News Release

Unions and Divisions

The AFL-CIO is holding its convention, through Thursday, marking the 50th anniversary of the merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Yesterday, the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union broke with the AFL-CIO. Anna Burger, president of a new organizing coalition called Change to Win, said: “Folks, the debate is over.”

PRISCILLA MUROLO
Co-author of the book From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend: A Short, Illustrated History of Labor in the United States, Murolo is a labor historian at Sarah Lawrence College. She said today: “The value of political action vs. organizing has been a longstanding debate in the U.S. labor movement; the AFL fought in its infancy with the Knights of Labor over exactly this issue. But it’s something of a false dichotomy — they have each worked best when pursued in tandem.”
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BILL FLETCHER
Former assistant to the president of the AFL-CIO, Fletcher said today: “Neither side gets it. Contrary to Burger’s statement that ‘the debate is over,’ in fact, the debate never started. The great undebate has evidenced no analysis on either side as to the nature of the obstacles workers are up against — not just winning a union, but in gaining power in the U.S. Much of what we are seeing is jockeying among labor leaders. I haven’t heard a union leader come up with a coherent answer as to why a split is needed now. The pro-Sweeney forces haven’t demonstrated how workers can gain greater political power without massive resource investment in organizing. Change to Win is very fond of talking up consolidation as a way to strengthen unions, but in Australia they had tremendous consolidation and are in terrible shape. What’s needed is a vision that goes beyond organizing, that deals with social justice and transforming U.S. society. That means dealing with issues like getting a tax policy that favors workers, like setting policies that allow working people to stay in cities, like building real international solidarity.”
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DAVID BACON
Bacon is a reporter specializing in labor issues; his most recent article is “Reconnecting Labor with Its Radical Roots.” He said today: “It’s important for unions to discuss honestly why membership has shrunk to disastrous levels. Simply changing the AFL-CIO’s structure is not enough. The labor movement needs a program which can inspire people to organize on their own, which is unafraid to put forward radical demands. As much as people need a raise, the promise of one is not enough. Working families need the promise of a better world. If labor’s leaders move in this direction, they won’t get invited for coffee with the president, or included in meetings of the Democratic Leadership Council. But they will inspire millions of people to look again to unions as representing the broadest and best interests of all U.S. workers. Our history should tell us that radical ideas have always had a transformative power.”
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JANE SLAUGHTER
CHRIS KUTALIK
Former editor and now a staff writer for Labor Notes, Slaughter is editor of the recently-released book A Troublemaker’s Handbook 2. She said today: “One thing that’s almost certain to result is more raiding, where one union tries to take members away from another union. Raiding isn’t always bad, if workers get to choose a better union, but usually it’s a waste of resources. What they should be doing is reaching out to people who are not already members of unions. To do that on the scale that’s needed, hundreds of thousands of members would need to be convinced that their union was worth going out and recruiting for. And the current dispute isn’t likely to inspire very many members; more likely they’ll be turned off.”

Kutalik is editor of Labor Notes and is currently in Chicago covering the AFL-CIO convention. He said today: “Many delegates are disappointed there hasn’t actually been a debate on the floor from the two camps.”
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For more information, contact at the Institute for Public Accuracy:
Sam Husseini, (202) 347-0020; or David Zupan, (541) 484-9167