Organize or Die
Three progressive union presidents
- with some surprising allies -
are out to transform American labor
by Harold Meyerson
The American Prospect magazine,
It was one of those awkward meetings that
nobody looked forward to, and it produced an outcome nobody really
liked. On Tuesday, Aug. 5, the executive council of the AFL-CI0
turned its attention to the vexing question of what to do with
the Carpenters. The union had withdrawn from the labor federation
in 2001, with its maverick president, Doug McCarron, complaining
that the AFL-CIO was frittering away his members' money on projects
other than helping unions organize. The rift had widened in recent
years as McCarron kept showing up alongside George W. Bush, finding
virtues in the president that eluded his fellow union leaders.
But despite all that, the Carpenters were
still a functioning member of the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction
Trades Council, working harmoniously with other building-trades
unions at construction sites and on matters of jurisdiction and
organizing. Problem was, this was a clear violation of the AFL-ClO's
constitution, which banned unions that didn't pay federation dues
from belonging to a federation-sponsored council. AFL-CIO President
John Sweeney had been telling executive council members he'd be
compelled to ask them to sever the Carpenters' ties to the Building
Trades. He'd announced that he planned to call the question at
the August meeting.
On the very eve of the meeting, however,
the Building Trades union presidents unceremoniously presented
Sweeney with a unanimous resolution demanding that the date he'd
proposed for the Carpenters to pay up or leave, Sept. 15, be pushed
back a bit-to 2005. Sweeney was understandably stunned; this was
the most direct affront to his authority since he'd become president
in 1995. In the end, the matter was deferred indefinitely.
But the unkindest cut came from a couple
of union presidents who at first glance were close Sweeney allies,
seemingly with no reason to indulge McCarron's defiance, much
less his playing footsie with Bush. Yet John Wilhelm, president
of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International
Union (HERE), and Andrew Stern, Sweeney's protégé
and successor as president of the Service Employees International
Union (SEIU), spoke forcefully for the Building Trades' position
during the meeting.
Stern, Wilhelm and their colleague Bruce
Raynor, president of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and
Textile Employees (UNITE), were the executive council's left wing.
Each had come out of the '60s left and brought its values into
the labor movement. Each had made his reputation in the hardest
job-organizer-the movement can offer. And each had revived a tradition
of militant direct action in organizing campaigns. Together, they
had persuaded their council colleagues to reverse the federation's
long-standing opposition to immigrant workers and, in fact, had
turned the house of labor into the immigrants' foremost advocate.
And now they were defying John Sweeney-a
man who, as president of the SEIU before Stern, had been the preeminent
union leader of the generation before them to successfully organize
new members; who'd preached the gospel of organizing, their gospel;
who'd painstakingly rebuilt the AFL-CIO's ties to other progressive
social movements. All on behalf of Doug McCarron, who'd spent
the last two Labor Days with George W. Bush. What the hell was
As it turns out, plenty.
In fact, Stern, Wilhelm and Raynor have
embarked on an urgent campaign to transform the American labor
movement. Convinced that the movement cannot survive without greatly
increasing the number of workers it organizes, they have made
common cause with union leaders across the political spectrum
who believe as they do in organizing- most particularly McCarron
and Laborers International President Terence O'Sullivan. They
hope to change the way labor organizes and the way the AFL-CIO
assists its member unions to that end. The five presidents routinely
speak to one anothers' conventions and meet together frequently.
The three progressive presidents are exotic
creatures within America's union leadership. For one thing, all
are Ivy Leaguers (Wilhelm graduated from Yale, Raynor from Cornell,
Stern from Penn). "They were middle-class college kids who
are still driven by their ideology and their politics," says
longtime associate Henry Bayer, who heads up the American Federation
of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in Illinois.
Each was active in and partly shaped by the civil-rights and anti-war
movements. What makes the Ivy Three truly exotic, however, is
that they rose to power on the strength of their records as organizers,
a background that has not been a path to union presidency since
the 1930s and '40s.
