Norma Rae, the Sequel

There is a huge battle going on in the world of labor these days, and if you don’t know anything about it — well, you should. Despite the fact that many of us have no say in how the battle will end, it could still be a history-making turn of events. The future of the labor movement, the welfare of American workers, and, by extension, whether or not progressives have a strong ally in unions all hangs in the balance.

Yesterday, Andy Stern had some fighting words on his blog, reflective of the Executive Council (of the AFL-CIO) meeting in Las Vegas last week, where Stern’s proposals were shot down. A brief primer on the skirmish:

The two camps are:

• The New Unity Partnership (led by Andy Stern, president of SEIU and James Hoffa of the Teamsters) an alliance among several unions that has endorsed dramatic changes to the structure, method and organization of the AFL-CIO and its member unions. Bottomline is their desire to devote more money (from a 50% dues rebate) to on-the-ground organizing.

• John Sweeney, the 10-year president of the AFL-CIO, and many of the industrial unions, who recognize that changes need to be made, but seek to emphasize increased politicization of unions — boosting expenditures on politics and lobbying, rather than for organizing. Ironically, Sweeney himself ran as a reformer as then-president of SEIU. Though President Sweeney has guided labor to carry more political clout over the past decade, the percentage of workers in unions has fallen to 12.5% from almost 16% in 1994.

Though neither plan is perfect — getting back to basics is usually the right way to go in a dilemma like this, and Stern’s proposal is to do just that by consolidating unions to organize within a particular industy (for example, health care workers). Rather than spending more money on politics, investing that money into growing local unions and empowering working people will ultimately prove sustainable, whereas buying votes on Capitol Hill will not.

Though they lost round 1 in Vegas, Stern, Hoffa and other leaders have not given up yet. As another NUP member noted, “We have to change the AFL-CIO… Unity is important in the labor movement. Much more important is effectiveness.” What happens in July will determine not just the fate of the AFL-CIO, but could ultimately determine the state of the workforce (not to mention the progressive movement) in America for our lifetime.

For more information on the various unions and their plans, check out the Unite to Win website, which has posted proposals from many unions.