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Terms of the Divorce

Breaking up is hard to do. And for an American labor movement currently splitting in two, nowhere more so than in California.The impact of the secession of three of the AFL-CIO’s four largest unions is particularly acute in California because the departed three — the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and the Teamsters — constitute a far greater share of the labor movement out here than they do elsewhere, and because a life-and-death electoral struggle for the state’s unions is on the ballot this November. If the unions can’t hammer out a way to work together in their electoral operation, the effect on California politics — not just union politics, but politics generally — could be considerable.“As yet, our campaign to defeat Proposition 75 [the Grover Norquist–inspired ballot measure to curtail the ability of public-sector unions to commit resources to political campaigns and ballot measures] hasn’t been affected” by the split, one influential state labor leader told me last week. “But that may not be the case for long. If we don’t come up with solutions in the next few weeks, it could have significant ramifications for the election.”For seven hours last Thursday, it appeared that a solution might be at hand when AFL-CIO president John Sweeney reversed his opposition to locals of the disaffiliated internationals continuing to belong to the local labor councils that coordinate labor’s electoral campaigns. But when the details of Sweeney’s proposal became known to the Change To Win (CTW) unions, as the coalition of the dissident unions is somewhat ridiculously called, those unions rejected Sweeney’s proposal later that afternoon. Still, the need for a solution is so pressing that California unionists take Sweeney’s reversal as a cause for hope.It should come as no surprise that of all the fallout from the secession of the CTW unions, it’s the threatened breakup of the local Central Labor Councils (CLCs) that is causing the real conniption fits. Here in L.A., our homeboy CLC, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, is just about the most effective get-out-the-vote operation in the land on behalf of progressive causes and candidates, and, yes, lesser-evil Democrats. Its breakup would be a calamity for the Democrats at the state and even the national level.The problem is partly quantitative. In L.A., the dear departed unions account for about half of the federation’s membership. In San Diego, they come to about 40 percent. In Orange County, they make up a little more than half. And in Sacramento, they total roughly 70 percent.The issue is qualitative, too. The problem is not just that the SEIU is far and away the largest union in the state — 600,000 of the state federation’s 2.1 million members belong to the SEIU — but also the best, when it comes to generating the activists who mobilize voters and get them to the polls. So long as the SEIU remains affiliated with local councils, its activists can knock not only on the doors of their fellow SEIU members, but on those of any AFL-CIO members — which is precisely what I’ve seen happen in every political campaign here since the mid-’90s. If the SEIU can’t deploy its activists to do that, there will be many thousands of union households that won’t be canvassed in this fall’s election.And yet, coming out of the AFL-CIO’s sundered convention in late July, keeping the labor councils intact looked to be a decidedly uphill battle. At the time, Sweeney and Gerald McEntee, head of the largest union remaining in the federation, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), took what one of their allies called a “scorched earth” position toward the seceding unions. In a press conference near the close of the convention, Sweeney made clear that he intended to enforce the organization’s constitution, which forbids a union that has disaffiliated at the national level from remaining active at the local level. “The constitution is pretty clear on this,” Sweeney said, “and we will enforce the constitution.”On July 28, the convention's final day, Sweeney sent a memo to state federations and CLCs, making clear that the constitution banned not just the contested locals’ membership on those bodies but also establishing any “shadow” bodies where the locals of unions within and without the national AFL-CIO could come together to wage campaigns, and to which the staff of abruptly defunded CLCs could be relocated. (Nearly a year ago, when the SEIU first began to make noises about leaving the AFL-CIO, Miguel Contreras, the farsighted leader of the L.A. Fed who died suddenly in May, told me that he envisioned just such organization as the one way to enable affiliated and unaffiliated unions to come together for political work.) At the Chicago press conference where they announced their disaffiliation, SEIU president Andy Stern and Teamsters president Jim Hoffa urged their locals to stay affiliated with the AFL-CIO’s state federation and CLCs. National AFL-CIO leaders were indignant, however, that unions no longer paying their dues to the national organization (and the hit the AFL-CIO has taken from the secessions comes to roughly $30 million out of an annual budget of $125 million) believed they should be free to select which subsidiary bodies they chose to support.But the institutional logic of the national organization was not the institutional logic of the state and local groupings. In Los Angeles, local leaders from both sides of the divide have been meeting informally to develop ways of keeping their operations intact. And not just in Los Angeles. “No matter what happens here,” San Diego Central Labor Council secretary-treasurer Jerry Butkiewicz said at the AFL-CIO’s Chicago convention, “our unions in San Diego are going to keep working together. We are winning on account of our unity, and we’ll preserve it — whether through a parallel organization, or whatever, and we’ll do it within the AFL-CIO bylaws.