After the Democratic debacle of 1994, when Newt Gingrich's Republicans took control of Congress, no one predicted that it would be labor, of all the dejected Democratic constituencies, that would subject itself to fundamental change. Yet that's exactly what happened. John Sweeney, then president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), waged a successful insurgent campaign against longtime AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, promising to turn around the labor movement's flagging political and organizing programs.
Now, in the wake of John Kerry's shattering defeat, it's once again the labor movement that has plunged itself into a far-reaching debate over the changes it needs to make to rebuild a progressive, more equitable nation. Proposals to bolster organizing, consolidate unions, focus on battleground states -- and to fund some of these proposals by scaling back unions' dues to the AFL-CIO -- are bubbling forth from a number of unions. Many of these proposals are long overdue; others blame the AFL-CIO for what are really deficiencies in individual unions' organizing programs. But the collective din is a welcome signal that many of labor's key leaders understand the urgency of the unions' -- and middle-class America's -- dilemma.
No union leader disputes Sweeney's success in turning around labor's political program. In last month's election, 59 percent of the union household vote went to Kerry. In Ohio, Kerry got the votes of 66 percent of AFL-CIO union members, up from the 62 percent Al Gore won four years earlier.
The problem is that the number of union members in Ohio, and in the United States, has been dwindling as manufacturing has tanked. In 1992 just 19 percent of voters in the presidential election came from union households. By 2000 that figure had risen to 26 percent, chiefly as a result of the hard work of the AFL-CIO's political program. By last month, though, the share of union households in the electorate had declined to 24 percent.
With a scant 8 percent of private-sector workers belonging to unions -- the lowest level in nearly a century -- even the most brilliant political program can no longer be counted on to produce Democratic majorities. In matters of elections, or winning contracts that ensure middle-class living standards, SEIU Executive Vice President Gerry Hudson said earlier this month at a conference debating labor's future, "We have a labor movement dangerously close to being too small to matter."
Just one week after the election, SEIU President Andrew Stern proposed a range of remedies for labor's ailments. They included rebating half the dues that unions pay to the AFL-CIO to bolster unions' organizing programs, directing the $25 million that the AFL-CIO annually derives from its credit card into a campaign to begin organizing Wal-Mart workers and, most controversial, a policy that would enable the AFL-CIO to compel its 40 smaller unions (often too small to wage significant organizing drives) to merge into its 20 larger ones. If the AFL-CIO fails to adopt these changes, Stern said, the SEIU -- the federation's largest union and its most successful organizer -- may pull out altogether.
For two years now, the SEIU has worked in close alliance with several other unions to prod the AFL-CIO to reform. Last week these unions picked up a powerful ally in the Teamsters, the federation's third-largest union. Jim Hoffa's union also called for rebating AFL-CIO dues to unions with organizing programs in their core industries and suggested that unions concentrate their organizing drives in battleground states. The Teamsters' rebate proposal indirectly encourages unions to merge, but rejects the idea of compelling such mergers.
"Until the Teamsters came forward, a lot of people believed this was just something between Andy [Stern] and John [Sweeney]," one union official said this week, referring to the complex relationship that began more than two decades ago when Sweeney hired Stern to be the SEIU's organizing director. "Now it's really about the direction of the AFL-CIO."
Ironically, under both Sweeney and Stern, the SEIU became the fastest-growing union in labor by redirecting its own resources to organizing -- a more exacting course than getting money back from the AFL-CIO to beef up organizing. Be that as it may, some redirection of federation resources into organizing seems increasingly likely, which may be why talk of secession around the SEIU is more muted now than it was last month.
Meanwhile, the Communications Workers of America has put forth proposals to make unions more democratic; a number of leaders of local AFL-CIO councils are suggesting that the smaller councils be consolidated into the larger ones, and an SEIU-sponsored Web site contains a union-reform blog -- www.unitetowin.org -- that offers a cacophony of critiques and suggestions.
The cover line on the Christmas card sent out this year by Sweeney's AFL-CIO reads, "Let hope and unity shine." Right now the hope, and concern, are real. The unity will reassert itself in time.