imageSince 1886 The American Federation of Labor (AFL) has been a significant centralization of craft labor.  In 1955 the AFL merged with its former rival the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).  In turn, America’s largest federation of labor unions was born.

Labor has been under constant attack for the past few decades and according to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (usually referred to merely as “The Teamsters”) AFL-CIO leadership (mainly president John J. Sweeney) has consistently suffered misguided decisions leading to a drastic decline in membership.  As a show of dissent yesterday the SEIU, UFCW, AFSCME, and Teamsters boycotted the AFL-CIO’s labor federation convention (which happened to coincide with its 50th anniversary).  This is the first step in a prospected division of the AFL-CIO.

The main reasons for the divide surround growth and focus.  The Teamsters feel gaining numbers by organizing WAL-MART, and FED-EX are the most important events facing the future of the union.  The AFL-CIO on the other hand feels political lobbying, and administration/representational shaping take prominence.  No matter who’s right the divide in itself has stirred up the most controversy.

Today in the New York Times:

A rift could hurt the labor movement badly by redirecting its focus and energies to internal battles instead of bedrock issues like fighting for wage increases and extending health care to more workers.

“The house of labor is always stronger when it is united,” Ron Gettelfinger the president of the United Auto Workers, said. “It won’t be the end of the world, what they’re doing. It will just make the challenges we face that much harder.”

This is an argument as old as unions themselves.  The Industrial Workers of the World was largely destroyed because of its socialist roots at the hands of the American government and none-other-than the AFL.  It once claimed the crown of “most powerful union of them all.” Its rise to power was attributed to action and solidarity. “A fist can’t fight itself.” Yet, when attempting to organize a diverse group is solidarity ever true?  Ideologies (or simply ideologues) divide organized labor just as they divide this country.  The IWW fought for an end to capitalism through a revolt of labor.  Sure, they made accommodations for labors requests of safer working conditions, better wages, and better healthcare but in the end what the IWW really cared about was “The Party” ideology, not labor.

AFL-CIO may suffer an identical fate.  Attempting top down change alone despite continuous labor requests doesn’t achieve the fundamental nature of labor for labor.  It’s possible to achieve both but as always absolute power corrupts absolutely. The more a leader grabs for power representation loses touch with constituents. Ideology trumps and just as democracy in this country is suffering democracy within labor suffers.  A bureaucratic war opened with its first battle yesterday, yet its citizens were largely unseen, unheard, and generally shut-out.

Here’s some final food for thought:

The notion that the salvation of the labor movement reduces to “density as manifest destiny” is historically false, and analytically shallow. Equally, for the unions that are proposing the monopolistic changes, seemingly self serving. Some unions that have achieved density have been decimated by corporate sponsored political, economic, and social policies. Besides, forced mergers are anti-democratic and could silence the voice of the most active and militant unions and union leaders.

The Top 10 Problems with the Current “Crisis” in the Labor Movement