New Orleans: Every so often there is something in the news so compelling and attractive that it is hard to resist. Today, a piece published in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, whatever that might be, came to my attention. I hesitate to describe the zany take on reality that attracts them, but it seems there is a “union elite” — almost a contradiction in terms — and it includes Andy Stern, George Soros, Eli Broad, Jimmy Hoffa, Steve Rosenthal, and Drummond Pike — and, oh, me, too! What a collection that would be, my friends.
This kind of piece is dangerous in its own way, because as wild and offbeat as it starts, damned if by the end, it doesn’t start to make some sense, and then you have to be careful not to go screaming in the night.
August 6, 2005
March of the Union Elite
WASHINGTON — A small and elite group, many of them connected to Washington’s radical think tank, the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), has decided they will create a new international organization for the 21st century. It will be a massive labor alliance to rival the AFL.
Not only IPS is involved with the new concept. There also are Andrew Stern, 54, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and his ultra-wealthy allies, George Soros and philanthropist Eli Broad.
And there are others. Jimmy Hoffa of the Teamsters; Steve Rosenthal of America Coming Together; Drummond Pike, president and CEO of the Tides Foundation; and a raftful of lefty rebels defecting from the AFL.
The list is not complete without Wade Rathke, the founder of the leftist Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). Wade also is chief organizer of SEIU’s Local 100 and the founder and director of the Organizers’ Forum, a major force on the Left.
Whether we are of the Republican or Democrat persuasion — or even one of those who only read the comic pages — we all know the AFL-CIO is a massive, old institution. Some of us even know that the initials stand for the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations.
For the past 50 years, the AFL leadership has been known as a quarrelsome bunch of old geezers, much given to name-calling in their negotiations with employers and each other. They are long over-ripe for a takeover or elimination. But only a few expected that a handful of these folks could drive a wrecking machine through their convention this year.
As the convention opened, the SEIU and the Teamsters announced they were quitting the organization. These unions and others united around a reform agenda called Change to Win (CTW) — based on their claim that the AFL has failed to react to the changing pace of public-policy development under a Republican White House and Congress — and had become increasingly ineffective.
Other major unions from the Left — the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), UNITE HERE, the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) and the United Farm Workers (UFW) — joined the insurgents.
They now are working to recruit non-AFL unions like the carpenters union, which has about 500,000 members, and have commenced talks with the 2.7 million-strong National Education Association (NEA), the largest union in the United States, to see whether it can be wooed into joining the new labor federation.
The NEA has never been part of the AFL. Even without any new recruits, just the insurgent unions represent 30 percent of the AFL’s membership of about 13 million.
The SEIU, with more than 1.8 million members, is the fastest-growing labor union in the country. The SEIU has a high percentage of immigrant and female workers on its paid-up rolls — from Central and South America, from Eastern Europe and from Asia. This feature is shared with other supporters of CTW, whose memberships are also nonwhite, aggressive and under 35.
These latter factors are in stark contrast to most of the older, long-established unions such as the steelworkers or the construction trades whose members are mechanics, craftsmen and technicians and whose aspirations are related to wages, Social Security, medical insurance as well as a mistaken belief in traditional union values.
A big difference between the AFL and SEIU is the attack on the Wal-Mart store world network, which, according to Stern, is central to CTW’s success.
The SEIU and CTW have advocated that labor finance “large, multi-union movement-wide campaigns to reverse the Wal-Marting of jobs and our communities by large low-road employers.” SEIU is working with allies in environmental, human rights, consumer, women’s and civil rights groups to build a broad-based strategy to take on Wal-Mart and attack from many directions at the same time.
Stern believes that to compete with Wal-Mart, companies such as Target and Kmart will have to participate in a “race to the bottom” — hire people at the lowest wages possible and with minimal benefits so as to give customers lower prices. Stern also argues that Wal-Mart pushes demands for lower prices onto its suppliers, who respond by cutting benefits, reducing starting wages and, in some cases, moving manufacturing to less-expensive countries.
The United States’ comparative and small advantages do not generally lie in those areas where unions are strongest, as people like Stern, Rathke and Soros know. Already, their concepts for the future of large global unions and meetings with more than a dozen European, Australian and Chinese labor unions have begun to globalize unions on an industry-by-industry basis.