On the AFL-CIO Split

Stanley Aronowitz



n some respects it was fitting that four important affiliates declared their withdrawal from the AFL-CIO in the days running up to the 50th anniversary convention in July 2005. A merger which was conceived in a unity that signified complacency was dissolved. The problem now is what can workers expect from the fissure? Will the defectors form a new federation? How can they fulfill their promise to launch a massive organizing drive in the current reactionary political environment? And can an alliance which embraces quite disparate forces help revive the somnambulism that has afflicted labor’s ranks for more than two decades? Are those who split the kind of leaders that are capable of calling on the rank and file to mount resistance to the ongoing corporate offensive against wages and working conditions? And why should we expect this alliance to make a radical departure from the unimaginative program, and political subservience to the Democratic Party that has marked the decade long record of the Sweeney administration? To gain perspective on these questions we might find it useful to revisit the moment of the AFL-CIO merger. Such a look might clarify why Organized Labor has suffered such devastating defeats since the late 1970s and why, despite the growth of the Service Employees (SEIU), whose president is the main antagonist in the conflict, the rest of the unions, including those that defected with him, are suffering the same stagnation and decline as most others.

After twenty years of separation, CIO president Walter Reuther who led the largest of three very powerful industrial unions, the Auto Workers, brought some four and a half million CIO members consisting of 20 international unions back into the Federation. It was not a marriage made in heaven.  Having purged so-called Left Wing unions from the CIO, in which communists played an important role, Reuther and his fellow CIO unionists shared with the AFL many things: with almost no exceptions they shared the fervent conviction that Communism and particularly the Soviet Union was the root of all evil. They were deeply committed to the permanent war economy because it was a leading post-war job machine as well as a potent ideological weapon that glued the labor movement to the priorities of the war machine and a weapon which also thwarted Labor’s reform agenda for a half century. Capitalism and the large United States corporations that dominated it was, despite many conflicts with the labor movement, considered by many union leaders as part of the Free World coalition of which Organized Labor was a vital part.

But there was still a residue of democratic values and even militancy in many CIO affiliates which most of the AFL groups did not give a rat’s ass about. Many CIO leaders remained wary of the merger, although Reuther pushed it through with minimum opposition. In the end, though, almost all of them fell in line. Almost alone among CIO presidents, Michael J. Quill of the Transport Workers, whose capitulation to Cold War politics and internal purges of the Communists helped to set the tone for the erosion of union democracy, stood up at the final CIO convention and warned delegates that by seeking peace with the AFL they were betraying the militant, progressive legacy of their organization. He predicted the merger would fail to sustain the forward march of Labor and voted against it. Of course, the leaders of the major CIO affiliates ignored his warnings and proceeded to dissolve their organization and hand over the leadership to a conservative building trades official, AFL president George Meany. A few days later the two organizations which, at the time, represented more than a third of the labor force, became one and Meany, a cold war hawk, was named president with Reuther as an uncomfortable second in command.

During the 1950s, Reuther, who had distinguished himself by questioning whether the auto corporations needed to raise prices in order to raise wages, became a relentless lobbyist  for defense contracts for the Auto and Farm Equipment corporations with which the UAW had collective agreements. In the spirit of the new environment of labor/management cooperation, which pervaded leading steel as well as Auto corporations (at least at the top), Reuther signed the first five year contract with the auto corporations. Among other departures from the past, the agreement contained a rigid no-strike clause, in return for binding arbitration to address workers’ grievances. Within a decade, under the slogan of labor peace, other unions began to follow suit and signed long term agreements with employers. Yet, the long road from a grievance to arbitration resulted in hundreds of unresolved complaints in General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. Workers were burdened by a corporate offensive on their hard-won working conditions that was spotlighted by a company policy of speedup and draconian discipline, including arbitrary discharges.

By 1955, despite relatively high wages and, in the wake of the defeat of national health insurance in 1949, the elements of a private welfare state that  the UAW negotiated with a high-flying management, worker resentment was smoldering and soon broke out in a series of wildcat strikes, even as the merger was being consummated. As a result the UAW brass was forced to take a step back; the contract was modified to permit strikes over discharges and onerous working conditions, but the leadership never recanted its embrace of labor peace. Like his counterpart in the Steelworkers union, the ever accommodating David McDonald, Reuther toured the auto plants in the company of high ranking company executives to signal the union’s determination to cooperate with the introduction of new technologies and with companies’ drive for higher productivity. Declaring that the key to full employment and raised living standards was worker productivity, Reuther all but renounced the union’s tradition of fighting for shorter hours and for greater worker voices in setting production norms.

