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Labor pains: the labor movement's latest crisis leaves workers of color wondering if the new coalition will deliver.

The labor movement is in decline and no one disputes this. Working class and poor people of color are at the heart of the issue--facing the worst unemployment rates and economic problems seen in decades. But as part of the fastest growing sectors in the workforce, they're also the only hope for labor's survival. Yet the AFL's dealing with race and leadership issues has always been problematic. And Change to Win, the breakaway coalition, though offering some potential, also presents challenges for people of color.


The jobless recovery is a picture of working standards in decline: 8 million workers are unemployed, and among Black workers, unemployment remained stagnant at 10.8 percent in 2005. Meanwhile, 13.2 million Latinos have no health coverage. For people of color, the workplace is even more oppressive; nearly half of Black workers and one-fifth of workers of all races say they have experienced discrimination based on race or ethnicity. And when workers try to organize to change this environment, employers mercilessly violate their rights to keep them from winning a union. Added to all of this is the astronomical growth of corporations like WalMart, vehemently anti-union and providing not much more than the bare minimum in wages and benefits to their millions of employees.

With the mounting crisis faced by working people, union members and their leaders have grown impatient with the labor federation's slow response. So it is no wonder that under this pressure the house of labor is cracking from within. This July, on the very anniversary of the AFL-CIO's birth, three of its largest unions--Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Teamsters and the United Food Commercial Workers (UFCW)--decided to break away from the AFL-CIO, taking their 5 million members on a new path toward labor revitalization. At its best, the debate over the future of the labor movement inspired many trade unionists to take a long hard look at what they've been doing for the past 50 years and question whether these approaches are relevant anymore. At its worst, the debate devolved into a war of words played out in the press by the upper echelon of the union movement, confusing rank and file and allies alike.

Workers of Color in the Crosshairs

With the split, many now wonder what role Asian American, Black and Latino workers will play as the union world goes through its changes. Byron Hobbs, president of SEIU Local 20 in Chicago and the youngest African American leader on the national executive board of SEIU, has been an enthusiastic supporter of the decision to leave the AFL-CIO. But, he says, the pressure is on for the new coalition to produce.

"The CTW unions are under enormous pressure to make good on our platform to organize at an unprecedented pace and focus a great deal of that organizing on minorities and women who make up the vast segments of the service sector economy," Hobbs said. "The service sector is plagued with dead end jobs that fail to lift workers out of poverty."

And though both the AFL-CIO and CTW unions support the idea of organizing for quality jobs in the rapidly growing service sector, resources must be committed in order to have success, SEIU's track record of organizing 900,000 members in just 10 years has given the CTW credibility in the debate. However, what's not highlighted is that much of that growth is attributed to large-scale organizing victories in the public as well as service sector--such as 75,000 home care workers in Los Angeles and 70,000 childcare workers in Illinois, most of whom are women of color and immigrants. When unionized, the public sector, which is as racially diverse as the service sector, has served as a place of opportunity for workers of color to find quality jobs with health benefits, pensions and a chance for career mobility. The last two decades, however, have seen a dangerous rise in states adopting draconian right-to-work laws, especially in the South. Public-sector workers are now facing the same erosion of working conditions as their counterparts in the private sector.

But in the house of labor, SEIU is not the only union representing public employees. American Federation of State, Municipal and City Employees (AFSCME) and even the Communications Workers of America, both of which remained in the AFL-CIO, represent a significant number of public workers. On the heels of the CTW's breakaway, SEIU and AFSCME are already engaged in raiding fights over each other's unionized public workers, drawing key resources away from organizing new members. Workers of color are asked to take sides, even though most workers are still trying to understand how the fight got started and found its way to their doorsteps.

From Members to Leaders

If workers of color are the main targets for organizing in this revitalized labor movement, how is it possible not to include more leaders of color in the plan for a new labor movement? Historically, the AFL had actively excluded Black, Latino and Asian workers from membership. But trade unionists of color and civil rights activists also have a history of pushing back the federation on these practices and ultimately being successful in forcing the AFL-CIO to not only open up its ranks to workers of color and women, but to form support groups within the house of labor that represent their interests. The A. Phillip Randolph Institute, founded by A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Bayard Rustin, was the first organization representing unionists of color to be recognized by the AFL-CIO. Since the institute's founding in 1965, five more constituency groups representing Asians, women, Latinos and LGBT workers have been established.

