New Strategy at AFL-CIO or Same Ol’, Same Ol’?

110105_afl_cio_ap_328New Orleans    I watched a brief interview for USA Today with Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, on the eve of their coming convention, as he argued that with the diminishing numbers, there were changes coming at the federation.   The changes he talked about mainly were some kind of broader affiliation program that was enrolling the NAACP and the Sierra Club.

            Both groups have been allies of labor from time to time, and both to some degree are membership organizations with chapters around the country.  But, when Trumka was asked about whether they would be full members, pay dues, or affiliate on the local level, the answers were all, essentially, “maybe” or “we’ll have to see,” both of which are euphemisms for “no,” I’m pretty sure. 

            This isn’t a change of strategy, but a recognition that the only power that the AFL-CIO or labor in general can pretend to still have is political power, not worker power.  The Sierra Club and the NAACP are political allies, not organizational allies.   This kind of new strategy is the equivalent of asking them to come to the convention, speak for five minutes, and get an award.

            Nor is it new.  With great fanfare before John Sweeney’s last AFL-CIO convention, they paraded out Pedro Alvarado and announced an affiliation of the National Day Laborers’ Organizing Network known as NDLON, arguing that this was a new strategy of embracing worker centers as an organizing tool.  The years pass and there are now 225 worker centers, some of whom focus on day labor, most of them focus on immigrant rights, but none of them in reality are changing the organizing strategies of institutional labor.  These are public relations moves to soften the popular, outdated picture of big labor looking out for themselves and no one else.

            There is no new AFL-CIO strategy.   It’s the same strategy that the federation has used for over a 100 years.  This is a political organization and any power it has left is political power. This is the lobbying headquarters for labor nationally and at the state level, and its role in that arena is critical and irreplaceable. 

            The one thing we will not hear or read in this coming convention is anything real that talks about serious work to actually organize workers and turn back the decline that now has only a bit more than 6% of the US workforce actually dues paying, card carrying members of unions. 

            Sad, but true.



Reading the Tea Leaves on Huge SEIU-NUHW Decert in California

New Orleans  First come the disclaimers.   I have no stomach for this 5 year saga in California that has created a huge rift in the labor movement as folks picked sides between the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the National Union of Healthcare Workers’  (NUHW).  Depending on how you line up, NUHW is either a principled group of dissidents trying to reform SEIU and the whole labor movement and bring it back to its roots or a band of renegades who broke when they didn’t get everything on their Christmas list from SEIU. 

Regardless the ballots are now out to the workers of the huge 45,000 member bargaining unit at Kaiser Hospitals on the question of whether or not to decertify the existing bargaining unit, SEIU, or to certify NUHW.  Starting May 1st the ballots are due and the counting will begin, perhaps to put an end to all of this or maybe to simply open another chapter in his horrible mess.  This is a re-run election.  SEIU won the first round by a large margin, but the election was overturned by the NLRB based on findings of unfair labor practices in the way that Kaiser favored SEIU before the vote.

Stomach or no, I finally manned up and spent some time looking at how the campaign was going to see if there were reasons to handicap the election differently than I have done in the past.  Over recent years were I to have been asked, and believe me I was not asked, I would have advised NUHW to find a stronger path for its organizing future and let this Kaiser thing go, even knowing that if lightning might strike, it would be a whole different world for them.  I just saw the odds as too long and the strengths of SEIU’s incumbency as the bargaining agent, resources, and commitment to the fight as too strong to be overcome.   Regardless, I thought I should look to see if I should revise my prediction or reassess the odds and the outcome.

The folks at NUHW are no fools that’s for sure.  They did their best to even the odds and hooked up with the California Nurses’ Association part of the national nurses’ union affiliated with the AFL-CIO.  The union severed its no-raiding agreement with SEIU which could rekindle organizing wars in hospitals around the country.  Nurses pay big time union dues, so this tie-up gave NUHW a partner with deep pockets assuring that they wouldn’t get blown out of the water during the election.   Reading the reports of folks a little closer to the ground like NUHW supporter, former CWA representative, and labor journalist (and Social Policy contributing editor) Steve Early, these resources have allowed them to try and match the SEIU ground campaign of several years ago so that currently they have 125 organizers, mass mailings, and a contracted canvass crew to help with voter turnout. 

