Union Disunity

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This week's bolting of two of the nation's largest unions from the AFL-CIO is causing great consternation among the union umbrella's leaders and their traditional political allies, the Democrats.

Unity equals strength, they argue. How can there be strength in a split movement?

What needs to be asked, however, is whether they've got their assumption right. In an open, competitive society, unity brings power only when the ideas put forth are persuasive and effective enough to keep everyone on board.

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But in organized labor, this hasn't been the case for quite some time. That's why labor is now experiencing its greatest upheaval since the Great Depression - and why this split should be welcomed as a healthy development that could actually strengthen unions.

For several years now, union leaders such as Andrew Stern, who heads the Service Employees International Union (a union that's actually growing), have disagreed with the direction of the AFL-CIO. They complain that too much money and effort have gone into politics (lobbying and elections) and not enough into reversing the steady decline in membership.

Unable to resolve their dispute, the service union and the Teamsters decided this week to leave the AFL-CIO mother ship, and it's quite likely two other unions will defect as well. If all four left, that would amount to nearly a third of the federation's 13 million members.

If the strategy of labor's leadership had indeed proven its worth, these dissidents would have no cause to leave. But they're right to question a direction that hasn't produced results - either in the workplace, or in politics:

• Union membership continues to fall. Fifty years ago, more than a third of the workforce was organized. Today, the figure is 12 percent - 8 percent if only the private sector is counted.

• Unions are losing ground on important issues, such as pensions, healthcare, and wages.

• And what has all that spending on politics gotten labor's allies, the Democrats? Not the White House. Not Congress. Not the majority of state governorships.

In labor's last big breakup in 1938, unions made significant gains. Competition served workers well then and it can again today.

On one side are service-oriented unions that recognize the need to navigate a global economy. On the other are manufacturing-heavy unions trying to protect past gains and fighting off the global trend. The service side is gaining in members, while the other side is not. It seems the breakaway group deserves a chance to test its approach.

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