AFL-CIO split

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(HOST) Commentator Ellen David Friedman reflects on why the break-up of the AFL-CIO took so many union members by surprise.

(FRIEDMAN) The AFL-CIO is busting up. But why? A friend who was at the convention last week told me the minute the split took place, people from all camps were scratching their heads asking: What just happened? In article after article, labor journalists have noted this nearly universal confusion and disconnect among union members all over the country. In Vermont where the largest unions have never belonged to the AFL-CIO, there is quite a lot of not knowing what to make of this.

Sadly, these reactions reflect the fact that this decision was made mostly by a handful of people at the top. Certainly the rank and file had no opportunity to debate or vote on the split. So it’s no wonder that so many union members don’t understand it.

Call me old fashioned, but this seems dead wrong. Unions, of all places, should be where workers can govern themselves, debate and decide what matters to them and, finally, speak and act col- lectively. Bottom-up should be the whole point. So, on this count, the AFL-CIO split was actually a small event, engaging a tiny number of people, and mimicking what is not good about cor- porate culture.

However, it was also large in its vivid representation of the econo- mic imperatives of our day, which now can’t be ignored. The feder- ation swelled with the growth of postwar industry, and declined with globalization. This is the same tough downward slide that skilled American workers – long the privileged working class of the world – have been making for two decades at least.

The only restless and growing segment of the federation is the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU – the union that has energetically and creatively organized hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers in health care, child care and custodial servic- es. The SEIU leadership was tired of paying dues to support other, more dormant unions. So, deciding to pull away and lead other unions out of the fold, it also ushered in an era of anti-solidarity between unions. That is, unions competing with one another for members…something the AFL-CIO’s rules have prevented for 50 years. Not a pretty prospect.

But in this kind of chaos, new things can arise; and this shake-up may actually be a wake-up. One completely unexpected thing took place at the Chicago convention. Delegates pulled off a stun- ning resolution to oppose the war in Iraq, and call for rapid troop withdrawal. This is the first time in its 50-year history that the AFL- CIO has gone on record opposing a U. S. administration on a for- eign war; and very much not what the top brass of the federation had planned.

Some on the scene believe that it was the very volatility of the moment – the uncertainty caused by the big split – that allowed an authentic, and bottom-up process among delegates to unfold.

I’m Ellen David Friedman in East Montpelier.

Ellen David Friedman is vice chair of the Vermont Progressive Party and has been active in the labor movement for many years. She spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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