Nonetheless, reading the back-and-forth on the websites, it all looked “same ol’ same ol’” and that’s not enough to change the final outcome.  SEIU is making a big deal of the failure of NUHW units to get a contract with Kaiser and using the classic argument to workers that the “devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.”  SEIU isn’t silent either on the lost court appeal of the NUHW officers on the multi-million dollar claim against them for diverting members’ dues in order to finance their schism and split.  SEIU is calling CNA and its leadership strike happy.   Theirs is a conservative, hold-the-line incumbent’s campaign.  NUHW is also still fighting the last war and arguing that SEIU is too close to management and that the labor/management partnership, now 16 years old, is hurting the workers.   On either side there didn’t seem like any real breakthrough, new issues.    If this is all there is, my guess is that it’s not enough.  My bet would still be that for NUHW to win there would need to be something more.   Something bigger.  Something much better.

Hospital workers facing the brave new world of the Affordable Care Act and the depressing recent world of the worst economy since the Great Depression are not going to be wide eyed radicals looking for a new future.  The status quo for better or worse might not look great, but will look good enough, returning SEIU as the bargaining agent with perhaps a smaller plurality than they had last time.

There can no longer be any winners in California, and at this point I would bet money that the workers are all sighing and saying under their breath, “a pox on both of their houses.”  

I could be way wrong from thousands of miles away, but as an organizer, I would be surprised if the 2nd verse of this song was any different than the first.

SEIU-NUHW Decert Audio Blog


Unbelievable: Right-to-Work in Michigan

New Orleans   Virtually in the blink of an eye, despite huge divisions on the street and throughout the state, somehow, unbelievably, Michigan is now, like the solid south and some of the West, the 24th state with a so-called “right-to-work” law.  The law, signed yesterday, takes effect in the spring of 2013.

In fact for many workers under collective bargaining contracts I suspect, without knowing for certain, that the full impact will not take hold until existing agreements expire and new contracts bar inclusion in the language.  In Louisiana despite passage of the law in 1976 some contracts allowed union-shop provisions into 1978 and 1979, until renegotiated.  In Michigan with some long term contracts in auto and heavy industry for up to 5 years, the full impact of this devastating political attack on labor may not be realized for several years.

I could also be wrong since I haven’t seen any discussion of how the new legislation affects existing collective bargaining agreements.  I also may have been wrong in applauding labor’s efforts to push back at the Wisconsin-style efforts in that state and by their governor during the last election.   I had argued early this fall that this was a good strategy for labor under fierce attack to establish that it still had majority support.  Unfortunately in big fights where the fruits of victory may be larger, so also are the risks of defeat.  Many now believe that labor overreached in trying to establish some additional protections in the Michigan constitution for collective bargaining, and labor was defeated soundly.  I had dismissed this as the difficulty of winning constitutional changes as opposed to standard electoral initiatives.  Unfortunately the loss at the ballot box on restoring bargaining rights for low wage home health care workers was also emphatic.  The old advice that when you “slap the bear,” you better bring the bear down seems to prevail here.  The business and right elite within the significant Republican base in Michigan saw this as weakness and made the political decision to call in their chits and deliver a blow to the longstanding political clout of labor by ripping the wallet right out of our workpants and making dues collection infinitely harder.

Unfortunately too many people without union experience don’t get our case.  The right’s argument that letting membership dues be an individual decision seems reasonable to too many of the public and even some number of workers who are more ambivalent in understanding the push-and-shove of collective bargaining between unions and management.  This is the same problem faced by our support of card check recognition systems as opposed to union elections.  Despite the fact that unions are philosophically committed and legally tied to internal democracy, the seemingly undemocratic procedures around our positions about dues and elections are confusing.

Craig Becker, now the AFL-CIO’s general counsel, is right in the Times:

“We’re going to have to do a better job in Michigan and other states where ‘right to work’ is being discussed — that you can’t be in favor of collective bargaining and what collective bargaining represents for ordinary people in terms of some counterweight to growing income inequality and still support right-to-work legislation.”

Many are swearing that the elections in Michigan in 2014 will overturn this.  Having watched and listened to the late Victor Bussie, longtime president of the Louisiana AFL-CIO commit many times during his career after 1976 that he would not retire and not rest until right-to-work was repealed in Louisiana, I can tell you it is best not to wait, but to go to work immediately.  The longer r-t-w, the harder it is to get rid to the damned thing.  A generation of workers in Louisiana has now lived under right-to-work and no one sees a different future now.

Michigan has proven that this can happen anywhere now in these polarized times of political class war.  No one is safe.  Everyone had best be ready.  This seems a fight to the death for traditional worker organizations.


Eagles Falling and more Institutions Shrinking

Missoula   Flying through Denver we picked up the papers on our way to our camping and fishing vacation off the grid in Montana.  Depressing!

