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The Split Within Organized Labor

Tragically, the most important issue?economic policy and politics?remains out of focus on both sides of the divide.

| Tue Mar. 28, 2006 4:00 AM EST

For the last year there has been a widening split within the ranks of American organized labor, and this split risks hardening as the new Change to Win (CTW) coalition increasingly takes on the complexion of a rival labor federation.

Thus far, the argument has focused on union organizing efforts and how unions should be structured. Yet, in many ways the split is without purpose because the AFL-CIO is already on the same page as the CTW coalition. This should surprise none since CTW leaders have been powerful members of the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council for the last decade, from where they have profoundly influenced Federation policy.

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That begs the questions what are the real differences, and how would the CTW leadership have run the AFL-CIO differently had they been in charge. Perhaps more money would have been spent on Federation organizing efforts, Federation dues reduced further, individual union mergers accelerated, and more AFL-CIO programs closed. But these are second-order differences of judgment and disputes about managerial effectiveness, not differences of vision that warrant a split.

In many regards the split is simply the result of frustration at inability to reverse union decline. The tragedy is that the real issue remains out of focus on both sides (I’ll make no friends today). That issue is the significance of economic policy and politics in union strategy. It is an issue that does not warrant a split, but it does warrant prime time and could even provide the frame for a galvanizing debate that jump starts the entire union movement and changes national politics. This crucial debate can be framed as “sliced bread” versus “the box”.

The sliced bread approach to strategy comes out of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which is a major force within the CTW coalition. Late last year (2005) SEIU launched a greatest idea since sliced bread competition that asked ordinary Americans what they thought were the most critically needed policy initiatives. The goal was to launch an unprecedented national conversation about how to strengthen the economy and improve life for working men and women and their families.

The sliced bread competition was jazzy and attention grabbing, reflecting the imaginative and innovative characteristics that distinguish SEIU. But sliced bread was much more than a one-time competition. It was also a statement about where unions should be headed. From the sliced bread perspective unions must find those economic initiatives that people want, are important, and doable. The challenge is to work within the existing system, and find a new place for unions.

Such a view leads to talk of “partnering with our employers” and of unions taking over and organizing outsourcing. When it comes to globalization, there is no going back and unions must adapt innovatively to the new environment. The critical feature is that the core parameters of the economic system are given, and unions have to live and work within those parameters. Only later, after unions have rebuilt them selves, can these parameters be re-visited and changed.

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