Sunday, July 24, 2005

A Labored Debate

Organized labor is an issue closer to Mr. Harwood’s area of expertise than my own, but as he is busy reaping the sweet fruits of the Jersey Shore this weekend, the burden falls to me. Via the NYTs, the AP is reporting that on the eve of the AFL-CIO convention in Chicago, four unions representing 13 million members have announced plans to boycott the meeting.

None of the four unions intended to cut ties immediately from the AFL-CIO, but the boycott makes that next step a high probability, officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss failed weekend negotiations to avoid the boycott.

The union most likely to bolt the AFL-CIO is its largest, the 1.8 million-member Service Employees International Union. Led by Andy Stern, a former protege of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, the SEIU is virtually certain to pull his organization out of the federation in coming days, with hopes of bringing Stern's allies along, officials said.

Joining him in the boycott will be the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers and UNITE HERE, a group of textile and hotel workers, according to the labor officials.

Stern and the leadership of the unions joining the SEIU in boycotting the convention have been publicly critical of Sweeney and the AFL-CIO for failing to check the decline of organized labor. However, the unions’ boycott of the convention represents a major shake up. Best case scenario, the boycott will demonstrate the urgency of the crisis facing organized labor. Worst case scenario, it will divide and further weaken the already struggling movement.

Whatever you believe to be the appropriate strategy, this is a story everyone should follow. At this point, it is clear that the federal government is not bending over backwards to defend workers’ rights. Workers need to protect themselves from the ground up, and a strong labor movement is essential to their success.

If you’re interested in a good primer on the current debate, The Nation conducted a six-way interview with national labor leaders, including Stern and Sweeney.

--Matthew McCoy