Though well known for a while, reading the story of the AFL-CIO’s proposed sale of their National Labor College was a downer.   Not only because of all of the waste but even more so because of the story’s ending in the Times with the tale of a dream not deferred, but deserted and denied.  The notion that the college was meant to be labor’s equivalent to a West Point for future labor leaders and to train the members was long gone, but the quote from Kate Bronfenbrenner from Cornell saying in effect that labor just simply needed to scale down its dreams because they just weren’t going to happen, was a gut kick!

An article in the Wall Street Journal talked about the fate of another institution that seems to have also abandoned the dream:  the Boy Scouts of America.  There was discussion about how only 2% used to make to Eagle Scouts.  My brother, my son, and myself were all in that number and until recently damned proud of it.  Camping and fishing around Rock Creek, Montana about 30 miles as the crow flies – and farther by expressway, paved, and dirt road – building fires, cooking on them, waking with the birds, throwing flies and steel at rainbow and brown trout, chopping wood, building brushfires, refilling propane tanks, working old Coleman stoves, clearing out dead trees, stacking the rocks, making our own Stonehenge of old log pieces around the trailer, we work hard, play hard, and call this vacation!  Had years of camping as a boy in the West and South not given me the bug, would this have been where I could find peace and joy in life in the middle of the storms?  Heck no!   Yet, now the Boy Scouts is robbing many of that experience as it goes all hater on young boys and what their sexual orientation might be and whether or not men and women who have made different life choices and decisions can be involved along with their children.

One tragedy after another:  I’m glad I won’t be ready the paper for a couple of days!


Could More than 40% of Philly Voters Be Denied the Ballot?

New Orleans  A headline from the Naked City blog by Daniel Denvir in Philadelphia caught my eye:  “A Whopping 43 Percent of Philly Voters May Not Have Voter ID, According to New Data.”  Holy-moly!  No wonder the Republicans think their voter suppression effort in the Pennsylvania legislature, according to their leadership, may have handed the state to Romney in the upcoming election.

The new data seems to have come from the state AFL-CIO and the numbers crunched out this way, according to Denvir:

The new data, received and processed by the AFL-CIO, for the first time includes voters who had PennDOT licenses that have (as of Monday) been expired since Nov. 6, 2011 or an earlier date. If those people do not renew their licenses, the licenses will be expired by at least one year on election day and thus invalid under the new law. And because the AFL-CIO’s voter file (which shows the already-publicized large number of voters with no PennDOT record) is seven months old, it could actually represent an undercount since it does not address whether those who have registered as voters since January have valid ID.

I reached out for Craig Robbins, who directs the work of the community organization, Action United, in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and asked him if this could really be possible.  Craig pulled me off the ceiling since I had blown a gasket before dawn reading this.  Very soberly, he advised:

No-the 18 percent figure that was put out a couple weeks ago after the state actually matched the voter records with the official state issued ID records is closer to the truth but even that is probably a stretch. But whatever it is, it’s suppression and if it stands (I can’t believe it will be allowed to stand) it will have a serious impact.

The 18% figure, which would put it darned close to 1 out of 5 voters pushed out of the polling stations is actually pretty horrendously anti-democratic, too, so it’s hard not to be spitting mad at watching this level of civil-rights-era voter suppression happening right under our noses.  Denvir climbs off the wall himself in his piece and echoes Craig’s point, but also underlines the Republican bait-and-switch of claiming that 1% or less of Pennsylvania’s voters would have an ID problem in voting, which regardless of the numbers is now widely acknowledged, to quote Craig again, that “it’s suppression.”  Clearly no one in PA knows who is on first and what is on second, other than they want to steal an election.

Again, Naked City:

But it is the state’s very inability to determine a final estimate of just how many Pennsylvanians might be impacted by the law that has fueled criticism. Initially, the state said that only 1 percent lacked valid ID. On July 3, that number skyrocketed when the Pennsylvania Secretary of State announced that 758,939 registered voters in the state, or 9 percent, may not have PennDOT IDs. In Philadelphia, 186,830 registered voters were not found in the PennDOT database, or 18 percent.

The Justice Department is now banging on the door of the courts, but this is way out of hand and the clock to the election is ticking so even with a dues ex machina injunction, some voters out there are undoubtedly already dissuaded from voting, so that harm is now irreparable in an election that is now too close to call this November.

Organizations like ACTION United are doing what they can.  When I asked, Craig reports that they are organizing a gang of “Voter Mobilizers.”

Voter Mobilizers!  Training 200 members statewide to do VR, cleanup voter list, educate and ID folks w voter ID issues and finally turn them all out to vote. Big leadership development program for us in Philly and Pitt.

