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Losing Labor’s Power

So you think Miguel Contreras — leader of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, the city’s political powerhouse — is losing sleep over the mayor’s race, or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s attack on unions? Think again.

If anything troubles Contreras’ sleep, it has to be the prospect that half his Federation is about to leave the building. It’s not anything that he’s done — indeed, it has nothing to do with anything specific to Los Angeles. The problem is that one — and perhaps two or three — of the AFL-CIO’s major unions may leave the national labor body after this July’s convention in Chicago, in a split over the future direction of American labor.

And the particular problem for Contreras is that the dissident unions include the largest and most powerful union in town: the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Roughly 600,000 of California’s 2 million AFL-CIO members belong to the SEIU, and in L.A. County, by Contreras’ estimate, the SEIU constitutes 40 percent of his members — and a far greater percentage of the Fed’s political activists at election time. Indeed, in election season, the union that generates the most precinct walkers and phone bankers is the SEIU’s janitors local, while the hotel workers of UNITE-HERE usually come in second.

And wouldn’t you know, UNITE-HERE has just joined the SEIU in threatening to leave the AFL-CIO. The third possible secessionist, the Teamsters, is the AFL-CIO’s third largest union nationally (the SEIU is the largest), but it doesn’t play that much of a role in L.A.-area elections.

A “powerful discontent,” in the words of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees strategist Paul Booth, has been rising within the SEIU, UNITE-HERE, and a number of other unions that see the national AFL-CIO and much of the labor movement as incapable of responding to the devastating attacks that now almost routinely befall American workers. After the debacle of the Southern California supermarket strike, the negation of pensions and contracts in the airline industry, the re-election of George W. Bush, and the widely anticipated prohibition by Bush’s appointees on the National Labor Relations Board of the card-check process of unionization (the chief way unions have been able to organize workers in the past decade), a dissident group of labor leaders is calling for a radical restructuring of American labor.

At last week’s meeting of the AFL-CIO executive committee in Las Vegas, however, the dissident coalition lost two key votes on restructuring questions to unions supporting the Federation’s current leadership. A Teamsters’ proposal to rebate half the dues of member unions to increase their organizing programs received the votes of unions representing 40 percent of the Federation’s 13 million members — enough to signal a widespread lack of confidence in the AFL-CIO’s direction, but not enough to alter it. For their part, unions supporting the administration of AFL-CIO president John Sweeney prevailed on a vote to recommend doubling the size of the Federation’s political budget, which will likely preclude any significant increase in the AFL-CIO’s organizing outlays.

Indeed, much of the executive-council meeting focused on an increasingly bizarre debate between those union leaders who argued that labor’s future lies in expanding its political program and those who argued that the future belongs to those who organize. When pressed, leaders on both sides of this debate readily acknowledge that labor needs to do both. Indeed, John Wilhelm, who heads the hotel division of UNITE-HERE, had stated at a forum in Los Angeles in February that he thought the Federation’s political budget should be doubled — though when that proposal came before the union presidents in Vegas, he voted against it, since it made no provision for increased organizing. The unreality of the debate was further underscored by the fact that the Teamsters’ proposal, if enacted, would augment the organizing budgets of the major unions by less than 10 percent.

However, the Teamsters’ proposal would force a vast scaling back of the AFL-CIO, and that seems more at the heart of what such dissident leaders as Wilhelm, SEIU president Andy Stern and UNITE-HERE president Bruce Raynor are calling for. In his public demeanor, 70-year-old AFL-CIO president Sweeney exudes a phlegmatic, scripted, almost Buddha-like impassivity — quite at odds with his message and, by all accounts, his private temperament. For Stern and his allies, that impassivity is the symbol of a Federation that lacks the urgency and improvisational tactical skills that the times demand. Sweeney may embrace the rhetoric of change, Wilhelm says, but his administration cannot be counted upon to dismantle the old programs they’ve created for new ones. Sweeney’s defenders argue that organizing is more the responsibility of the individual member unions than of the Federation, and that the dissidents are scapegoating the Federation for the entire movement’s difficulties.

Wilhelm has been widely expected to mount a challenge to Sweeney when the incumbent president’s term is up at the AFL-CIO convention in July. That may yet happen, but after Vegas, where the dissidents were in a distinct minority, Wilhelm would surely face an uphill climb. By talking secession, his union, and Stern’s, and Hoffa’s, are playing the only chips they’ve got left in their effort to restructure labor. But the growing bitterness of the debate — president-to-president and staffer-to-staffer — suggests that the polarization is taking on a life of its own, and that some unions may indeed walk after July. The closest precedent for such a split — the United Auto Workers’ departure from the AFL-CIO in 1968, which resulted from divisions over the Vietnam War and the tensions between then–AFL-CIO president George Meany and then–UAW president Walter Reuther — ended with a quiet re-affiliation a decade later, despite the ambitious plans that the UAW had laid out for an independent federation. (And the UAW then was even more of a powerhouse than the SEIU is today.)

This may all be cold comfort for Contreras, who’d have to see if there was a way he could keep the SEIU and any other secessionists inside the County Fed even if they’d left the national AFL-CIO. That failing, he’d be looking at slashing his staff, too, or creating a new organization that both AFL-CIO member unions and others could join in the common cause of winning elections. While organized business remains politically weak in Los Angeles, it’s not clear how much clout organized labor retains if it splits in two.

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