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The Cavalry to the Rescue

ST. LOUIS — And then there were two.

America picked up a second labor federation here on Tuesday, and it doesn’t bear all that much resemblance to the first. The AFL-CIO is a full-service federation — or was, before cutbacks necessitated by the defection of the unions gathered here in St. Louis decimated such venerable institutions as its international-affairs department. Even so, it is still home to some of the nation’s most skilled economists, lobbyists and electoral technicians.

The Change to Win Federation, as the new group named itself during its founding convention, is a light cavalry to the AFL-CIO’s army. Its seven member unions will retain their own political, lobbying and organizing operations, but CTW itself is almost entirely about organizing. Three-quarters of its initial $16 million annual budget will be devoted to a strategic organizing center, which will help member unions run their own and their joint organizing drives, and, most crucially, will initiate organizing drives of its own.

“We hope to have a small staff,” said Anna Burger, the secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), who on Tuesday began her two-year term as chairperson of CTW. But that staff will include many of labor’s most accomplished strategists in the arts of organizing both people and money (that is, the pension funds that can put pressure on recalcitrant employers). Heading the center will be Tom Woodruff, a salty unionist out of Appalachia who is one of SEIU’s — and labor’s — foremost organizers.

On Tuesday, Woodruff offered a broad sketch to the delegates of CTW’s plans. Its focus is the 50 million workers in jobs “that can’t be off-shored or digitized,” Woodruff said — that is, the truckers, carpenters, hotel chambermaids, waitresses, nurses, and supermarket and department store clerks who contemporary capitalism has yet to find a way to replace. And therein lies the other fundamental difference between the two federations: The CTW unions almost entirely represent workers whose jobs can’t be shipped abroad.

That, in fact, is the one clear commonality among the otherwise disparate unions that have formed CTW. SEIU and UNITE HERE are among the most accomplished organizing unions, and two of the most politically progressive, in American labor. The Teamsters and the Carpenters have had decidedly more centrist politics, and neither they nor the United Food and Commercial Workers and the Laborers are known for their organizing prowess. But unlike unions that represent manufacturing or communications workers, their members and potential members aren’t on the front lines of globalization.

Woodruff ran the numbers on Tuesday — 12 million workers in health care, 10 million in hotels and restaurants, 10 million in retail, 6 million in construction, a census of the organizable. He was considerably more circumspect in identifying the companies that the CTW and its unions mean to go after.

The St. Louis convention highlighted a number of joint campaigns already in progress — UNITE HERE and the Teamsters against the Cintas uniform company, and SEIU and the Teamsters against some bus companies. But CTW is also beginning to plan some distinct campaigns of its own that will target major retail chains. (Wal-Mart, everyone agrees, will have to come later.)

In planning organizing campaigns of its own that are beyond the scope of any one union, CTW is reviving the old CIO model of organizing. When John L. Lewis’ Mineworkers and Sidney Hillman’s Clothing Workers left the AFL in 1935 to begin organizing in the auto, steel and other manufacturing industries, it was the CIO itself, rather than any member union, that employed the organizers and coordinated the campaigns. That was a model that CIO President Walter Reuther argued for in 1955 when the CIO merged with the AFL, but AFL President George Meany (who became president of the merged Federation) contended that the existing unions could handle organizing themselves, and Meany’s position prevailed — with disastrous consequences.

Over the next 50 years, the economy grew in those places (the Sun Belt) and sectors (technology) where the unions weren’t, and shrunk in those places (the industrial Midwest) and sectors (manufacturing) where unions were. To a degree, the CTW’s structure, like the CIO’s before it, gives labor more mobility in its organizing endeavors.

But the CTW’S ability to remain a mobile strike force depends to some degree on the AFL-CIO. By choosing not to build, for instance, a political operation of its own, the new coalition plainly hopes to continue working within the AFL-CIO’s existing political structure. Burger said that her discussions with AFL-CIO President John Sweeney about the terms on which CTW unions can stay affiliated with AFL-CIO state federations and local labor councils have not gone well (the AFL-CIO wants the CTW unions to pay a surcharge to stay affiliated at the state and local levels). The new CTW constitution allows for the establishment of its own state and regional bodies, but UNITE HERE General President Bruce Raynor made clear that that provision had been included only if CTW unions were banned from participating in the AFL-CIO’s local councils. “We want to partner with the AFL-CIO in lots of areas where it makes sense,” said Burger, “and go in our own direction where it doesn’t.”

That’s a position that doesn’t please John Sweeney one little bit, but the CTW unions have now embarked on their own course and some of them, at least, have no intention of turning back. SEIU President Andy Stern, who more than anyone is responsible for the establishment of the new federation, was particularly emphatic on this point. “The AFL-CIO will never exist as the sole federation in America again,” he said Tuesday.

But the predominant spirit at Tuesday’s convention wasn’t defiance; it was hope. Convention delegates spoke repeatedly about CTW as a vehicle to transform whole industries, and regions, and, indeed, the nation’s politics. And, Lord knows, there are no other new vehicles on the American political scene for which anyone would make such claims. “What you’re really seeing here,” said one delegate, “is a rebirth of hope.”