under the Change To Win banner were the same campaigns that its member unions had been waging before the new federation formed, albeit now steered by strategists from a multitude of unions. Nor did forming Change To Win do much to remedy the structural weaknesses of some of its member unions—weak locals, inadequately resourced organizing—or the tendency of nearly all unions, whether in Change To Win or the AFL-CIO, to pursue new members in the public sector, where labor law was more favorable to organizing.

By 2007, it was already clear that Change To Win hadn’t cracked the code to organizing private-sector workers. Indeed, it was increasingly clear that the real impetus for its formation was that SEIU, then under the leadership of Andy Stern, had just wanted out of the AFL-CIO, and had persuaded the other unions to follow. But for unions in either federation, the decline of organized labor continued apace.

Today, the AFL-CIO is seeking to arrest that decline through its Working America affiliate, which is a groundbreaking effort at large-scale community organizing, and has some as yet undefined alliance with such other progressive groups as the Sierra Club and the NAACP. The Teamsters and SEIU remain unlikely to return to the Federation even if Change To Win’s strategy center were to cease to exist. But now the UFCW, like the Laborers and UNITE HERE, have recognized that whatever the reasons, real and ostensible, for leaving in 2005, the reasons to return are more compelling. Indeed, with labor embarking on major and costly campaigns, like Working America or SEIU’s current effort to organize fast-food workers, that won’t likely result in more dues-paying members, the logic of existing unions banding together to fund such efforts is more compelling than ever. It’s in that spirit that yet another prodigal has returned.

Harold Meyerson is the editor-at-large at The American Prospect, a columnist for The Washington Post, and a vice chair of Democratic Socialists of America.

Read Talking Union posts by Harold Meyerson.

One Response

  1. “Big” Labor, who are we kidding?

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