TCS Daily

The Spirit of St. Louis: Labor Rising in America

By Bryan O'Keefe - September 30, 2005 12:00 AM

"We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old"
-- "Solidarity Forever" Famous Union Song

ST. LOUIS -- Anybody who thought that organized labor is dead in America should have attended this week's "Change to Win" inaugural convention in St. Louis. The one-day event marked the official launch of a new labor federation comprised primarily of unions that disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO over the past few months -- the Service Employees International Union, the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, and UNITE HERE. Also joining Change to Win were the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, which disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO several years ago, and the Laborers' International Union, which is planning to leave in the near future.

The convention was a raucous event, mainly filled with union leaders giving passionate speeches (occasionally spiked with vulgarity) to convention delegates who responded with thunderous applause, frequent table-pounding, and wild hooting and hollering. A sound system which blasted the theme song for the day, the 70s hit "I Can See Clearly Now," added to the rock concert-like atmosphere which permeated the gathering.

The conference dwelled heavily on the idea that the American dream is all but lost, and that the people sitting in the convention ballroom are the only ones left who can revive it. The speeches given throughout the day on this topic from the new federation's leadership ranged from expansive and eloquent to more confrontational and hostile. Newly elected Change to Win Chairwoman Anna Burger, for example, tried to be inspirational in her opening remarks saying, "This is our generation's moment for greatness. It is our calling, our duty, and our opportunity. Working men and women everywhere are counting on us."

The grandiose rhetoric continued later in the morning with SEIU President Andrew Stern. Change to Win's is Stern's brainchild (Burger in fact is a Stern protégé and previously worked for SEIU) and he has the most at stake with its success or failure. Stern claimed that Change to Win isn't just about just union infighting, but something much, much bigger. "Today we say to America, take our hands and walk with us on our road -- the road to opportunity, the road to prosperity for all Americans. Our future -- our unions' future -- our children's future is no longer a matter of chance, it is now a matter of choice," Stern said.

Others however ditched the sentimental tone and came across as being just plain mad. "It's a god damn disgrace!" boomed UNITE HERE President Bruce Raynor when it was his turn at the microphone to talk about the state of the American dream. Later in the day, Laborers' President Terrence O'Sullivan delivered a bitter diatribe on the same subject, yelling angrily that, "Any son of a bitch that gets in Change to Win's way...we will take you on, we will take on everyone and anyone if that's what it takes for working families." He later added, "We are going to get our hands on their ankles and then up to their throats, these robber barons who are destroying working conditions in this country!"

If there was any apprehension about the risks that surround forming an entirely new labor federation, none of it was apparent in the speeches. Union leaders expressed confidence that they have the answers for what ails labor and that the formation of Change to Win was the first step in taking back America from labor's self-described trinity of enemies -- corporate America generally, Wal-Mart specifically, and the Bush Administration.


While the most aggressive language was reserved for these characters, the organizational structure announced Tuesday was a direct repudiation of the old AFL-CIO. For better or worse, what was laid out will be an entirely new way of running a labor federation.

Unlike the AFL-CIO which has over 400 employees, lavish Washington offices, and a robust central organization, Change to Win will operate with a much smaller staff and budget and will put the real power in the hands of its individual affiliates, not the federation itself. In a handout given to media outlets, Change to Win compared its organizational model to NATO.

Change to Win's internal structure will be made up of three sectors - an executive office, a strategic organizing center, and organizing fund. The federation plans to spend the bulk of its financial resources on organizing. In a section of the handout entitled "Principles of Change to Win", the first bullet point, in bold letters, read: "Central Mission: Grow the Labor Movement." Teamsters President James Hoffa said early in the day that the Change to Win unions would collectively earmark $750 million dollars for organizing campaigns, though, given the union's actual budgets, that number seems exaggerated.

The head of this organizing effort will be Tom Woodruff, who previously served as organizing director at SEIU. Woodruff's plan is to target entire sectors and industries, not just individual companies -- a strategy which he and Stern perfected together at SEIU. While most of organized labor's membership has declined in the last ten years, Stern and Woodruff helped SEIU grow by 900,000 members.

In a PowerPoint presentation Tuesday, Woodruff outlined core industries he thinks are ripe for unionization. These included construction, retail, food processing, transportation, utilities, administrative services, health care, hospitality, and laundry. The common thread here is that the work is often service based and cannot be easily outsourced -- making steel can be done abroad, changing sheets or emptying bed pans cannot.

Like it or not, from a union perspective, this is a smart, forward-thinking strategy and will probably lead to more long-term growth than the usual AFL-CIO bellyaching about outsourcing.


One big loser from all of this -- at least in the short-term -- is the Democratic Party. That's because the federation's focus on organizing will come at the expense of donations to Democratic campaigns. Throughout the day, leaders blasted political leaders for their failure to support pro-labor policies. O'Sullivan here stole the show again, saying that, "Most politicians I have met in Washington, DC are just full of (expletive)." The accusation was met with a standing ovation.

In a speech that was more somber (but still full of life), John Wilhelm, President of the Hospitality Division of UNITE HERE, took Democratic politicians to task, flatly declaring that labor's exclusive alliance with the Democratic Party was history. "Labor's political program is often seen as an arm of the National Democratic Party. That ends here and that ends now. We won't be taken for granted."

To be sure, none of the labor leaders were particularly enthusiastic about the Republican Party. But what seemed to really gnaw at them is that while the Republicans have never been especially close to labor, the Democrats were supposed to be their friends. Instead, unions feel like they have been dumped at the prom over and over again. They believe Democrats have betrayed them by taking their money and then ignoring them when the time comes to cast critical votes in Congress. For the Change to Win federation anyway, electing Democratic politicians is officially on the backburner now.

What Lies Ahead

But while it's easy to give lofty -- or even angry -- speeches, play catchy music, and clap till your hands are sore, the hard work for Change to Win now lies ahead. Most of the rhetoric rested on the assumption that workers everywhere want unions. That sounds great, but the reality is that at least a significant chunk of today's workforce thinks that unions are no longer necessary. A recent poll from Harris Interactive found that labor unions are actually viewed more negatively than corporate America by working adults. Another poll, this time from Zogby, revealed that only 35 percent of workers would definitely or probably vote for a union at their workplace (AFL-CIO surveys put the number higher than this). For many younger workers, unions conjure up images of flat pay rates and little chances of promotion, both of which are turnoffs.

In order to become relevant again, unions need to convince workers that they can solve workers -- problems. And after that, labor will have to actually produce tangible results. Accomplishing both of those goals will not be easy. Throughout the convention, for example, health care was frequently cited as a reason for organizing. But it was never entirely clear what a union could do to fix the situation across the board. Why would an employer who did not offer comprehensive health care coverage for its employees already suddenly do so just because Terence O'Sullivan was now the one doing the asking?

These are the types of questions that labor leaders will face in their new organizing drives. They will have to provide good answers and concrete evidence to a workforce that is by and large already cool towards unions.

The Change to Win federation made it clear to those in attendance Tuesday that the labor movement isn't dead yet and at least has some bluster left in it. Now, we will see if these leaders can actually change the course or if it was all just hot air.

Bryan O'Keefe is a freelance writer and a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute.



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