In the annals of labor leave-taking, it was neither as contentious as Mineworkers President John L. Lewis's departure from the 1935 AFL convention, when he decked the president of the Carpenters Union on his way out, nor as arrogantly dismissive as one of Lewis's later farewells, when he penned a note to AFL President William Green that read, simply: "Green -- We disaffiliate -- Lewis."
But yesterday's announcement by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters that they were quitting the AFL-CIO was no less stunning for its absence of theatricals. What we know is that the split -- which is likely to grow as several other unions announce their own disaffiliations over the next couple of weeks -- sunders a union movement that is already weaker than it has been since the 1920s. What we don't know is whether the new organization that the SEIU, the Teamsters and their allies will form in the coming months can and will do anything to bolster the power of America's indispensable, if enfeebled, labor movement.
For now, it's a lot easier to see the damage than it is to foresee the gain. Both sides acknowledge that the labor political operation that AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has crafted over the past decade is the sine qua non of progressive politics in the United States, and the split clearly imperils that program. Yesterday the departing presidents -- SEIU's Andy Stern and the Teamsters' Jim Hoffa -- made clear that they want to support the political operation even though they're leaving. Hoffa said he'd instructed his locals to keep paying dues to the local AFL-CIO bodies, the central labor councils, that coordinate labor's get-out-the-vote drives.
The split comes, moreover, just as the AFL-CIO was gearing up a long-term campaign to organize Wal-Mart. But the lead unions in this campaign are the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which is boycotting the convention and is widely expected soon to announce its own disaffiliation, and the SEIU. Yesterday, though, one lone SEIU official with particular responsibility for the Wal-Mart campaign still was working the floor of the AFL-CIO convention, even though his union was just then quitting the federation.
Indeed, there is still just enough ambivalence on the dissidents' side so that, though they've scrapped "Solidarity Forever" as their anthem, some of them sound as if they'd be comfortable performing Groucho Marx's entrance-and-exit song, "Hello, I Must Be Going." The leader whose ambivalence is most painfully on display is Terry O'Sullivan, the president of the Laborers, whose union is attending the convention, though it is aligned with SEIU and the Teamsters. O'Sullivan is the man in the middle at this convention: Though committed to the dissident coalition, he knows that a labor civil war pitting his members against the other building trades unions at construction sites could be a disaster.
O'Sullivan's, then, is the voice of caution. Labor, he says, "will have two options coming out of [this convention]. People can decide to go toe to toe, or we can figure out how to keep lines of communication going. If people on either side decide to fight it out, that would be unfortunate."
To the union leaders who support Sweeney, these and other protestations to preserve this or that federation program sound massively disingenuous, coming on the heels of departures that could cripple the federation altogether. They rightly note that Sweeney had adopted many of the dissidents' demands, though that plainly failed to satisfy them. Sweeney himself, in his keynote speech yesterday, vowed to "overcome my own anger and disappointment and do everything in my power to bring us back where we belong -- and that's together."
But the forces for unity of any kind are growing weaker by the day. Fewer dissident leaders are voicing the kinds of reservations about leaving that were audible just a few weeks ago. Yesterday, for the first time, Stern and Hoffa began to sketch the outlines of a new organization -- indeed, Hoffa promised to split the $10 million that the Teamsters would have paid in AFL-CIO dues between his own union's organizing department and a new organizing infrastructure that the yet-to-be-founded alliance will house.
In planning to build a new federation with some organizing capacity of its own, the dissidents are harking back to the old CIO, which, with Lewis at its helm, roared out of the old AFL determined to unionize America's industrial workers. The economic and political environment is decidedly more hostile to organizing now than it was then, but Stern, Hoffa and their allies recognize that they will have to win victories on a CIO-like scale to justify their split. No one can say whether the birth of this new labor movement will lead to a desperately needed reversal in fortune for America's workers. Some stars, after all, burn most brightly just before they altogether flicker out.