Organizers Getting Organized
The split between the AFL-CIO and the Change To Win federation represented a difference in philosophy, between growing membership of unions and maintaining the best contracts and deals for those dwindling numbers already inside the union structure. It made sense at the time, and has led to membership drives and faster union growth. But eventually, it hit a wall because the institutional barriers to union organizing require a federal response. In that spirit, organized labor is reforming a coalition called the National Labor Coordinating Committee.
Today, the American labor movement proclaimed its intention to come back together -- helped, of course, by the fact that Democrats now control both Congress and the White House and are bent on enacting universal health insurance and, perhaps, some legislation that would make it easier for workers to join unions. After meetings in Maryland this week, the presidents of the two federations and of the nation's 12 largest unions -- including the National Education Association, which heretofore has not belonged to any labor federation -- announced the formation of the National Labor Coordinating Committee, an interim body that could pave the way for labor's reunification by forming a new federation with roughly 16 million members.
The committee will be headed by David Bonior, the former Michigan congressman and House Democratic whip who was the foremost congressional opponent of both the Reagan administration's support for Nicaraguan contras and the Clinton administration's support for free-trade legislation with China and other repressive regimes. Bonior, who headed former senator John Edwards's 2008 presidential campaign, might possibly emerge as the head of the new federation. He is currently president of American Rights at Work, a pro-union advocacy group that has been coordinating the campaign for the Employee Free Choice Act, and he would be an articulate spokesman for a movement that could surely use one.
The union presidents have largely agreed to focus the federation (its name is still up in the air) on the political and lobbying operations at which the AFL-CIO has excelled. They will continue meeting over the next several months to hammer out details -- a timetable that could produce a plan to be ratified at the AFL-CIO's convention in September.
Smart move by the Change to Win leadership, who saw their visions meet with the realities of the workplace and a political structure tilted in the favor of management. The Employee Free Choice Act may be on life support in this Congressional session, thanks to Arlen Specter and Blanche Lincoln, but the labor movement can still make tangible gains through policy, particularly with respect to health care, and having a unified organization will be a big help.
Chris Good has more.