In time, Reuther changed his position on United States foreign policy, sharply criticized Meany for his subservience to it and went so far to take the UAW, temporarily, out of the AFL-CIO, threatening to form a new federation with the Teamsters and other dissident unions. Towards the end of his life—he died in a plane crash in 1970-- he reversed direction and opposed the Vietnam war.  By the time of his death the AFL-CIO had long abandoned its façade of non-partisanship and was not only securely folded into the Democratic Party as a junior partner, but, despite a rash of wildcat strikes against speedup in the auto industry, particularly in Lordstown, and Norwood, Ohio, the UAW, no less than the rest of Organized Labor, remained ideologically committed to class collaboration.

With the exception of some industrial union participation in the Civil Rights struggle in the South, even as most of the crafts retained their anti-black policies, the 1960s were marked by Labor’s indifference, even hostility, towards the new social movements that emerged during the decade. Some union women formed the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), which joined with other women’s organizations in fighting for the equal rights amendment and for equal pay for equal pay at the workplace. But the demands of black workers for union construction jobs and for apprenticeship opportunities hit a brick wall. The major breakthrough of this period was the rise of public sector unions, most of which were majority women, blacks and Latinos. Unions like the State, County and Municipal Employees, the Teachers, and state employees associations that, at first were independent of the AFL-CIO, seemed to give the labor movement new energy. Many were active in the struggle for women’s rights, gradually joined the anti-Vietnam war protest and conducted militant strikes at the public workplace, which prompted some legislatures to outlaw strikes by public employees. By the late 1980s, unions represented a third of public employees and were setting their sights on the health care field which although largely part of the non-profit private sector is heavily subsidized by government and by union-negotiated pre-paid health insurance.

The SEIU’s rise from a medium sized union of janitors and doormen into the largest union in the country is due, primarily, to its intervention into the public and health sectors. While it never fails to remind the public and fellow unionists that it has transformed itself by devoting a large portion of its treasury to organizing, its growth owes as much to its former president John Sweeney and its current chief Andy Stern’s shrewd business sense. SEIU has been built on some important campaigns, especially among the working poor, but its  growth owes as much to mergers and acquisitions of existing independent public employees unions, affiliates of  other national unions such as the huge health and hospital local 1199, which some would describe as raiding. Stern, James P. Hoffa—the Teamsters president—and the two leaders of UNITE HERE, Bruce Raynor and John Wilhelm are not bereft of tactical imagination and significant resources with which to conduct an aggressive organizing campaign. But in most other respects they are in the old mold of top-down bureaucratic unionism.

Consider the decision to split from the AFL-CIO. No doubt each union consulted with its executive board, composed mostly or exclusively of full-time paid officials of the union. But, consistent with the predominant mode of organization in today’s unions the rank and file was not part of the process by which the decision was arrived at. Some locals of all of the splitters did call meetings to discuss the withdrawal. The leaders, however, acted unilaterally. In democratic organizations such radical steps would surely be preceded by a genuine debate among the members where the pros and cons can be rehearsed, resolutions entertained from the locals and a public convention and/ or a referendum held to determine what the pleasure of the rank and file is.

There are other concerns that need to be raised with respect to the split. Stern has made known his desire to form a new partnership with the corporate giants of the service sector. While attacking Sweeney’s penchant to, in Hoffa’s words “throw money at the Democrats (the AFL-CIO gave more than $200 millions to John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign), SEIU donated more than $65 million to the campaign. And there is not a whisper about what may be one of the most important tasks facing workers: in the face of media complicity and indifference to the problems of working people, to the economic and social crisis facing many of them, the Coalition that boycotted the convention has indicated no plans to start a national daily or weekly general circulation newspaper, buy radio and television stations, conduct an otherwise intense campaign to get its message across to the public. Equally salient, the nature of the contemplated organizing campaign promises to remain quite conventional, dominated by paid staff rather recruiting from the rank and file and organizing from the bottom, seeking Labor Board-run elections or card checks rather than opening the door to the revival of the strike as a main form of securing recognition, remaining oriented to getting contracts rather than organizing workers whether there is a practical chance of a contract or not. Needless to say, the new coalition understands that the Labor Relations Board has become an employer tool. At best they have proposed to seek employer agreement to recognize unions that show they represent a majority of their employees. But card checks as a tactic presupposes much more union power than currently exists. And while the strike weapon has become a museum piece because workers and their unions seem terrified to face the employer’s wrath under various labor relations laws that give them few breaks, we hear no conversation about how to open new avenues for worker voices.

