September 6, 2005

ILR Panelists Discuss Organized Labor Split

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The School of Industrial and Labor Relations hosted a panel discussion on the future of organized labor in America on Friday, allowing members of the ILR faculty to address a standing room-only audience in 105 Ives Hall.

The event, entitled “The Split in the AFL-CIO: Is There a Future for Unions?”, was moderated by ILR Dean Harry Katz. Panel members were asked to discuss the causes and potential consequences of the growing rift in the AFL-CIO and talk about what the umbrella organization’s split would mean for American labor.

The AFL-CIO saw a tumultous summer when, in July, a faction led by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union withdrew from the organization to form the Change to Win Coalition. Other unions, still technically members of the AFL-CIO, are supporting the new group.

Introducing the discussion, Katz said the current crisis “is an important moment in American labor history.” He explained that the movement is declining not only in the U.S., but around the world. “The labor movement is in trouble,” he said.

Rosemary Batt, the Alice H. Cook Professor in Women and Work, gave what she called a “cursory” introduction to the issues behind the growing gulf within the AFL-CIO. One of the main issues fueling the split, she explained, was whether or not to centralize campaigns and coordinate bargaining. The Change to Win coalition believes, according to Batt, that “unions are too small and fragmented to take on large corporations.” The AFL-CIO, however, wants to retain what she called a “loose federation of unions” and keep mergers voluntary.

Other critical factors motivating the split are whether unions should be organized by industry or craft and whether reforms should be considered urgent or incorporated into long-term strategic changes.

Prof. Jefferson Cowie, collective bargaining, law and history, followed Batt with a historical approach to the current turmoil. “Splits and divisions are the stuff of institutional labor history,” he said. Cowie explained that there has always been tension within the labor movement.

This fall commemorates the 70th anniversary of the founding of the CIO and the 50th anniversary of the merger between the AFL and the CIO. For the last half-century, Cowie said, “the AFL-CIO has been losing its grip on the economy.” Past uprisings and union withdrawals, with the exception of the CIO’s creation, never lasted long and did not overwhelmingly change the landscape of American labor. The Change to Win campaign, Cowie said, “looks very much like the smaller events. The CIO looks more like an aberration.”

“I’m personally not convinced that they’ve come up with the answers,” Cowie concluded in his short address. “I don’t think the history I’ve laid out is grounds for much optimism.”

Prof. Richard Hurd, statewide labor, was the panel’s final speaker. He pointed out that although John Sweeney, current AFL-CIO president, was elected ten years ago on a platform of structural change, he now “speaks for the status quo.” The optimism of the last decade has deteriorated, Hurd admitted. “10 months of feuding and trading insults have taken their toll.”

Hurd does not believe the Change to Win Coalition will succeed because it only touches on the organization’s structure and resource allocations. He said bigger issues, like changes in workforce demography and continued globalization, need to be addressed at the grassroots and national levels in order for organized labor to regain its strength.

After the panelists shared their opinions on the AFL-CIO split, they answered questions on the role of national politicians in labor (Cowie said there is a “remarkably hostile political environment to try to get pro-labor legislation passed” right now) and whether the AFL-CIO’s treatment of immigrants may be causing tension with white male union workers.

The future of the AFL-CIO will be further decided when the Change to Win Coalition meets later this fall. They will decide whether to form an organization in direct competition with the AFL-CIO, which will influence the potential withdrawal of unions like the United Farm Workers and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America from the AFL-CIO.

Archived article by Melissa Korn < br> Sun Senior Editor