The constituency groups provide a space for trade unionists of color and women to garner support as they maneuver through bureaucratic unions and leadership structures. Some of these organizations help transform rank and file members of color into activists and leaders in their unions. Constituency groups like the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance also recruit organizers of color and build alliances with local API communities on civil rights and immigration issues. With limited resources and support from the AFL-CIO, the work of these organizations is carried out primarily by volunteer members in local chapters throughout the country. These groups have also served as a political vehicle for people of color within the AFL-CIO, advocating for leaders of color to gain top positions in the federation's governing and staff structures. Many unionists of color have criticized the AFL-CIO for paying lip service to diversity while simultaneously keeping these groups under-funded and incapable of building bigger and broader programs for their constituents.

In an effort to weigh in on the debate over labor's future, a coalition of the AFL-CIO's constituency groups, naming themselves Labor Community for Community Action (LCCA), put forth a resolution to the AFL-CIO convention calling for an increase in resources to the groups and greater funding for organizing and political mobilization of people of color. This call was met with harsh criticism by both sides of the split. The two camps admonished the constituency groups for becoming no more than small clubs of inner-circle bureaucrats who did very little to promote organizing workers of color. As one SEIU leader put it, "What is their plan for workers? We need to see a plan." And though activists within these groups may share some of the criticism, they also argue that it's hard to do the work without resources. Each constituency groups has only one or two national staff members responsible for coordinating the work of hundreds of volunteers throughout the country. And, every year, the funding for even these positions is threatened by the AFL-CIO.

Ironically, even though the one thing the AFL-CIO and CTW agree on is that winning for working people requires an investment of resources and support, this logic doesn't seem to apply to the only labor organizations representing interests of workers of color and women. They are criticized for having no relevant programs and capacity, yet are consistently under-funded every year, making them even less capable of representing the very communities targeted for labor's revitalization.

Before the opening of the AFL-CIO convention in Chicago, the LCCA and the AFL's Civil and Human Rights department organized a "Diversity Conference" in an attempt to bring together constituency group activists. At this gathering, Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO and the highest elected person of color in the union movement, announced the AFL's bold new proposal to expand the executive council of the federation by reserving 15 seats for women, people of color and LGBT leaders. This was to ensure, as she said, "people of color and women have a seat at the table." She went on to commit AFL-CIO resources toward a full demographic analysis of union members. This request had been made by constituency groups repeatedly over the years and never implemented.

Carried away in the excitement of her speech, Chavez-Thompson asked the 800-plus room of diverse trade unionists how many were voting delegates to the AFL-CIO convention. Only eight raised their hands. The moment reverberated like a thud in the middle of the room. This was what had been accomplished after 10 years of the Sweeney team. But what was also disturbing, which many activists in the room did not know, was that the Civil and Human Rights staff organizing the diversity conference had just been given layoff notices the week before.

Activists of color in the constituency groups are curious if Change to Win will offer much better. Change to Win has made no promise to fund the people of color caucuses as the AFL-CIO does currently.

"We're only interested in what kind of programs you will have and not all the other stuff. We care about how this will help us organize more workers," said Ana Burger, co-chair of CTW, to a delegate of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance who asked whether CTW will help fund the group.

Initially CTW dismissed the constituency groups as organizations that were ineffective in helping organize workers in this dying labor movement. As one leader of SEIU said, "Complaining about having a seat at the table is like reorganizing chairs on the deck of a sinking ship. What does it matter, we are all sinking now!"

SEIU and Their Silent Partners

On the ground, SEIU has some of the most diverse leadership in the labor movement, especially among its staff, though staff directors at the highest level of decision making are predominantly white males. Responding to criticism over its dismissive attitude toward constituency groups, 12 top African-American elected leaders of SEIU's national board distributed their own proposal for turning around the state of Black workers. Also, through the influence of SEIU, the CTW included the demand to "have diversity in all levels of leadership" as a main element of their mission statement.

But SEIU is not the only union in the Change to Win Coalition. The reality is that there has not been much discussion about what the other two key players in the coalition, International Brotherhood of the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers, will bring to the table in matters of diversity and leadership. Press statements out of the two unions prior and post-split do not make any mention of the need to "represent diversity in all levels of leadership." And the Teamsters, under the Hoffa leadership, have stirred up much controversy in the past few years, putting themselves in opposition to immigrant and people of color organizations. One infamous public controversy was the handling of the NAFTA provision allowing Mexican drivers to transport materials on U.S. highways. There were complex issues involving lax safety standards for both driver and vehicle that were at the heart of the debate, but instead of uniting workers on both sides of the border on this issue. Hoffa chose rather to portray a frightening picture of Mexican drivers in order to garner public support.

The unions in the Change to Win Coalition may prove to be strange bedfellows indeed. How does a Justice for Janitors strategy, which focuses on fighting for the rights of immigrant janitors and portraying them as heroic members of our community, reconcile itself with a strategy that vilifies immigrants?