Nor is there special sensitivity to the obvious changes that have occurred in the workplace, particularly the dominant role of technology in the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services. There are some who recognize the importance of the internet in mobilizing around social and political issues, but neither Sweeney nor Stern has spoken about its potential and certainly have not taken the opportunity to articulate labor’s voice in cyberspace. These changes have altered the nature of the labor force, bringing into existence millions of credentialed and technically trained workers who, except in the public sector, are largely outside of the unions. It is true that SEIU has paid some attention to the problems faced by physicians in hospitals and private practice, But like many of its affiliates, it acquired the network of doctor’s locals which began as independents. It has not developed an all-encompassing strategy to extend its purview in this field. As with the rest of organized labor, the new coalition partners are likely to perpetuate the neglect of professional and technical workers that, with the exception of the Communications Workers (Sweeney loyalists), has failed to come to terms with the 21st century workplace.

Some labor intellectuals and activists have welcomed the new departure as an opportunity. The best of their arguments is that the historical evidence demonstrates that competition is good for workers. The rise of the labor movement during the progressive era, the 1930s upsurge and the explosion of public sector unionism in the 1960s were marked by intense competition within the labor movement. But these were the greatest periods of union growth. If two or more unions fight for representation of a group of workers, the non-union option is often marginalized. Some argue that even the conservative unions, made secure by article 20 of the AFL-CIO constitution which prohibits raiding, are forced by competition to up the ante, to promise a more aggressive and militant brand of unionism. For it must be acknowledged that under the existing regime of no competition in organizing workers have few alternatives to get out from under an oppressive union administration. Rather than promising more chaos, the new coalition proposes more order. True discontented workers can decertify the existing union, but only in a specified period after the expiration of the contract and then form an independent organization. But since the Teamsters returned to the AFL-CIO fold in the post-James R. Hoffa era, competitive unionism has fallen on hard times. Some claim this is one key reason for falling membership.

The question is whether the splitters can muster the rhetoric and the style that attracts workers. Whatever its practices, until the 1970s, the Teamsters paraded an image of economic power that was unrivalled by its AFL-CIO competitors most of whom were making nice to the bosses. The Teamsters had success because they offered a program of resistance. Are there any sections of  Organized Labor that even remember how to talk the talk of class power when for decades, they have assured workers that they can secure justice by peaceful means, that the old methods of baptism by fire were outmoded and the labor movement had become “responsible”? Why should most workers trust union organizers who do not inspire them with a spirit to fight the boss, who cannot prepare them for the inevitable employer offensive, who do not promise to recruit workers to a new social movement that, at least, recognizes that American capitalism and its anti-labor laws and practices is the problem? Stern and company have high hopes, but in the end they mean no harm. They speak as if they are ready to break from the thrall of electoral politics but, like Reuther a half century ago, are prepared to sue for labor peace. Is this the stuff of a new crusade?

The fundamental question underlying the split is what would constitute an effective politics and strategy adequate to stop the rapid deterioration in workers’ living standards? What can arrest the decline of real wages, the proliferation of temporary and contingent work and the profound regression in the already weakened system of industrial and labor relations? That’s the first question. I want to suggest that organizing more workers is only one and perhaps not the most important condition for mounting a counter-offensive. The sufficient condition is the emergence of a Left within the labor movement that forces the issues, that opens wide a discussion in both major sections of Organized Labor. For this is the first period in recent history when there is no organized left to pose the uncomfortable questions. But this is also the first time in decades when those questions are getting a hearing, even if they are uttered in incoherent and fragmented ways.


Stanley Aronowitz teaches at the Graduate Center of CUNY. He is author, most recently, of Just Around the Corner: the Paradox of the Jobless Recovery (Temple).