Making Change: Union or Bust, or Unions Busted?

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The Change to Win Coalition now represents 6 million workers - truckers, restaurant employees, carpenters, laborers, and custodians, among others. That's nearly half of the AFL-CIO's total membership. Coalition members say they want to improve organized labor; others worry this move will weaken it. John Ryan heads the Cleveland AFL-CIO.

John Ryan: I certainly hope that we can all come together and understand that power is our solidarity and certainly isn't by splitting off.

When the AFL and CIO merged in 1955, 33% of American workers were unionized. Today, just 13% belong to unions. This loss is at the heart of the current controversy. Why have unions lost so much ground? CSU historian David Goldberg says they made the mistake of resting on their laurels.

David Goldberg: Unions didn't necessarily look into the future, and I think they developed a kind of complacency, and I think they paid a price for that when unions began to be attacked starting in the late 70s, early 80s.

Indeed, the labor movement has had an image problem for some time. Labor leaders say an anti-union atmosphere and widespread intimidation of workers are partly to blame for this, but they acknowledge that the movement suffers from internal problems as well. When unions become complacent and leadership loses touch with the rank and file, they say, members become disillusioned. According to Anton Farmby, head of Local 3 of the Service Employees International Union in Cleveland, there's an easy way for unions to prevent this.

Anton Farmby: As a labor union, if you do what you're supposed to do, which is to represent members to your best ability and to organize workers who want to do that, everything else falls into place.

But for many unions, things haven't been falling into place. Is it possible the labor movement has outlived its usefulness? Historian David Goldberg doesn't think so.

David Goldberg: I doubt if unions are outmoded because I know employees still have complaints at the workplace. And a union is a way by which people can not have to necessarily think of themselves as individuals, but can act collectively.

Jeff Rechenbach, who heads the Midwest district of the Communications Workers of America, says organized labor may, in fact, be on the verge of a renaissance.

Jeff Rechenbach: The labor movement generating good-paying jobs for ordinary folks built up the middle class in this nation. We see that declining right along with the decline of the labor movement. I think conditions are gonna be right for people to stand up and say, 'Hey, we've had it.'

What organized labor needs to do to revitalize itself, Rechenbach says, is get back to the principles that built the movement. And those come, he says, from the bottom, up; not the top, down. Anton Farmby says the union movement as a whole could learn something from his union, the SEIU, which he describes as an organizing machine.

Anton Farmby: Organizing is what really makes it for working people. There's nothing more important than organizing.

And that's part of what motivates members of the Change to Win coalition, the belief that labor has gotten away from organizing and needs to put far more effort, and far more money, into it. Tom Robertson is head of local 880 of the United Food and Commercial Workers union. He says the Coalition - which, in addition to the SEIU and UFCW, includes Teamsters, laborers, restaurant and hotel workers, carpenters, and others - wants to accomplish change from within. But, he says, it may not be possible.

Tom Robertson: When you've got many different cultures of unions, and many different ways of doing things, to get everybody in the same room, to think along the same level, to make the changes, is tough.

Jeff Rechenbach of the CWA says everyone within the labor movement recognizes that it needs to change, but he thinks it's important that change be made together.

Jeff Rechenbach: You've got one faction saying, 'Well, if you don't change the way I like, we're gonna leave.' I don't think that's particularly healthy for where we are today.

At the end of July, the AFL-CIO convenes in Chicago to debate - and vote on - its future. John Ryan, of Cleveland's AFL-CIO, says he hopes people will come together by then and preserve the association, just as labor and management often reach agreement right before time runs out.

John Ryan: Union leaders are used to making biggest progress in 11th hour, and I certainly hope this is one of those cases.

Historian David Goldberg says widespread dissatisfaction with the state of the labor movement could certainly translate into a fracturing of the AFL-CIO. But, he says, whether that would strengthen or weaken the movement is impossible to predict.

In Cleveland, Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz, 90.3.

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