Back to the AFL-CIO

Posted on June 14, 2011 by

It’s time for the Teamsters, SEIU, Farmworkers and UFCW to rejoin the AFL-CIO

I know there’s a lot of institutional politics in the way, but a more united labor movement would strengthen our hand in the 2012 election cycle and beyond.

AFL-CIO prez Rich Trumka has gotten better and better at articulating and promoting our message.  And though he’s not universally admired among national union leaders, his communications skills – plain speaking and forceful – have been playing quite well in the media.

Trumka has honed the argument – long advocated by progressive activists – that unions will no longer pony-up for democratic politicians who ignore working-class interests.

Nothing Trumka is saying is inconsistent with the principles and practices of the unions which currently comprise the Change-to-Win coalition (which broke from the AFL-CIO in 2005).

And though there have been some ugly rivalries and divisive battles – particularly the split-up within UNITE HERE and inside the SEIU – the labor movement has grappled with severe conflicts in the past and will again. 

SEIU’s new president Mary Kay Henry – a much more inclusive and conciliatory leader than her predecessor, Andy Stern – could be the linchpin for bringing the two umbrella organizations together. 

And then there’s a useful regional template for a united labor movement.  In the six years since big labors’ divorce, the Los Angeles labor movement has remained basically intact.  Note the enormous support here among AFL-CIO unions for the possible strike by UFCW (CTW) workers. 

Is a merger in play?

Obviously, there’s a lot going on at various union headquarters in D.C. that I don’t know about.

But with the prospect of organized labor gaining some real traction with the public, it couldn’t hurt to make a genuine  effort to get our own house in order.

Comments (6)


  1. Arieh Lebowitz says:

    There are actually a number of city Central Labor Councils that encompass locals of nearly all of the nearby AFL-CIO unions and also a number of nearby locals of CtW unions. And if I’m not mistaken, a number of larger bodies in which the same is more or less true, i.e., state federations of labor. I think there’s something like this in New Jersey …

  2. Javier says:

    You are kidding me? The AFL-CIO is useless. CTW is less useless. Labor uses the excuse of weak labor law, when anyone in labor can tell you workers are not hiring in dungeons. They are working in plain view and NO ONE goes to organize them. If they do go they go with useless corporate campaigns and hipsters who can’t connect and fail.

    Labor’s problem is labor. Capitalism always is an obstacle.

  3. John Connolly says:

    When CTW split from the AFL-CIO, one of the first things President Sweeney and the Leadership did was to create a system of “Solidarity Charters” to allow CTW local unions to remain affiliated with Regional and State Federations which are all AFL-CIO bodies. Even though many of us were pissed at CTW for splitting, we (sometimes grudgingly) agreed that it was crucial to keep the labor movement united at the grassroots/ground level where the “infantry” battles of our class take place.

    I pay particular tribute to retired AFL-CIO President John Sweeney for this innovation which has probably set the stage and created the pressure for reunification of the Labor Movement.

    None too soon and devoutly to be wished, say I.

    Many of us in the national AFL-CIO leadership were furious that SEIU’s Andy Stern, Jim Hoffa (IBT), Bruce Raynor (Unite), John Wilhelm (HERE) and the UFCW leadership engineered the split. I actually loved those guys (along with CTW’s chief Anna Burger of SEIU). They had powerful and accurate critiques of the Movement’s failures. But — as their own subsequent astounding failures and scandals have so sadly revealed — they did NOT have a winning stand-alone strategy to cure our class’s weakness.

    Not to be outdone in fratricide, some AFL-CIO leaders were vicious in their personal attacks on CTW leaders and unions, poisoning the atmosphere and subverting any chance at early reconciliation. And all through this life-or-death crisis, most AFL leaders — politically oblivious and personally secure in their “Presidencies-for-Life” or well-paid posts in the “Union Business” — merely continued to grunt “Yea” or “Nay” on cue … if they happened to be awake at the moment.