Wilhelm, upon graduating Yale, responded
to an ad for an organizing job that promised endless hours and
no material rewards. He was hooked, and in short order was organizing
clerical workers at his alma mater. HERE then sent him to Las
Vegas, where, over a 15-year period, he organized virtually every
hotel on the Strip, increasing the size of the local union from
10,000 members to 60,000. Part of his formula was forging a militant
local-during a nearly seven-year strike at the Frontier Hotel,
not a single one of the several hundred striking union members
crossed the picket line. But he also persuaded union members at
hotels already under contract to make concessions on things like
work rules in return for winning the right to organize workers
at new hotels under the same ownership. In other words, he taught
his members the meaning of market share-if all the hotels were
unionized, they could win much better contracts. And they did:
Much of the huge housing boom in Las Vegas is the direct result
of the fact that Vegas is the only American city where such service
sector workers as hotel chambermaids can afford to buy homes.
Raynor came out of Cornell and into what
was then the Textile Workers Union. "[Union President] Sol
Stettin told me that if I wanted to change things in America,
I should go south and organize," Raynor recalls. Organizing
biracial plants in the rural South was one of harder jobs on the
planet, but Raynor persevered. He started leafleting at Cannon
Mills in 1974, and it wasn't until 1999 that the union won recognition
there. Organizing American clothing and textile workers during
the age of globalization, however, has been a bit like building
sandcastles at the beach; this July, Cannon Mills announced it
was closing its plants and going out of business.
Raynor became president of UNITE in 2001,
and since that time UNITE has been one of a handful of private-sector
unions that has managed to keep organizing in its sector. Over
the past couple of years, UNITE has waged an ambitious campaign
to organize the industrial laundries that provide and clean uniforms.
To date, it's organized about a quarter of the industry and is
currently attempting to unionize Cintas, the industry's largest
Stern started out at a welfare workers'
union in Pennsylvania, which subsequently affiliated with the
SEIU. In the early '80s, then-SEIU President John Sweeney made
him the union's organizing director, in which capacity he ran
one of the most remarkable organizing drives in recent decades,
the Justice for Janitors campaign. The SEIU's growth only accelerated
when Stern became president in 1996. While virtually every other
union has either lost members or barely held its own, the SEIU
under Stern has grown by a stunning 535,000 new members so that
it is now, at 1.5 million members, the largest union in the federation.
The SEIU has had notable successes organizing home-care, nursing-home
and hospital workers, and has continued to organize the janitors
who clean America's office buildings.
Just as notable as the SEIU's success
is the way it's been achieved. At Stern's prodding, the union
now devotes about half its budget to organizing. The SEIU has
hired hundreds of young people off college campuses or from community
organizing groups to staff its campaigns. As existing staffers
have been reassigned to organizing, locals have often had to train
members to do the work of servicing their fellow members that
the paid staff had previously performed.
The redirection of resources and the concomitant
restructuring of the union and redefinition of a staffer's job
have become commonplace among the unions-UNITE and HERE among
them-devoted intensely to organizing. But of the 66 unions that
belong to the AFL-CIO, only a relative handful- surely no more
than 10-are really organizing at all. From its 1953 high of 35
percent, the rate of unionization of American workers has fallen
in every year but one, currently to 13 percent overall and to
just 9 percent in the private sector.
In 1995, Sweeney campaigned for the AFL-ClO
presidency on a two-plank platform: He would revitalize American
labor's political clout and he'd turn around the four-decade decline
in the rate of union membership. He succeeded at the first task
admirably: Voters from union households, who represented just
14 percent of the electorate in 1994, constituted 26 percent in
2002. The figure is all the more striking because the share of
the workforce that's unionized has continued to drop during his
Sweeney can't be accused of failing to
exhort the federation's unions to organize. He established the
Union Summer program to introduce college students to the joys
of organizing, and thousands responded. He also boosted the size
of the Organizing Institute, which trains union members and staffers
in the organizer's art.
But the structure of the American | labor
movement is largely feudal, with | the dukes and counts-the presidents
of the various international unions- | controlling the resources
while the | nominal king relies chiefly on the | power of persuasion.
And many of the dukes and counts have been unwilling | or unable
to do the excruciating work o f retooling their unions for organizing.
