It must have come as quite a shock to many observers of the recent AFL-CIO breakup that unions are not all on the same page when it comes to their political and workplace strategies. Most Americans have assumed that organized labor has always been and would always remain staunchly united behind the Democratic Party and progressive social policies.

Think again.

In fact, unions have often diverged from the predictable political path. American Federation of Labor founder Samuel Gompers, who led the organization from 1886 to 1924, so feared government encroachment that at various points he opposed a minimum wage, medical and unemployment insurance, and laws setting maximum working hours -- all of which are now strongly backed by unions. Gompers, who called his philosophy "pure and simple unionism," worried that a meddling government would weaken labor unions' relevance in the workplace.

The recent mass defection of three unions from the AFL-CIO is proof that the tradition, if not the substance, of Gompers' political iconoclasm still lives in the labor movement. And it shows that some union leaders do not want to be seen as bootlickers for the Democratic Party. The leader of the walkout is Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern, who has founded the Change to Win Coalition, a new union grouping to rival the AFL-CIO. Stern has called John Sweeney's AFL-CIO an "ATM" for the Democratic Party that too often backs politicians while receiving little in return. And he dropped a bombshell at last year's Democratic National Convention by calling the Democrats a "hollow party" and saying that a John Kerry presidency would hurt efforts to reform organized labor.

Paraphrasing the 19th-century British foreign secretary Lord Palmerston's comment about nations, Stern has said that unions don't have permanent allies, only permanent interests. But what are labor's interests, and how can unions best protect them? And if labor is going to make allies of convenience, how will it choose them?

Like Gompers, Stern believes that unions must focus on their primary interest -- organizing workplaces, especially among service and retail firms like Aramark, Cintas and Wal-Mart. But Stern seems to think that one way to pursue that interest is by making as many allies as he can among businesses. That strategy comes with a risk: By focusing on workplace power, unions could become too invested in their relationships with the "bosses" and might turn against progressive social policy and traditional Democratic Party allies.

There are many examples of unions teaming up with industry. The International Association of Machinists, which includes many aerospace workers, has backed a missile defense system of dubious effectiveness; the United Auto Workers has opposed more aggressive fuel efficiency standards; and the truck-driving Teamsters have backed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Recently the West Coast alternative newspaper SF Weekly published a piece labeling SEIU and California nursing home owners "Partners in Slime." The union and employers had collaborated to promote tort reform to blunt the impact of patient care lawsuits that were driving major employers out of the state.

Some of Stern's critics on the left complain that he is replacing class struggle with class snuggle. In recent months, Stern has tried to reframe unions' role in the workplace, touting them as "outsourcers" delivering services to two sets of "clients": employees and employers. In an interview with HRO Today, a human resources trade magazine, Stern underlined unions' unique advantages as service providers. In particular, he cited unions' antitrust exemption, which frees them to coordinate industry-wide trainings programs and wages. To the employers, Stern wants to deliver workers who meet certain standards while making sure that one employer is not at a competitive wage disadvantage compared to another. To the employees, Stern wants to deliver higher wages.

Another way for Stern to help the employer "clients" is by expanding employers' markets. Two leading Change to Win unions, SEIU and Unite Here, are organizing new members in the service contractor industry. They have also supported the government moves to privatize services and turn them over to companies such as Aramark and Sodexho, the same companies the unions are trying to organize. More business for those companies, more jobs and more union members. But this potentially puts the Change to Win duo at odds with public sector unions loyal to the AFL-CIO and with Democrats opposed to privatizing government services.

The SEIU has backed privatization in other sectors where it suits the union's "permanent interests." When the federal government was first contemplating federalizing airport screeners after 9/11, SEIU, which at the time was organizing private screeners, found an anti-federalization ally in Illinois representative Rod Blagojevich. Later, with $750,000 in SEIU contributions, Blagojevich was elected governor of Illinois.

Free-market conservatives have long asserted that such cozy labor-management relationships hurt consumers and the general public by raising the price of goods. But there is another way these relationships can hurt a broad range of Americans, including union members, and that's in limiting the scope of government-provided social programs.

Under the Taft-Hartley Labor Act of 1947, for example, labor and management can negotiate and then jointly manage health care systems and insurance funds. That means that labor unions are strongly invested in delivering private social benefits. Thus, they end up being compelled to make Gompers's choice -- whether to support government-guaranteed services or protect their own workplace influence and power.

Ironically, it was a past president of SEIU, John Sweeney, the current AFL-CIO chief, who faced such a choice. During the 1993-94 Clinton health care reform debacle, labor unions had a chance to back a Canadian-style single payer system. However, SEIU and other unions worried that a single-payer system would jeopardize their Taft-Hartley welfare programs. As an alternative, they thought that additional employer mandates would leave the Taft-Hartley programs intact. Thus, Sweeney, aided by other unions, quietly smothered support for single payer within the House of Labor. Labor's voice was conspicuously silent and ineffective in the ensuing debate, until it meekly endorsed the President Bill Clinton's Health Security Act.

Despite Stern's criticism of labor's relationship with the Democratic Party, he does understand the importance of political work. Last fall, SEIU generously lent its clout, helping to coordinate America Coming Together and America Votes, an alliance of Democratic interest groups that included the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and women's organizations. Much of the management of this joint get-out-the-vote effort was done by SEIU members and staff (like me) in a massive union campaign effort without recent precedent.

Cynics have described this alliance as nothing more than a loophole in campaign finance laws exploited by party activists. But it is this sort of political work that may permit the Change to Win coalition to avoid the fate that historically has stagnated unions.

The principles of the coalition acknowledge that union power does not reside only in the workplace, but through community alliances, a focus on diversity, concern for overseas as well as domestic workers, and a national campaign for universal health care. These principles are the hallmarks of a more socially conscious labor movement. Connections with community provide unions with the backbone to serve as a countervailing force against corporations, rather than serving as their handmaidens.

There's nothing wrong with unions spreading their political bets among Republicans as well as Democrats. But unions cannot live in opposition to the broader interests of Americans, whether it regards health care, environmental protection or antitrust. If unions can claim only 12 percent of the workforce as their members, or even if they can grow by half that amount again, unions cannot survive without the rest of American workers seeing unions as "allies." Otherwise, politicians of all stripes and business executives will continue to score points by villainizing the labor movement.

Even Gompers, for all his shortsightedness, understood the need to expand his horizon beyond the company at hand. Despite his heavy rhetoric against political commitment, he ended up backing friendly Democrats and progressive Republicans more often than not. Over the years, he moderated some of his positions and became more receptive to the labor movement's involvement in politics. As a result, his work laid the foundation for the labor movement's successful participation in the New Deal coalition.

The newest labor group on the scene would be wise to learn from his mistakes as well as his change of heart. However important it is to organize workplaces, the Change to Win Coalition should not simply trade one set of limitations -- in this case, its commitments to the Democratic Party -- for the binding ties of labor-management cooperation.

Author's e-mail:

nall@fas.harvard.edu

Clayton Nall, a former researcher for SEIU, is pursuing a doctorate in government at Harvard University.

Iconoclast: Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor, had some surprising views on government's role. The labor leaders now splitting off from the AFL-CIO are also taking some surprising positions and seeking new alliances.