    The shocking failure of CTW’s split “strategy” (and CTW’s near-invisibility across our media-nation) spookily echoed the repeated right-wing defeats of merger between my unions the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists (AFTRA) and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).

    Like the obverse side of a bad penny (you know, the bad penny that keeps turning up even though you keep throwing it away), right-wing “populist” elements, particularly in SAG Hollywood, engineered narrow defeats of SAG/AFTRA merger attempts twice within 5 years in the late ’90s and 2003.

    The price of these defeats have been documented in various forums in print and online, but probably the most crucial loss to our unions — and in the CTW/AFL-CIO split — has been the loss of TIME … years of strenuous effort, misdirected resources, energies burned out, people’s passion exhausted, and millions of hours wasted in civil war and damage control … all while the ruling class ran the table, essentially unopposed, while our best forces lunged at each others’ throats.

    In the AFTRA/SAG world at least two, maybe three, rounds of contract negotiations were directly subverted by inter-union hostility. And as Digital Media exploded to economically challenge, then dominate, traditional media businesses, SAG waged unrelenting war against AFTRA; a war that resembled the familial insanity of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” far more than class-struggle. Employers gleefully jumped at the the opportunity to play our unions off against one another, and send hundreds of projects into non-union production when no-one was looking.

    The awful truth is that civil war — with all its attendant horrors — is easier than organizing. And, in the short run, it’s much more fun to revel in the rush and lust of vitriol’s adrenaline addiction, than to buckle down to the incredibly hard work of engaging with reality, and the discipline of thinking through and implementing a strategy.

    Frankly, I am proud that my AFTRA leadership team saw how treacherous the road would become without merger; and how we built both an internal culture of mutual respect, affection and solidarity, and an external organizing strategy to not merely survive but thrive.

    The self-deluding SAG leadership — posing as the “militants” the shallow media loved to tout — in all their fragrant hubris in fact carried out reactionary, right-wing policies that has left the union isolated, weakened and reeling to the point of collapse.

    There is no doubt that the decade of fraternal strife has resulted in a net loss for our members and union power across the Arts, Entertainment & Media Industries. AFTRA and SAG would be in a far stronger position today as a united, single, industry-wide performers’ union if real militant labor perspectives had prevailed in both organizations, and a timely merger secured in 1998, never-mind in 2003.

    For even a quick survey of organizing opportunities lost, resources squandered, non-union industry growth, and people burnt-out will starkly reveal the cost to our members and our class of our collective failure to unite, think, fight smart, and change-to-win for real, that our foolishness and family feuds have wrought.

    And throughout both SAG and AFTRA squandered TIME — the one irreplaceable resource in life and history.

    It now appears that the recurrent right-wing impulse in SAG Hollywood has exhausted itself for now, and that a merger will proceed in the next 18 months or so.
    Better Late than Never, eh?
    For sadly the waste of ten years’ Time raises the fearful specter on the obverse of that coin:
    Too Little, Too LATE.

    Our Big Brothers and Sisters of CTW and the AFL-CIO would do well to take a hard-look at our AFTRA/SAG case study … and change their ways to win.

    John Connolly

    • Ron Auer says:


      All ‘we’ versus ‘me’ societies falter and fade, and history does not remember them well. The barriers to ‘we’ are certainly facile in all ways but one, that being a ‘me’ mentality and self-interest which override to goal.

      Very well written commentary. Your passion is sincere and articulate, your message is solid.

      Ron Auer

      • Ron Auer says:

        Correction: All ‘me’ vs. ‘we’ societies falter and fade….
        Far too long a gap of time to miss that error on my part. Apologies.

  4. rod bradley says:

    Thanks John for your insightful and relevant account of the AFTRA/SAG. Alas, hierarchies and egos in those that seek power often pervert and turn upsidedown the only reason to hold those positions, to serve the citizens — be it of a union or a nation.

Leave a Reply