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Breaking Free

Count me among those who fully support this past week’s break in Big Labor. It’s encouraging to see America’s biggest union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and its brawniest union, the Teamsters, split from the AFL-CIO. The powerful hotel workers, food workers and laborers unions are on the verge of doing the same. By way of disclaimer, I’m encouraged not only because I have a daughter on the SEIU team. But much more importantly, it is simply now or never for American labor.

Ten years ago, John Sweeney led a new reform administration into power at an AFL-CIO that had fallen into a two-decade-long slumber. It seemed American unions were finally ready to stage a comeback. The initial hopes raised by Sweeney, however, eventually soured. Membership remained stagnant at best. Scores of millions in union dollars went down the drain in various failed Democratic campaigns, the AFL remained limp and ineffective, and the condition of the average American worker continued in a slow, steady decline.

From the time of his ascension a decade ago, Sweeney was thought by many to be a transitional figure. That transition has now been thrust upon him.

The dissident unions exiting the Federation argue, and I agree, that a new labor movement must be more consolidated, more powerful, more focused, more committed to organizing and much less a deep-pockets stooge for a Democratic Party that offers little in return.

SEIU President Andy Stern, who is leading the split, is also taking heat from hand-wringing “progressives” who seem absolutely terrified of change. For two decades they have moaned about the need to shake up the Democrats and jump-start Labor; but now, when the largest and most successful union in America decides to do exactly that, these same liberals start to whine about “unity.”

But what kind of unity? And at what price? The bogeyman of George W. Bush has been obsessively rattled this week by defenders of the labor status quo. How on earth, they plead, can the SEIU weaken and undermine the national labor movement when such an anti-union fiend occupies the White House?

That’s the wrong question, of course. Better to ask how those with an IQ above room temperature can sit back complacently and keep on backing AFL-CIO strategies that fail to organize any meaningful number of workers, defeat Republicans or even punish Congressional Democrats who vote the corporate line.

Stern’s restlessness with both the Democratic and Labor establishments has been obvious for some time coming. When the AFL-CIO last year endorsed the walking corpse of Dick Gephardt for president, Stern threw his union’s support to outsider Howard Dean. Even as Stern’s SEIU loyally pumped $65 million into the 2004 Democratic ticket, he didn’t hesitate to tell the press, on the eve of last summer’s Democratic convention, that both the party and labor federation were “in deep crisis.” “It is a hollow party,” Stern said of the Democrats.

Now, he’s clearly had it. And good for him. That doesn’t mean that Stern is about to go Republican. Instead, it means the Democrats can no longer take four of the five biggest unions in the country for uncritical patsies.

What Stern proposes as an alternative in union organizing terms may or may not be the right prescription. What we do know is that while most of the member unions of the AFL have stagnated in the last decade, the SEIU has doubled its membership to nearly 2 million. We also know that in spite of the zillions showered by labor on the national Democrats, the Party of Hillary feels as free as ever to overlook the day-to-day needs of working Americans.



In that context, please note this past weekend’s mass masturbating by thousands of Democratic activists who co-mingled in 350 nationwide prayerlike circles reading each other excerpts from the Downing Street Memos and chanting “Impeach Bush.” This collective self-pleasuring took place in the same moments that the American labor movement was (choose one) a) being reborn b) ripping itself apart or c) engaging in its most important debate in 50 years.

Every single Democratic activist ought to subscribe passionately to one of the above views. Because any nonzombie Democrat ought to know that without a rejuvenated labor movement there can’t be any significant political change in America.

So can you imagine? Instead of fruitlessly wanking over the Downing Street Memos this past Saturday, what if these same Democrats had come together in a different sort of 350 national meetings to discuss what the hell is going on in the labor movement and what they should and could do about it?

Let me answer my own question by stating that such a scenario is totally unimaginable. The sad truth is that there are damn few links between organized labor and liberal activism. Most of those Democrats huddled in their nationwide chanting groups over the weekend wouldn’t know what to think about organized American workers (or about how to organize them) because they simply have no real connection to them in the first place.

Both the Democrats and Big Labor need to undertake some serious changes if they are serious about forging a new majoritarian political consensus. At least a portion of the latter — the unionists willing to break with the AFL-CIO — has taken a first and daring step.


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