Unleashing a Left Hook

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The battle for the soul of the US trade union movement has begun.

The most famous punch in US history wasn't thrown by Joe Louis, but by John L Lewis. Seventy years ago the irascible bushy-eyebrowed president of the United Mineworkers gave carpenters' leader Big Bill Hutchinson one helluva dig in the jaw.

It was Lewis's way of saying goodbye to the American Federation of Labour (AFL) and the conservative, often nativist, craft unions that dominated it. The AFL refused to charter or seriously support fledgling industrial unions in rubber, auto, steel and electrical manufacture, and Lewis openly worried that the rank and file revolt in basic industry might grow into a left-led challenge to the trade union bureaucracy. So he took his mine workers and the Committee for Industrial Organisation out of the convention hall and back to the picket lines. Twenty years passed before a purged and deradicalised Congress of Industrial Organisation (CIO) rejoined the AFL in an uneasy, often tempestuous, cohabitation.

At the recent executive meeting of the AFL-CIO in Las Vegas the leader of the federation's largest union, Andy Stern of the service employees (SEIU), refrained from taking a literal poke at his old boss and AFL-CIO president, John Sweeney, but the atmosphere was reminiscent of 1935. Ten years after Sweeney's 'New Directions' team took the helm of the AFL-CIO with the promise of restoring labour unity and bringing heroic energy to new organising, the federation is on the brink of splitting in two.

Although the last decade has witnessed memorable and successful organising campaigns by janitors, hotel workers and nurses, the overall balance sheet of the Sweeney era is in relentless decline. Less than 8 percent of private sector workers now belong to a union - the lowest level since 1901. As traditional manufacturing shrinks, unions have failed to make any progress in organising hi-tech industries or the low-wage retail sector. There are no union labels on Macs or, for that matter, on Big Macs. Meanwhile, that mega-exploiter of US and Third World labour Wal-Mart threatens to extinguish unionism in the grocery industry.

Despite Sweeney's grandiose promise in 1995 to 'organise, organise, organise', most of the AFL-CIO's budget has continued to disappear down an old sinkhole: the Democratic Party. Like an addicted gambler in front of a slot-machine, the AFL-CIO obsessively spends its members' dues on Democratic campaigns in the hope of an electoral payoff that never comes. Loyalty to Clinton-Gore, for instance, only brought free-trade agreements that scuppered union jobs in the former industrial heartland.

As a result, a majority of white working class voters now regard Republican management of the economy as the lesser of two evils. A new analysis of last November's votes shows that white workers preferred Bush over Kerry on the economy by an incredible 55 percent to 39 percent margin.

Stern has become an increasingly outspoken critic of labour's one-sided relationship with the Democrats: 'Workers don't have a party right now that speaks clearly and precisely to their economic interests.' At Las Vegas he proposed to strip the national AFL-CIO of half of the dues that it collects to support Democrat candidates and Washington lobbying: the funds would be rebated instead to new organising, with Wal-Mart as chief target.

The proposal was co-sponsored by James Hoffa of the Teamsters and supported by the hotel workers, food workers, labourers and auto workers. Although Sweeney easily defeated this frontal challenge to his leadership by a 15 to seven vote, the Las Vegas meeting was only a prelude to the battle royal expected at the AFL-CIO convention in July.

Stern warned last summer that his 1.8 million members (mainly hospital workers and janitors) will leave the AFL-CIO if it fails to streamline its structure, force the merger of smaller unions, end jurisdictional disputes, and pour resources into new organising. Most likely, Stern's ally, John Wilhelm of the hotel workers, will run against Sweeney at the convention. If he loses, it would presumably be the signal for the reform unions to secede and form a new alliance, possibly with the participation of the already independent carpenters' union. As in 1935, there is a temptation to portray the reformers as the 'left' and the federation leadership as the 'right'. Certainly, as far as commitment to aggressive organising is concerned, Stern self-consciously emulates Lewis's precedent. But as embittered rank and file radicals knew back in 1935, John L Lewis was also an autocrat who crushed dissident locals and witchhunted socialists and communists.

Stern is scarcely a tyrant of Lewis calibre, but he has often ridden roughshod over rank and file leadership in his own union. Partisans of union democracy are also worried about the top-down model of mega-mergers that allies Stern with more sinister figures like the younger Hoffa (son of the corrupt Teamster leader murdered a generation ago).

In a recent open letter Donna Dewitt, the president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, and Bill Fletcher, the former educational director of the AFL-CIO and a prominent black Marxist, joined by a number of other progressive unionists, wrote that 'the top to bottom approach to revitalising workers' organisations will not foster meaningful membership participation and support'. They also warned that an organising offensive alone would not renew a disappearing US labour movement: unions need to be in the forefront of battles against the 'fortress-like society' being created in the name of the 'war on terror'.

Meanwhile, Sweeney and his supporters - including, among the big unions, the machinists, public employees, teachers and communication workers - are still stubbornly putting the workers' rent money in the Democratic one-arm bandit. After defeating Stern's proposal to shift dues to organising, the executive voted to double their annual investment in political and legislative programmes.

So for the moment at least the struggle within the AFL-CIO leadership has defined two clearly contrasting sets of priorities. It is now the urgent job of the new Democratic national chairman Howard Dean to persuade Stern to pull his punches in July, lest the AFL-CIO convention actually debates - for the first time in its history - labour's dismal marriage to the Democrats.