Union Dissension Won’t Affect Kerry–But After?

We wrote previously about SIEU boss Andy Stern’s comments regarding Kerry’s stance on unions and its roots in the strategy sessions of the business-friendly DLC. A story in today’s NYT explains some of the background in the split between traditional unionists and the new breed that Stern represents.

BOSTON, July 30 – The nation’s labor unions have rallied behind John Kerry after being openly divided just a few months ago when many unions backed Representative Richard A. Gephardt for president while others supported Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor.

But behind their newfound unity in politics, the nation’s unions are in turmoil, with some labor leaders maneuvering to become the A.F.L.- C.I.O.’s next president and some hinting that they might pull out of the organization. Some union presidents, alarmed that the labor movement is shrinking, are calling for a radical overhaul of organized labor, while others angrily accuse them of trying to dictate policies and of washing labor’s dirty laundry in public.

“Turmoil” is way too strong a word at this point–the unions all remain united about defeating Bush–but the growing disagreements between older and newer style unions are undeniable. Stern–who represents the workers of the New Economy, traditionally lower-wage service and clerical jobs–has been unhappy with the DLC’s emphasis on attracting corporate contributions by pandering to its greed for a while now. He has been equally unhappy with the traditional unions’ refusal to become more aggressive in their tactics, accusing them once of protecting their own positions by making agreements that hurt their memberships.

He has a point, though his timing may have been less than ideal.

“It’s time that we all pull together,” said Mr. Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters, the first major union to endorse Mr. Kerry. “What’s at stake is the very existence of the labor movement. I think the movement will be damaged, will be set back for decades, if George Bush wins again.”

He complained that Mr. Bush had stripped many federal workers of their right to unionize, had watered down overtime and job safety protections and had appointed a National Labor Relations Board that had made it harder for unions to organize workers.

But appeals for labor unity stumbled badly during the convention. Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, the nation’s fastest-growing union, gave interviews in which he asserted that the Democrats lacked an economic message and that Mr. Kerry was not pro-worker enough. Mr. Stern, whose union has 1.6 million members, also said organized labor was in crisis.

“The Democrats have to decide where they stand on economic issues,” Mr. Stern said in an interview on the convention’s first day. “John Kerry’s positions are fine, but they don’t go far enough to deal with the issues that are facing people who go to work every day.”

Mr. Stern’s comments angered and confounded other labor leaders, especially because the service employees say they plan to spend $65 million this year to help elect Mr. Kerry, more than twice the level in 2000 and far more than any union has ever spent in a campaign. Indeed, the nation’s unions plan to spend more than $160 million on politics this year, up from an estimated $100 million four years ago.


Mr. Stern’s comments were the latest sparks generated by his faction within the A.F.L.-C.I.O. That four-union grouping, the New Unity Partnership, has called for overhauling the A.F.L.-C.I.O., creating fewer and bigger unions and redefining which unions can recruit which workers. Some leaders in this group have even hinted that they might pull out of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. if the federation, comprising 60 unions, shunned their calls for change.Thomas Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists, said that if the partnership’s leaders continued trying to dictate to other unions, the labor federation might split into competing halves, like the old American Federation of Labor and old Congress of Industrial Organizations before they merged a half century ago. Mr. Buffenbarger said several industrial unions resented the way the partnership was trying to dominate the labor federation.

“The way they talk, it’s my way or no way,” Mr. Buffenbarger said. “If the rhetoric doesn’t calm down, you’ll see old alliances form and that might lead to recreating the old A.F.L. and old C.I.O.” Mr. Buffenbarger said some union leaders felt that the partnership’s leaders – three of the five are Ivy League graduates – talk down to them.

Bruce Raynor, president of Unite Here, a union representing textile, hotel and restaurant workers and a member of the New Unity Partnership, said Mr. Stern and the partnership were right to push for far-reaching changes. He said the structure of organized labor was outmoded, asserting that unions were too fractured, small and poorly structured to contend with global corporations.

“The labor movement needs to confront these issues, but not in a backroom,” Mr. Raynor said. “We’re not the Kremlin. It’s not like people don’t know that our ability to protect American workers has been weakened. We have to turn that around, and to some degree that debate has to be done publicly.”


“There’s no question that the labor movement should talk about and focus on change, but our emphasis right now has to be on the election of John Kerry,” [AFL-CIO President John] Sweeney said. “We have had some terrible times over the last four years with the anti-worker, anti-union policies of the Bush administration.”Yes, they have, and the point dissidents like Stern and Raynor are trying to get across is that too many tradirtional union leaders sat back and let it happen rather than fight it as they have. Stern’s SIEU isn’t just “the fastest-growing” union, it’s one of the few that hasn’t lost membership, and its success is a direct result of both its aggressiveness and its understanding of the weaknesses in the corporate global market, weaknesses it has been very smart about exploiting to get record gains for its membership.

The brouhaha is just a bump in the road on the way to the election, but after November, it’s liable to become a real dogfight, and the DLC is going to be smack in the middle of it whether it likes it or not. If Stern and the other dissidents win, the DLC is going to be facing a harsh choice: either give up their dancing seduction of corporate money or lose union support, which will instead go to Demo dissidents like Pelosi and–hopefully–Obama. And that choice will have to be made whether Kerry wins or not.

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