The AFL-CIO’s troubles continued this month when the United Farm Workers became the latest labor organization to sever ties with the powerful union. The unraveling began last summer at what should have been the AFL-CIO’s glorious 50th anniversary convention. James P. Hoffa and his Teamsters spoiled the party when they officially withdrew from the AFL-CIO and formed a new coalition, Change to Win.
Instead of weakening unions, this split could invigorate the labor movement. But that will require abandoning old habits and the outmoded thinking that have guided union activities for so long.
The Teamsters’ letter of withdrawal showed promise in that direction. Hoffa stated that "Our differences are not about words, but are deep and fundamental. They 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 six 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.
Reich sees Change to Win’s mission "less as preserving good jobs in danger of disappearing, and more as boosting the prospects of people trapped in lousy ones. They’re less interested in gaining political clout because the fate of their members is not closely tied to votes taken in Washington."
That said, the coalition may still harbor some latent political ambition. Buried in Article III, Sec. 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 resignation letter that: "We do not believe our nation’s political course can change fundamentally unless more working people belong to unions. We believe that the only way to generate a pro-worker political consensus in America is to empower millions more working people through union organization."
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 it pursue?
Below are changes that will produce wins for union and non-union workers alike.
In breaking with the past, don’t forget your history. The course pursued today by the AFL-CIO was not always its 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 were led "to see the state as hostile and to the belief that the best labor policy was government neutrality." Unions and management, working together to address issues, were seen as more effective than government intervention or the pursuit of partisan politics.
We certainly live in different times than Gompers, but it remains true today that those who put their faith in government do so at their peril. This is as true for the left of the political spectrum as it is for the right. 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 business 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. The 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. It 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 issues. 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 union members as well. Union members, like everyone else, hold diverse opinions on issues. Union leaders have more to lose than gain when they take sides on divisive issues that have little, if anything, to do with labor policy.
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?
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.
 Ray, Sharpe and Strassfeld, Understanding Labor Law, p. 11 (LexisNexis 1999) (citing William E. Forbath, Law and the Shaping of the American Labor Movement (1991).