Labor fractured

July 27, 2005

BIG LABOR - the AFL-CIO - celebrated its 50th birthday this week with a historic and painful divorce that heightens the uncertainties facing unions and workers in America.

After decades of decline, an internal rift over how to resurrect organized labor erupted with two of the nation's largest unions walking out of the labor federation. The dissidents - led by the Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters - say they will focus more on aggressive recruiting and organizing to amass the density of members within single industries to confront the growing clout of multinational corporations, instead of following the federation's past emphasis on lobbying and Democratic Party politics.

In truth, there may be less to the actual differences between the two sides than proclaimed and more to the assertion that this boils down to a highly personal feud between the AFL-CIO's longtime president, John J. Sweeney, and the leader of the "Change to Win Coalition," SEIU President Andrew L. Stern. If that is the case - if this breakup is mostly about personal power - that makes it even more of a gamble.

The schism comes as union membership has crashed from 35 percent of the American work force 50 years ago to just 8 percent of private-sector workers today - and as the U.S. political environment has acquired a decidedly anti-worker cast. It subtracts a fourth of the members and a sixth of the budget from the nation's main labor consortium. Most fundamentally, it shatters labor's guiding principle of solidarity, opening the door to internecine political, organizing and financial battles that likely would play right into the hands of labor's enemies. The Bush White House doubtless is pleased.

Yet there is plenty of evidence from labor's long slide that a new strategy is badly needed to catch up with the profound changes that are sweeping through the American economy under the pressure of globalization, the shift from manufacturing to services, and the high costs of sustaining the health care and retirement security so hard won in the last century by unions. In that sense, Mr. Stern's call for unions to evolve - along with the changing economy - resonates loudly.

Effective advocacy for the interests of American workers is needed - and in line with the larger interests of this nation as a whole. This is not a simple matter of left-right, poor-rich, Democratic-Republican politics, but of advancing critical causes - of better education, health care, retirement security - in which the entire country has stakes. Having fractured labor's united front of the last half-century in the cause of halting its continuing decline, it's now up to Mr. Stern and other leaders of the "Change to Win Coalition" to make a compelling enough case to American workers for their unions to attract new energy. That's a very tall order, particularly because, at least in the immediate sense, it seems inescapable that a bitterly divided labor movement risks becoming even weaker.

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