We Make the Road by Walking

Millions of words have been written trying to predict the future of labor's split, but we've ended up with more questions than answers. Workers of color, whether they're in Change to Win or the AFL-CIO unions, are facing the same economy and national political climate of declining labor standards and increased exploitation. The answer to whether this split in labor was "wrong" or "right" will be found in the results of organizing--smarter, faster and with an investment in "diversity in all levels."

This new labor world presents some real opportunities for workers of color and their communities to take center stage. The CTW and AFL-CIO unions are under pressure to accelerate their organizing and seek victories in workplaces all over the country, and ultimately this will lead to more workers of color having a voice on the job. But if unions want to turn the tide of hopelessness among working people, well, they definitely can't do it alone. This is where community-based organizations, like workers centers, can play an effective role. There is a new openness by unions today to building alliances with community-based organizations and churches. And with increased emphasis on multi-union coordination, the local fights will more likely be well-resourced and supported nationally.

What seems to be murkier about the future is the role workers of color will have in decision making over this next period. Members are anxiously awaiting the CTW founding convention in September to find out the coalition's plan for achieving "diversity at all levels of leadership." Constituency groups are also in limbo over their future. For groups like APALA, over 50 percent of their membership is based in SEIU and other Change to Win Unions.

Workers of color have historically struggled to get into even the most exclusive of labor organizations by either organizing from within or forming independent organizations on the outside. But as long workers of color make up the majorities of today's growing sectors, labor can't afford to keep them on the outside.

Raahi Reddy is a union organizer and labor specialist at the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education.


What's left behind in the bitter break-up of the AFL-CIO?


On my file cabinet sits a battered, old railroad lamp. Rusty green, with a red dome light. It comes from the U.S. Steel Homestead Works just north of my parents' house in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The mill shut down in 1986, but in its heyday, it employed 15,000 steelworkers in 450 buildings on 430 acres, woven together with 150 miles of railroad track and the power of a great industrial union.

Now the economic verities and union culture embodied in that lamp are largely gone, reduced to artifacts and echoes. But they reverberate in the current fissure within the U.S. labor movement, as the old labor landscape of mighty mills and fabled auto plants erodes into an ocean of Wal-Marts. The old unions are in denial, unwilling to accept their shrinking future. The insurgent unions, betting on the new workforce, have little time or empathy to spend on diminishing sectors. Perhaps that's why the break-up of the AFL-CIO has been so bitter, and the efforts to reach a compromise both disingenuous and futile. The real issues of controversy--a global economy that's here to stay and a union culture stuck in the industrial model of the last century--were never publicly on the table, and cannot easily be negotiated into submission.

Change to Win, an amalgam of seven unions formed to challenge the sluggish course of the AFL-CIO, is fronted by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Andrew Stern and International Brotherhood of Teamsters President James Hoffa. The CTW Seven have justified their split from the AFL-CIO by asserting that the federation has been unwilling to commit sufficient resources to organizing and unable to staunch the hemorrhaging of labor power. The proof has been painted by numbers: union membership down to just 12.5 percent overall, and only 7.9 percent in the private sector; not enough money allocated to organize new workers; too few votes to elect a president or defeat CAFTA. However, for many observers inside and out, those very numbers argued against a division that could further weaken labor's strength at a time of harsh corporate resistance and governmental hostility. Furthermore, the split defies easy ideological categorization, with progressive and conservative unionists arrayed on both sides.

It is only through the prism of economic globalization--and a cultural gulf of generations and identities--that the reasons for the split gain clarity. Most (but not all) of the manufacturing unions--those hardest hit by the global economy--are in the AFL-CIO camp; they are more concerned with retrenchment than expansion. Most (but not all) of the unions organizing service workers and new constituencies are with the insurgency. If Wal-Mart is the new industrial plant--one that employs more than 1.2 million workers in the U.S. alone--then CTW has amassed the components to create a viable strategy. Combining retail and service with trucking will greatly enhance the capacity to organize throughout the sector.

"We are walking down a road, and the mileposts are clear," Stern told the overflow crowd of reporters in Chicago, as he announced the departure of his union from the federation. "Our world has changed. Our economy has changed. Employers have changed ... but the AFL-CIO is not willing to make fundamental change. When you're heading down a road and you know where it ends ... you have to get off that road and go in a different direction where there is hope."

In the cavernous, dimly lit hall at the Naval Pier down the street, where the 50th Anniversary AFL-CIO Convention droned on, hope was in short supply. Beneath the bravado, leaders of the remaining unions struggled with their anger, frustration, and a profound sense of abandonment. "I started out thinking 'que sera sera,'" one AFL staffer, an SEIU alum, told me, "but now I say fuck 'em." Or as another longstanding colleague summarized, "We don't know how to feel and deal."