"In a lot of the trades," says
Laborers | President O'Sullivan, who has shifted | his own union
into organizing mode, "there's this mind-set: 'I've got all
my members working, so I'm happy. 'Once the last guy was off the
bench, we thought our job was done. But we may have 5 percent
market share. Now we realize that we can get all our members off
the bench and still be insignificant when we go to negotiate wages
The root of both Sweeney's success | and
his failure, says Wilhelm, is structural. "There's no consensus
within labor on the role of the AFL-CIO in organizing," Wilhelm
explains, "while there is a consensus on its role in national
politics." Into this void the troika of Stern, Wilhelm and
Raynor have galloped with their own strategic vision. All three
believe that the labor movement should be restructured sectorally,
which runs against the grain of what has become a common practice
for many unions. Because public employees don't run the same risk
of being fired for joining unions that private-sector workers
do, many unions have concluded that they should shift their organizing
efforts to the public sector. A number of private-sector unions
have largely abandoned organizing efforts in their core industries
to go after employees at public universities and hospitals.
A few years ago, Stern argued to his colleagues
that sectoral distinctions made more sense-that, for instance,
the SEIU and a few other unions would organize in health care,
where they had experience and expertise, while others would concentrate
on other industries. This met with a cool reception from, among
others, presidents unenthusiastic about the prospects of organizing
in anemic manufacturing industries. But Wilhelm and Raynor embraced
the notion, and, indeed, the three unions, with their members'
consent, have swapped a few locals that were outside their jurisdictions.
The gang of three, and allies such as
O'Sullivan, believe unions will be unable to deliver for their
members in collective bargaining, or ultimately recruit new ones,
unless they achieve high levels of union membership within their
sector. SEIU strategist Stephen Lerner points to the gains in
health coverage that janitors won this spring, while many American
workers were seeing their employers cut back on their coverage.
"Union density trumped a bad economy," he says.
Thus the odd-couple alliance between labor's
left most leaders and the Laborers-and the Carpenters. Indeed,
no two presidents have more radically restructured their unions
than Stern and McCarron. Both have reduced the percentage of resources
spent on servicing existing members to free more resources for
organizing new ones. Both have reshaped locals-over considerable
opposition, in McCarron's case-into larger units more capable
of organizing. Both are apostles of organizing to drive up market
shares, and disdainful of organizing that doesn't accomplish that
Beyond that, Stern, Wilhelm, Raynor, O'Sullivan
and McCarron share a common vision of how the AFL-CIO should tackle
the organizing challenge. At a 2001 executive council meeting,
federation staffers presented a devastating report on the decline
of union membership in industry after industry. At its conclusion,
Wilhelm suggested reallocating federation resources to address
the problem: 75 percent of the AFL-CIO's budget should be split
equally between politics and organizing, with the remaining 25
percent allocated to other programs that contributed to those
The suggestion went nowhere, but it was
indicative of the strategic approach of Wilhelm's group. "Many
of us feel that the AFL-CIO provides too many services that international
unions should provide themselves and doesn't have enough focus
to help unions with their strategic growth and politics,"
He notes, for example, that real-estate
investment trusts (REITs) own many office buildings and hotels,
and that many union pension funds are invested in REITs. Why not
expand the federation's "capital strategies" program?
Stern asks. "Look at REITs and find away [to bring pension
fund pressure] to organize markets, construction sites, office
buildings and hotels," he says. "Right now, John [Wilhelm]
is looking at hotels, Doug [McCarron] is looking at building sites
and I'm looking at janitors." Often, the same companies own
the hotels and office buildings, but says Stern, "our thinking
But there's no consensus among union presidents
to expand the AFL-CIO's capital strategies department. And this
bottleneck is indicative of a larger fragmentation rooted both
in personal rivalries and principled differences that sometimes
disables the broader project of energizing the labor movement.
The three presidents share what AFSCME
strategist Paul Booth terms, somewhat critically, "a powerful
impatience." Their attitude, he says, is, "'lt's our
turn to see if we can have an impact on this big problem, and
please don't slow us down because we may not have too much longer
on our watch to make the impact that needs to be made. 'The impatience
is fed by decline, but I'm not prepared to credit it as the right
way to do things."
