Laboring to Stay Together

WASHINGTON, DC — At the topmost ranks of American labor, the great game of chicken proceeds apace. Dissident unions threaten the AFL-CIO with dissolution in the immediate aftermath of the Federation’s late July convention. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney clearly commands the votes to win re-election, but in a Monday press conference here, took pains to assure his critics that he still wants to meet with them. He is also open to increasing the funding for organizing — one of the dissidents’ chief demands.

By now, it is an article of faith on both sides of the labor divide that the 1.8-million member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the AFL-CIO’s largest and strongest affiliate, is leaving come what may. What the three other unions that have threatened to leave — the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), and UNITE-HERE (the clothing and hotel workers) — may ultimately do is anybody’s guess. The two likeliest outcomes, I’d surmise, will either be SEIU departing solo, or all four leaving together. The prospect that just one of the three on-the-fence unions will secede with SEIU is remote. Even among secessionists, there is strength in numbers, and the numbers in a federation of two just don’t add up.

Together, the four unions have roughly 4 million members — just about a third of the AFL-CIO’s national membership. Locally, their members constitute more than half of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which means that incoming Executive Secretary-Treasurer Martin Ludlow may face a crisis of unprecedented magnitude on his first day on the job. If the Fed saw its income, staff and programs cut in half, its ability to wage the kind of election campaigns that have made labor politically powerful in L.A. and Democrats triumphant statewide could be greatly diminished.

Some of Sweeney’s leading supporters don’t believe that the dissidents can easily depart. “UNITE-HERE, in my judgment, will remain,” says Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Both the hotel and apparel sides of the union, he argues, have received significant help from the Federation in their boycotts and organizing drives, and the Amalgamated Bank, which UNITE-HERE owns, is vulnerable to a massive withdrawal of funds from unions that deposit there. (The Communications Workers, embroiled in a dispute with UNITE-HERE over the right to represent Indian casino workers in California, has already withdrawn $50 million.) The Teamsters, he continues, have received significant organizing assistance from the Federation, and the UFCW needs an infusion of resources to rebuild its programs and take on Wal-Mart.

But just one month before the AFL-CIO’s convention begins in Chicago, no one on either side is putting down bets on who, other than SEIU, is really going to go. The principal parties, after all, are all accomplished bargainers. The groups that seem to be doing the most to prepare for all contingencies are the Central Labor Councils, such as the L.A. County Fed. During an SEIU national leadership meeting in San Francisco earlier this month, the heads of 15 such councils came together to discuss survival strategies — and how to further such progressive urban initiatives as living-wage ordinances. (With the L.A. County Fed in an interregnum between the death of Miguel Contreras and the installation of Ludlow, L.A. was not represented at this meeting.) By several reports, the leaders of the councils are looking at establishing ancillary nonprofit organizations to advance their political agendas — organizations that could be funded by unions both within and without the AFL-CIO. Aware that its presumptive departure will leave the labor councils short on resources, SEIU is said to be eager to fund the new groupings.

One argument that SEIU and its allies have repeatedly advanced during the past year is that unions should organize only those employers in their core sectors; increasing union density in particular labor markets is the one sure way of winning good contracts. It’s a sound theory, supported by reams of documentation. But it doesn’t explain the outcome of every single labor struggle, as the recent settlement of the more-than-year-long L.A. hotel dispute makes very clear.

A year-and-a-half ago, when the hotel workers saw their contracts lapse in L.A., San Francisco and Washington, D.C., their goal was to win a shorter-than-usual new contract that would expire in 2006 — the same year that the union’s contracts in New York and other major cities would expire. Having witnessed nationwide supermarket chains defeat the Southern California grocery workers by drawing on their resources in other regions, UNITE-HERE hotel worker president John Wilhelm wanted his members to be able to threaten such nationwide hotel chains as Starwood and Hyatt with nationwide job actions.

This was a demand that the hotels were determined to deny. In San Francisco, they locked out their employees, though they were compelled to end the lockout under considerable union and public pressure. However, the dispute continues and the hotels have yet to agree to 2006. In L.A., the hotels were on the verge of a lockout when they acceded to the demand, and granted the union the 2006 expiration date.

According to the density theory espoused by the dissident unions, UNITE-HERE among them, this shouldn’t have happened this way: San Francisco hotels are much more unionized than their L.A. counterparts. But density, while important, isn’t all. What happened in Los Angeles, according to Maria Elena Durazo, president of Local 11 of UNITE-HERE, is that a wedge opened up between local hotel owners and the national chains that operate the hotels, Starwood and Hyatt in particular. Before the impasse was reached, the Beverly Hilton and the Bel-Air had already agreed to the unions’ conditions, and the owners of the Biltmore and the Wilshire Grand later sent a letter to their fellow owners urging a settlement. In short, what brought down the hotel hardliners in L.A. was a radical lack of solidarity.

Let’s hope, in the turmoil currently roiling labor, that the same thing doesn’t befall L.A.’s, and the nation’s, unions.

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