“I see this as an opportunity,” Butkiewicz continued. “We’ve never reached out in a formal way to other non-AFL-CIO unions: the NEA [National Education Association, whose California affiliate is the California Teachers Association], the prison guards. Now, if we create something new, we may be able to get them all under the same tent.”Not surprisingly, officials at the AFL-CIO’s 16th Street headquarters in Washington were deluged with messages from local labor councils, and from locals on all sides of the controversy, urging them to come up with a solution that didn’t destroy labor’s local operations. Those operations weren’t simply electoral. Here in L.A., the Fed’s political clout has long been a powerful asset bolstering the unionization campaigns of the hotel workers of UNITE HERE (which is also contemplating secession), the strikes of janitors and bus drivers, and a whole range of organizing and bargaining endeavors.So, with little support outside D.C. for banning the contested locals, Sweeney backed off. On Thursday morning, August 11, he announced that he was asking the national federation’s executive council to approve changes to AFL-CIO statutes that would create “solidarity charters,” under which locals of the disaffiliated internationals could retain their membership in state federations and CLCs. Executive-council approval is expected later this week.There were conditions attached, however, that did not become apparent until later in the day. The sticking point was a provision stipulating that the locals of disaffiliated internationals would have to pay a 10 percent surcharge on their dues to the CLCs and state federations, to cover, say federation staffers, the expenses that the national AFL-CIO incurs servicing the labor councils. Another contentious provision said that officials of the state and local bodies who are members of the disaffiliated internationals — and many are — could serve out their terms, but would have to join other unions if they ran for re-election.Late on the day of Sweeney’s announcement, the CTW Coalition rejected its terms. CTW chair Anna Burger, who is also secretary-treasurer of the SEIU, charged that “It uses the rhetoric of unity but is designed to provoke unnecessary division.” She blasted the “discriminatory fees” and a host of other provisions as well. SEIU spokesperson Ben Boyd said that the international’s instructions to its locals — “They should continue paying what they were paying and stay affiliated” — were not altered to include the payment of any surcharge.And yet, Sweeney’s apparent reversal, whatever conditions later became apparent, brought a widespread relief to local labor leaders. “Even despite Burger’s rejection, there was a lot of excitement all across the labor movement here,” one key California union official from an AFL-CIO member union says. “People felt they’d seen the light at the end of the tunnel. And that means people from both sides. What the Change To Win unions are saying at the highest level is not what a number of their locals are saying here. People felt we’re now finding a way to stay together and work on the election.”A source within the CTW unions emphatically disputes that characterization — or anyway, part of it. “When we saw the details, we didn’t really see a change in attitude,” he says. Sweeney “offered our locals second-class status. It would have been a lot smarter not to have included the small print.”Nonetheless, he says, “People are encouraged that there’s been some movement.” There’s now more of a basis for talks to resolve the impasse, he adds.As if things weren’t difficult enough, California is the one state where a departed international (SEIU), freed from the anti-raiding provisions that bind AFL-CIO member unions, has begun efforts to win the right to represent local unions of a rival international (in this case, AFSCME) — even though the SEIU’s Stern pledged that his union would do no raiding once it left the federation. The two contested locals represent home-care workers in San Diego and Riverside counties. In San Diego, when AFSCME took over the union from local leaders whom it accused of multiple improprieties, those leaders approached the SEIU in an attempt to retain their control of the local by switching internationals. As well, during the past month, roughly 3,000 members of AFSCME’s 9,000-member Riverside local responded to an SEIU campaign by signing petitions requesting recognition of the SEIU as their union.Whatever the merits or demerits of the SEIU’s claims, the outbreak of this kind of conflict between two major unions sure doesn’t make arriving at some modus vivendi in California any easier. “Still, we have AFSCME leaders and SEIU leaders at the same political-strategy meetings, even if there’s a lot of bitter humor,” one local labor leader reports. Compelled to stay together even as they split apart, California unions are walking one tricky tightrope as a crucial election descends on them.