WEST HARTFORD, CONN. AND NEW YORK — The growing rift between insurgents in the AFL-CIO and the leadership of the labor federation looks increasingly like civil war. Those who care about the future of organized labor will now weigh the relative merits of the two factions. Important as these considerations may be, however, the real import of the battle within the house of labor is the battle itself. The recent establishment of the Change to Win Coalition, which will probably be a rival federation to the AFL-CIO, could be the best thing to happen to the American labor movement in decades.
Anyone who still cares about the labor movement agrees that it is in crisis. Unions today represent only 15.5 million - or 12.5 percent - of the nation's 124 million workers, the lowest percentage in decades, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The AFL-CIO claims to have 13 million members. Most American workers have no experience with unions and those who do often complain that union leaders are not responsive to their demands. Indeed, these twin crises - dwindling numbers and bureaucratic inaccessibility - have plagued the labor movement since the merger that created the AFL-CIO in 1955. The new competition among unions will create more dynamic unions and will force labor leaders to be accountable to their constituents.
Following months of threats to disaffiliate from the AFL-CIO, five of the federation's largest member unions have now established the Change to Win Coalition and forcefully implied that if the AFL-CIO does not meet certain demands for restructuring, the coalition will offer a new, independent alternative to American workers seeking union representation. Barring unexpected concessions by the AFL-CIO to the insurgents at the federation's convention July 25 to 28, it appears that we will soon have two competing labor federations in the United States for the first time in 50 years.
The heyday of organized labor in America, from the split of the CIO from the AFL in 1935 until the merger in 1955, occurred during another civil war within the labor movement. These were the years when organized labor constituted a vibrant movement full of drama and passion that inspired a generation of labor activists.
As unions battled for the allegiance of workers the rival federations grew exponentially, labor's story was headline news, and union membership reached its high point in American history.
Although today's feuding union factions and most friends of organized labor lament the competition, history suggests that it is essential for the revitalization of American labor. A labor movement in which dueling organizations are forced to compete for the support of potential members can provide workers with the leverage necessary to force union leaders to be accountable to the interests of their members. In a competitive environment, a union leader who does not deliver the goods - higher wages, shorter hours, better benefits, and improved working conditions - risks losing out to a more responsive rival.
In many countries around the world, employers dread the rising expectations unleashed by union competition. Now, business leaders in the US will face a labor movement as divided - and vigorous - as the Canadian, French, Spanish, Korean, and Argentinian labor movements.
A leading law firm that advises US employers on handling labor issues recently published a report on the labor feud here in which it predicted, "For employers with unions from both competing factions at their facilities, competition for better wages, benefits and other terms and conditions of employment is likely."
Competition among unions leads not only to the creation of better options for the already organized rank and file, but also to the organization of new industries as unions animated by the rivalry generate enthusiasm among the unorganized. Employees participating in union representation elections have been far more likely to vote for union representation over "no union" when the election involves more than one union vying for workers. Rivalry has also forced down initiation fees and union dues. When unions compete, workers win.
The 1955 merger of the AFL and the CIO all but eliminated competition among unions. For nearly 50 years, the AFL-CIO has operated like a one-party state. There can be no more fitting way to celebrate the anniversary of labor's unification than to end it.
• Jonathan Cutler is a professor of sociology at Wesleyan University and the author of 'Labor's Time: Shorter Hours, the UAW, and the Struggle for American Unionism.' Thaddeus Russell is a professor of history at Barnard College and the author of 'Out of the Jungle: Jimmy Hoffa and the Remaking of the American Working Class.'