Union split: sign of decline or revival?

As groups bolt the AFL-CIO, some think it means doom but others see an energized labor movement.

Depending on whom you talk to, this week's split in labor - with two of the largest unions breaking off from the AFL-CIO and at least two more likely to follow - is either a deadly departure from solidarity at a time when workers most need it, or an exciting step that could bring new vigor and creativity to a declining movement.

President John Sweeney, addressing his delegates on the opening day of the AFL-CIO convention, was filled with anger not just that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Teamsters are leaving - taking 3.2 million members and $20 million in dues with them - but that they're doing so "at a time when our corporate and conservative adversaries have created the most powerful antiworker political machine in the history of our country."

Some may differ with Mr. Sweeney on the reason for labor's decline, but the one thing everyone - including the departing unions - can agree on is that it's a critical time for a movement that is fast losing both clout and members.

Only around 8 percent of private-sector workers hold a union card these days, barely a third of 25 years ago. The overall number is about 12 percent. Despite one of the most coordinated political efforts in its history, the labor movement failed in almost all its important campaigns last year.

"It's very clear that in the last decade, they've lost a lot of weight," says Charles Heckscher, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University. "No one's really taking them seriously." Despite union leaders' talk about holding Democrats accountable and influencing the direction of the party, he says, "when you only have 8 percent of workers you don't have that kind of clout."

Labor's decline has been steady for several decades now, driven by everything from globalization and outsourcing to a more antiunion legal landscape. There's also a changing perception among workers of the value of holding a union card.

ADVOCATES cling to poll numbers showing that despite low membership, interest in unions is still high: Close to 40 percent of workers saying they'd join a union if given a chance. Outsourcing and job insecurity have only increased that interest. But workers are also pragmatic. "They know their employers are antiunion," says Rick Hurd, a labor expert at Cornell University. "They may have a positive view of unions, they might rather be unionized, but they're not willing to put their job on the line to get there."

Indeed, most of the recent successful organizing, by groups like the SEIU and UNITE-HERE, a coalition of hotel, restaurant, and garment workers, has bypassed the National Labor Relations Board and traditional elections completely. Instead, they put pressure on employers - like gambling casinos in Las Vegas - to agree in advance to recognize unions.

The lack of similar efforts, or even a willingness to focus on organizing, by other unions is one factor leading to the current rift. While the AFL-CIO has talked more about the importance of organizing lately, the largely decentralized group has little power to force compliance.

Those optimistic about the split point to the success of the renegade groups in adding new members: They hope this will be an opportunity for new energy and creativity, while retaining some political solidarity with the AFL-CIO. "The best advertising for Change to Win is SEIU's growth over the past 25 years: Its membership has tripled," notes Ruth Milkman, director of UCLA's Institute of Industrial Relations. "They've demonstrated you can do it. "

But others point out that union difficulties go far beyond the need for more organizing or a merger by industry. Many of the remaining AFL-CIO unions don't have the luxury of being in industries - like service, construction, and trucking - whose jobs are unlikely to be outsourced.

"It doesn't seem to me that there's a compelling new vision on either side," says Mr. Heckscher. Simply organizing more workers won't address what he sees as two enormous obstacles for labor: globalization and the changing workplace.

While some labor groups are making overtures to unions overseas, the concept of a truly international labor movement is a long way off. Unions have also been slow to reach out to what many consider the archetype of the new recruit: young "knowledge" workers who have individualized jobs. They're interested in things like portable benefits, career networks, and security between jobs, but care little for sacred union notions like seniority.

The labor movement "is still focused on representing people in traditional bureaucracies," says Heckscher.

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