Monday, July 25, 2005

Labor Update

Since my last post on the topic, the SEIU and the Teamsters have officially announced that they are splitting with the AFL-CIO. And Joe Hansen, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (my former union) has announced that the UFCW is prepared to sever ties with the AFL-CIO as well.

"We must have more union members in order to change the political climate that is undermining workers rights in this country," the Teamsters president, James P. Hoffa, said today. "The A.F.L.-C.I.O. has chosen the opposite approach. Today's decision means that we have chosen a course of growth and strength for the American labor movement based on organizing new members."

The two unions said they were forming a competing labor coalition that they hope will address the decline in union membership. Mr. Hoffa said that the Teamsters have partnered with seven "strong and progressive" unions in the Change to Win coalition, a recently formed coalition of labor unions whose leaders have criticized the A.F.L.-C.I.O. for failing to "embrace fundamental reforms that would strengthen labor's ability to make real headway."

Mr. Hoffa said that leaders from the Change to Win coalition met with Teamster directors earlier today, adding, "This is just the beginning of a new era for America's workers."

Let’s hope Mr. Hoffa is right. John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, called the two unions’ decision to break ranks "a tragedy for working people." It is. The division of a unified movement is a troubling development, but not nearly so troubling as the unfettered rise of big business at the expense of workers’ rights. As an issue of principle, I fully support the SEIU and the Teamsters’ decision to form a more active and progressive body. But as an issue of strategy, it’s a big gamble by players holding few chips.

One argument I don’t buy though, is that the breakdown of the AFL-CIO will cause the Democrats to lose votes in the next election. Granted, losing one third of its body mass will hamper the AFL-CIO’s lobbying power on certain issues. But as far as votes go, the Democrats should win every worker’s vote, regardless of union affiliation, by pushing for stiffer regulations on business and a more progressive tax system. If the Democrats won’t stand up and defend workers, then they’ve dug their own hole, and they’ve done it without the help of labor.

--Matthew McCoy