Ironically, the convention itself presented the most inexorable argument for jumping ship: the dais with its preponderance of aging white men; the layout of the room, with its rigid rows of tables; and the program with its endless string of pols spouting platitudes. And faced with the most profound change in 50 years, the federation response seemed flatfooted, even though the split had been rumored for many months. Beyond several resolutions, a formulaic acknowledgment of the challengers, scripted rage, and brave words about soldiering on, business unfolded pretty much as usual. No honest dialogue about the real significance or consequences of the rift. No facilitated opportunities to share the anxieties and emotions awash in the hall. It was, as Stern had put it, "looking at the future through the rearview mirror."

That doesn't mean that smart, dedicated, progressive people haven't effected institutional change. Six of the 49 AFL-CIO executive council members are now female. The executive vice president is a Latina. And a strong resolution demanding a swift end to the Iraq war passed with barely a ripple of protest--a far cry from the days when the Federation was a dedicated cold warrior with links to the CIA. Nonetheless, on the half-empty side: only 12 percent of the executive council is female; people of color are sometimes on display, but seldom in power; and a resolution from the fire fighters' union with an aggressive message of patriotism and faith also passed with barely a ripple. It's as if the balancing of those two worlds--the white, male industrial heartland of labor and the multiracial, heavily female reality of today's global workplace--had suddenly gone awry.

What remains to be seen is whether the Change to Win Coalition can pull it off, especially given the reactionary social stances of some of its partners. Its initial press conferences were not been particularly encouraging--evidencing the same predominance of pale, male and stale as the AFL down the street. And the concerns of a third sector of workers--public employees--have been sidelined by both sides, although the fate of the public sector is significant to the future the labor movement and our larger society.

Still, to United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez, joining Change to Win seems a risk that must be taken. Rodriguez professes affection for AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, and for the support the federation has provided. The UFW, founded by Cesar Chavez and built through innovative organizing, is already a different generation of union from the industrial model of steel and auto and the white, male base of the crafts and construction trades. Yet Rodriguez believes that even his union must change again if it is to survive. "We had a hard time regaining our bearings after Cesar's death," he acknowledges, "and we went through a really deep, profound reflection, and we put everything on the table. And we recognized that the old ways weren't going to work anymore ... Our members still love and need the union, but they have some different aspirations, and perhaps even collective bargaining as we used to do it won't be the way of the future."

Those views seem like heresy to the older unions, trying to cope with losing jobs and power. As their sectors continue to shrink, they are desperately holding on to what they know in a world grown unfamiliar. No wonder they're so angry at an Andrew Stern, who can matter-of-factly tell a business publication that outsourcing is an inevitability of global life. After all, it's their work that's leaving and their members adrift in reduced circumstances.

The problem has been fueled by romanticism on both ends of the labor spectrum about the nobility of the production line and the union glory of the past. Yet the reality is more complex, as Stern suggested just a few months earlier. "It wasn't like steelworkers' or mineworkers' jobs were inherently good jobs, or that Wal-Mart jobs are inherently bad jobs," he said. "It's just that one had the good fortune of having organizations that made those jobs into decent jobs. But truthfully, the whole purpose for many of those people who came to this country was that their kids would go to college and lead a different life ... I think there are plenty of jobs where the companies are wealthy enough, and the jobs domestic enough, that they could be part of the re-creation of a middle class, because we're not sending all the food stores, the banks and finance companies, overseas. There are plenty of modern-day jobs that could be much better jobs."

That defines the rupture--and the real challenge of today's labor movement. In the first part of the last century, the craft model of unionism gave way to a more proletarian industrial model, incorporating a broader definition of what kind of labor was valuable and bringing dignity and decent wages to a new generation of European immigrants. Now the industrial model is giving way to a service model, and another generation of immigrants, much more racially diverse, is knocking at the door.

At the heart of Stern's reflections, though, is a second message: the need for strong, collective action to turn low-wage jobs into labor that is treated with respect and sufficiently compensated to achieve middle-class status. However large the flaws of the more traditional unions, and whatever responsibility they bear for their own demise, only because of them millions of Americans were able to climb out of poverty. The survivors of that struggle should not be left behind, but encouraged to organize what remains of their jurisdictions and pensioned off with dignity, the way they are in many European countries. After all, no matter how rusty the lamp, it lit our way to this fork in the road.

Kim Fellner is a long-time union and community organizer.
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Title Annotation:feature
Author:Reddy, Raahi
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2005
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