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Union Roundup

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Thomas B. Edsall, writing recently in the Washington Post, has a good lead about the “breakaway” labor group, the Change to Win Coalition, which recently picked itself a leader:“In 1972, the year Anna Burger started a wildcat strike of Philadelphia social workers, organized labor did not look like a promising career for a liberal, antiwar feminist.“The AFL-CIO, under the leadership of George Meany, was tilting rightward, refusing to endorse Democratic presidential nominee George S. McGovern. Meany demonstrated his preference by golfing with President Richard M. Nixon.”The between-the-lines section of those two paragraphs says a lot about the history of the AFL-CIO, why the break happened in the first place, and also explains how a recent IA election endorsement signifies every bit of tension between the two groups.Those two paragraphs will also allow UR to catch up on the bit of labor history we alluded to a couple of columns back, before the old environmental bumpersticker slogan, “Nature Bats Last,” proved true for the umpteenth time.So let’s start with the history. Samuel Gompers was the first president of the old AFL, coming out of the 19th century and going into the 20th, relying on the organizing skills he learned in the cigar factories that employed him in his youth.Though nominally a socialist, Gompers didn’t believe in an electoral component of the labor movement per se—which is to say, a labor party—and so distanced himself from more “radical” organizers like the Wobblies—the International Workers of the World—who, unlike the AFL, didn’t discriminate based on race, nor based on “skill set” (the AFL preferred skilled workers to mere laborers, field workers, etc.).Nor were the Wobblies interested in saving capitalism from itself—that is, merely curbing its excesses—and predictably, its leaders were variously arrested and murdered in the days following World War I.That left the AFL as the remaining “player,” along with Gompers’ attitude toward politics of “reward[ing] your friends and punish[ing] your enemies.” And while this initially was to work without party affiliation, it became, practically speaking, a political liaison with Democrats, who were generally more stomachable than Republicans when it came to, oh, child labor laws, Social Security, workplace protection, and the like.Of course, the Democrats never had to get too “radical” since there was never any American labor party—any idea of that died at the ends of the ropes they were hanging Wobblies with—to possibly compete for AFL support.Then we came to the phase of American history referred to by Edsall, where cultural differences—once again—drove American labor rightward, this time in the ’60s and ’70s, and why not support Republicans, because surely neither party would ever touch Social Security or actually try to reduce the minimum wage.Right?But as the Republicans began their long, ’80s-onward march toward rightwing extremism, the Democrats were proving themselves, well, a polite word might be “feckless.”The most recent example of this was the recent passage of CAFTA in the House—a vote so tight that the bill would not have passed, if a handful of Democrats hadn’t crossed the aisle.With friends like these…And yet labor, due to its choices at the outset of the 20th century, had nowhere else to go, electorally speaking. John Sweeney, current head of the AFL-CIO, thought an aggressive electoral organizing strategy in the ’90s would bring more Democrats into office, and finally make the party responsive to labor’s needs.He was outflanked by Republican money, the effective use of cultural bogeymen by the right, and, by every appearance, the added GOP safety valve of rigged vote-counting machines. And Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), decided the time had come for a more, frankly, Wob-like approach. Which is to say: heavy, heavy organizing, getting people into Unions who aren’t, and letting labor’s strength rebuild from the workplace outward.After all, if you can affect “the money,” you can affect the politics.So came the recent split between Sweeney and Stern, with the Stern-led SEIU spearheading the walk-out that led to the creation of the Change to Win coalition. IATSE, of course, stayed with the AFL-CIO, to the degree that IA president Tom Short now sits on that body’s executive board. And in keeping with Gompers’ original strategy, the IA this past week also announced its electoral support of one of George Bush’s biggest contributors: That’d be Republican Michael Bloomberg, running for re-election as the Big Apple’s mayor.To quote from the official IA press release on why Bloomberg is preferable to Democratic nominee and former Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer: “We’re doing this for three reasons: jobs, jobs and jobs. The IATSE recognizes that this mayor has created 62,000 jobs in New York City in the last two years. More New Yorkers are working now than in any time in the past quarter century.”Never mind that there are more New Yorkers, or that Bloomberg is scarcely Fiorello LaGuardia in terms of municipal social policy, but sure, let’s give Short and his folks the fact that jobs—including the IA’s, where Broadway gigs are bundled into the mix—have ratcheted up during Bloomberg’s administration.The endorsement simply reveals the division in tactics: A Bloomberg nod shows it really is about jobs, particularly jobs in a given union’s jurisdiction. There are no “big picture” issues here. Indeed, Nat Hentoff, writing recently in The Village Voice, specifically chastised labor leaders who endorsed Bloomberg for overlooking the mayor’s abysmal failures with the city’s schools.Though to be sure, the Democrats in general—including, perhaps Mr. Ferrer—have scarcely been setting the political world on fire with new visions, bold moves, or much in the way of discernable charisma.Additionally, on the opposite coast, IATSE has put its weight in the fight against Gov. Arnie Above-the-Line Schwarzenegger’s Prop. 75—one of a slew of “special” initiatives Mr. Golden State decided to put on the ballot himself, even though there was a nary a voter asking him to do so.Prop. 75 is the one that strives to limit “special interest” money in elections. That is the GOP definition of “special interest,” which means, specifically, unions. Not a whisper in the proposed law about limiting corporate influence in elections.In this case, the interests of the IA, the interests of school children—and school teachers—are the same.For a while yet we’ll see concurrent sets of tactics between the AFL-CIO and the “upstart” Change to Win Coalition, being led—this might surprise Gompers—by a woman. It’s worth noting that every large American labor group was once an “upstart”—not only the CIO, when it originally split from the AFL in the ’30s, but even the AFL itself, which took over after the Philadelphia-based Knights of Labor folded in the late 19th century.Which set of tactics will ultimately best represent film and TV workers—who are no longer as insulated from domestic and global economic shocks as they once were—remains to be seen.But you are free to start guessing.

Written by Mark London Williams

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