Even hard work like that could be “too little, too late,” if there’s not a full court press by everyone and a judge with some sense that democracy and fair elections are still important in the United States.


Joyce Miller: First Lady of Labor

Joyce Miller being honored (1983)

New Orleans   Meeting Joyce Miller was one of those happy coincidences.  Her son, Josh, was working as a researcher for ACORN in Arkansas in the 1970’s, which gave her an excuse to visit the state and the rest of us an opportunity to meet her.  The Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) was something that mattered at the time, because they were the one established group of tough, savvy union women within the ranks of institutional labor that the staid, conservative building trades wing led by George Meany, didn’t embrace, but couldn’t shake off.  As vice-president of the once powerful and progressive union, the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union (ACTWU), Joyce had been at the founding meetings of CLUW and an early officer of the organization, becoming in 1977, CLUW’s second national president.

Unions were decidedly “old school” at the time, even more so than now.  The old lions were still roaming the range, even as the membership and movement was sliding down a mountain, having crested without realizing it, and still grasping at this rock or that on the way down, as they tried to get a grip and denied the obvious at the same time.  Joyce was “old school,” too, which is partly what made her impossible to ignore for the old hands, frustrating for the young feminists, and effective in the backrooms in what she referred to as the “sea of men.”  She was from Chicago, had started working on auto assembly lines while in school there, and became an activist.  She first rose to prominence in the unions that became ACTWU as education director of the Joint Board in the Midwest.  Labor education in the old school of labor used to be part of the essential package that prepared leaders, trained stewards and bargaining committees, and, essentially provided the history and ideology that built the struggle “culture” of the labor movement.  This was the “soft side” of a hard movement.   And, not just the soft side either, because part of what went with the portfolio was strike support.  Joyce’s department had to be able to mobilize the social services, get the food stamps and unemployment that allowed the troops to hang on, provide the family support, and a hundred other things that could allow workers to make it “one day longer” and give them a chance to win.  A tall, sturdy woman with a hoarse, gruff voice, Joyce didn’t come off like a social worker.  She wasn’t a back down woman.  It wouldn’t have been hard imagining her puffing a cigar with the old guys if that had made a difference.

Joyce Miller in 1988 second from left with Evy Dubrow (far right), a CLUW founder.

Both of these departments have largely disappeared, but in the 1970’s and 1980’s there leaders at the cutting edge like Joyce could understand that a hybrid community union of sorts like ACORN, starting to expand from Arkansas to other states, could be a game changer as part of the larger progressive forces with their wider view of labor.  I can never forget in the late 70’s while trying to raise money one spring in New York, Joyce inviting me to have lunch in Union Square with some of her colleagues, including the organizing director of the union.  As Joyce moderated the discussion, they explained what they did.  I explained what we did.  The organizing director wanted to know all the specifics.  How many organizers?  What hours did they work?  What were they paid?  Finally at the end of the lunch, he turned to me and said that he would give anything if we could just do an even trade, his organizing staff for mine for a couple of years.  He honestly didn’t think the trade was a good deal for ACORN, but he thought he might save his union and the labor movement if we could make a deal.  Everyone laughed.  Joyce louder than others, feeling she had just stirred the pot.  He wasn’t serious unfortunately, but I was, and it made a different.

In 1980, I was 32 and Joyce Miller was 52.  That year she was named the first woman member of the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council.  Women by that time made up more than 7 million of the 13.5 million members of the federation, so it was fair to say that it was about damned time.  Now there are women running some of the largest unions within institutional labor from the AFT to the SEIU.   More than 30 years later women still don’t have a secure role in the union culture despite their increasing majority.  I can remember the fights in the late 1980’s to get women on the executive board of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO.  Women are still disproportionately represented at every level of the labor movement, and that issue alone has to be on the list when noting labor’s decline.

I got an email late last night from Josh Miller, now a long tenured professor at Lafayette College on the Pennsylvania/New Jersey border.  She was in her mid-80’s.  I had written about her in Social Policy in recent years which had given me a good excuse to have a couple of great phone conversations with her, sharp as a tack, and to the point as always.

He said Joyce had died the night before.  He knew I would want to know because “she was one of your greatest fans.”   And, I was one of hers!

I will be looking for Steven Greenhouse’s obituary for Joyce in the Times, because attention and respect must be paid.  Lessons in the special Joyce Miller school of labor education are still being taught and, more importantly, still need to be learned for women and men to lead the way in building the unions of the future.

Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) supports organizing drive at the A&S department store in Brooklyn.