Neither is Larry Cohen, the executive
vice president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA)
and another of American labor's leading organizers. Like Booth,
Cohen goes back a long way with the troika. (He met Stern at Penn
in 1970.) "I don't like conversations about market share
or union density," he says. "In the early days, people
started their own unions. Do we really think that unions need
to hire more organizers, and that their background doesn't matter
so long as they're smart? Unions are about work and workplaces."
Indeed, the CWA uses members as organizers more heavily than unions
like the SEIU. ''l applaud SElU," Cohen adds, "but they
end up focusing more on competence than on workers' ownership"
of the union.
There is, to be sure, a price to be paid
in the conversion of a union to the kind of organizing machine
that a Stern or McCarron builds. Smaller locals may make it harder
to organize workers, but they develop more rank-and-file leaders,
another important tool in building a strong union. Still, at a
time of long-term decline in membership, it's hard to argue with
the 535,000 new members that the SEIU has added on Stern's watch.
Cohen also criticizes the odd political
alliance that has arisen between Stern, Wilhelm and Raynor on
the left and O'Sullivan, McCarron and the Teamsters' James P.
Hoffa- whose unions have many Republican members-on the right.
At a recent Republican Congressional Campaign Committee dinner,
five of those unions-all but UNITE-bought tables.
"Stern and those guys have had an
instrumentalist view of politics," says one associate of
the progressive presidents. "They ask, 'Will this [candidate]
back our organizing campaign?' They had little or no sense of
the importance of party until the effect of the 2002 election
sunk in on them. Before 2002, Andy [Stern] was speaking of having
permanent interests, not permanent allies. Now they all say the
most important thing is to defeat Bush."
It's not that the unions get nothing from
their GOP endorsements. HERE extracted from Gov. George Pataki
(RN.Y.) legislation that requires tribal casinos not to oppose
HERE's unionization efforts. If the foremost obligation of unions
in this era is to grow, HERE's deal is certainly defensible. If
their foremost obligation is to safeguard the interests of the
whole working class (whose minimum-wage increase Pataki opposed),
it's attackable, too.
"Because of their ideology,"
says a union official, the progressive presidents "don't
make the mistake of thinking they could build the union by relying
on politicians. Sweeney and [AFSCME President Gerald] McEntee,"
he adds, are from an earlier generation that placed "a heavier
reliance on politics and didn't pay as much attention to building
a strong, independent membership base." Of course, when Sweeney
and McEntee were young, politics was more union-friendly.
Will this left - right alliance of organizing
unions attempt to remold the AFL-CIO by having one of its members
run for the federation presidency in 2005, should Sweeney, whose
term is up that year, elect to step down? It's certainly possible.
Wilhelm's and O'Sullivan's are two names that people raise. (Stern,
like Walter Reuther 50 years ago, is thought to be both too successful
and not enough of a back-slapper to win the votes of his fellow
presidents.) The alliance could conceivably also back AFL-CIO
Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka if he seeks the job.
But 2005 is a long way off. For now, Stern
says, "There's a way for people who have common ideas to
work together to make those ideas more effective than any one
union can do on its own. The goal of this group would be to approach
organizing wholesale, not retail." In the near future, then,
HERE, UNITE, the SEIU, the Laborers and the Carpenters can be
expected to announce some pooling of resources, possibly to create
a joint capital strategies and research operation that would help
them all undertake major new campaigns. If the experiment meets
some quick successes, it could then fuel an attempt in 2005 to
reconfigure the AFL-CIO.
As the presidents in the organizing alliance
see it, the changes they're proposing are a matter of life and
death for American unions. "The labor movement has been embattled
every day since I joined it," says Raynor, "and that's
true for John [Wilhelm] and Andy [Stern] as well." The janitors
union, he adds, was nearly destroyed early on during Stern's tenure
as organizing director. "That kind of thing certainly colors
"If things keep up the way they've
been going," adds O'Sullivan, "we're going to be engaged
in collective begging, not bargaining. What happens in the next
five years defines the next 50." a
HAROLD MEYERSON is the Prospect s editor