Samuel Gompers

Under Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor, the union’s strategy was to concentrate on collective bargaining with employers and on specific legislative issues that directly affected workers. Wide-ranging social goals and political entanglements were left to others.
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The AFL-CIO’s troubles continued in January when the United Farm Workers joined several other labor organizations in severing ties with the powerful union. The unraveling began last summer when James P. Hoffa and his Teamsters officially withdrew from the AFL-CIO and formed a new coalition called Change to Win.

Instead of weakening unions, this split could invigorate the labor movement. But that will require abandoning the old habits and outmoded thinking that have guided union activities for so long.

Organized labor has moved well beyond its core mission of championing workers’ issues to financing and promoting a range of policies and groups that have nothing to do with labor.

The Teamsters’ letter of withdrawal showed promise in that direction. Hoffa stated, "Our differences … concern the future of the labor movement in this country." Joining the Teamsters at Change to Win’s founding convention on Sept. 27 were several former AFL-CIO affiliates, with a total membership of more than 6 million.

Robert Reich, President Clinton’s secretary of labor, sees the AFL-CIO split along functional lines. In an article on labor’s division and decline, Reich suggests that those unions staying with the AFL-CIO, predominantly in the airline, auto and steel industries, will continue to focus on influencing politics in Washington, D.C. These unions are "intent on getting Democrats back in power so labor laws can be strengthened," according to Reich.

So how will Change to Win be different? The coalition’s constitution and bylaws shed little light on where Hoffa and his fellow union leaders intend to take organized labor, but it is clear that recruiting new members is key. Indeed, Change to Win dedicated three-fourths of its budget to this cause.

That said, the coalition may still harbor some latent political ambition. Buried in Article 3, Section 5 of its constitution is a clause that states, "The affiliated labor organizations shall cooperate … with respect to legislation and other political action concerning … the right to universal health care and the right to guaranteed retirement benefits, and other areas of joint political action determined by the Executive Committee."

Hoffa himself noted in his union’s resignation letter, "We do not believe our nation’s political course can change fundamentally unless more working people belong to unions."

But labor is at a crossroads as it considers what kind of political activity is "pro-worker." If Change to Win rejects AFL-CIO President John Sweeney’s focus on Washington politics to effect changes in labor-management relations, then what course will the new organization take?

Labor leaders should pursue changes that will produce wins for union and nonunion workers alike. In particular, three vital strategic approaches would be of considerable benefit:

  • In breaking with the past, learn from history. The course followed today by the AFL-CIO was not always the union’s strategy. After seeing courts strike down a number of laws favorable to unionization and issue injunctions to curtail union activity, Samuel Gompers and his allies sought government neutrality with respect to labor policy.

    We certainly live in different times than Gompers, but it remains true today that one who puts his faith in government does so at his peril. Change to Win would be wise to remember that any government powerful enough to coerce business to yield to organized labor’s demands is also powerful enough to coerce labor to yield to businesses’ interests.

  • Respect the individual choices of all Americans, not just union members. Freedom of association is a cherished right in a free society. Compulsory membership and agency fees may seem appealing, but they reflect a short-sighted approach. A labor organization that recognizes the dignity of the individual, even those who choose not to join or contribute to a labor union, will, in the long run, benefit. Such an organization would earn the respect of employers and employees alike, achieve more of its goals and advance further than an organization that disrespects others and earns their disdain.

  • Stick to true labor concerns. Organized labor has moved well beyond its core mission of championing workers’ issues to financing and promoting a range of policies and groups that have nothing to do with labor. This not only alienates politicians, but many union members who, like everyone else, hold diverse opinions on issues.

It is indeed an interesting time for organized labor in America. And it is the perfect time for Change to Win to ask itself, What exactly are we trying to change and win?

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Thomas W. Washburne is director of labor policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

Summary

A major rift has occurred in the U.S. labor movement, with unions representing a total of more than 6 million members splitting from the AFL-CIO. These unions have a historic opportunity to refocus their strategies in ways that more effectively address the interests of workers.

Main Text Word Count: 708

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