The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The Unions Need a New Leadership—One That Is Ready to Lead a Fight

Aug 1, 2005

The AFL-CIO has split. Leaders of four large unions announced they would not attend the AFL-CIO convention. In the following days, three of the four unions–the Teamsters, the Service Employees (SEIU) and the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) finished the job, confirming what everyone expected: They were quitting. There were speculations that other unions might also leave–specifically UNITE-HERE, plus perhaps the Laborers and the Farmworkers. They will join the Carpenters union which already had left the federation.

If the entire coalition leaves, that would account for nearly one-third of the dues paid to the federation.

Jimmy Hoffa Jr., Andy Stern and Joe Hansen, leaders of the three unions that already left, say they are leaving so they can organize new members.

If there is anything that needs to be done these days, it’s to organize. Less than 8% of the private work force is in a union. Even counting public employees–teachers, government workers, police and firefighters–the overall rate of unionization is an abysmal 12%, down from 35% when the AFL and the CIO merged in 1955.

What does the coalition propose? It wants existing unions to merge into bigger unions, saying that this would allow labor to concentrate its forces on organizing.

If merging smaller unions into bigger unions would have paved the way to organizing and gaining more members, then the union movement should be vibrantly alive today. Between 1978 and today, there were at least 110 mergers of smaller unions into bigger ones. During the 10 years that John Sweeney has headed the AFL-CIO, there have been 31 mergers. Instead of breathing new life into the federation, merging only seems to have turned it into a bunch of old men, running out of breath.

In fact, merging was little more than a bureaucratic answer to the continuing decline in membership. Losing members, the unions lost dues. The bigger unions turned to gobbling up smaller ones to keep the money coming in to support their headquarters, their apparatus and their usual way of functioning.

Proposing to merge was the bureaucrats’ way to avoid the main problem: Why couldn’t they convince workers to join them?

It certainly wasn’t because workers had no reason to organize. The conditions literally push people to organize themselves today. But to take that step, sometimes risking a lot to confront the bosses, workers have to have confidence that when they make a fight, the union they are trying to join will back them up.

The whole federation, starting with the unions that split, is littered with the corpses of strikes that union leaders gave only grudging support to–starting with the Detroit newspaper strike of 1995, the UPS strike of 1997 up to the California supermarket strike of 2004–not to mention the Hormel strike of 1985. The man leading the attack on the Hormel strikers, cutting them off from strike benefits and all support, taking over their local, was none other than the UFCW’s Joe Hansen, who today is one of the leaders of the new coalition.

The hallmark of those who are at the top of the unions today–whether they stay in the federation or leave–is their readiness to defend the profits of "their own" bosses at the workers’ expense.

If the labor movement is to be revitalized today, it will be by the same forces that built it in the first place–the mass activity of workers striking to improve their situation, linking up with each other to make massive struggles across union lines. Unions did not grow based on decisions taken behind closed doors over which union would get the dues of which group of workers. They grew up based on millions of workers out in the streets around the country, clogging up the ordinary functioning of the capitalist economy, forcing the bosses to come to terms with them.

It’s true that the labor movement needs a new start and a new leadership–it needs militants ready to base themselves on the fighting capacities of the working class.