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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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Something big — historic — may happen this week in Chicago. Six huge unions may spark a union turf war unseen since the 1930s.

What is going to happen this week in Chicago? First things first. The American Federation of Labor — Congress of Industrial Organizations is going to hold its annual convention, in fact celebrating its fiftieth year of existence. Fifty years ago, the rival AFofL and CofIO merged, after splitting in the 1930s. Ironically, since that merge, union membership has more or less been in a precipitous decline, dropping from its high water mark of about 35 percent of the workforce in unions to about 12-13 percent today, most of those in the public sector, which is generally considered easier (or at least safer) to organize.

The AFL-CIO is not a "national union." It is not even a union. It is a federation of "affiliated" unions that voluntarily choose to belong in order to reap certain benefits and present a unified front. The AFL-CIO does not have any individual workers as members. It cannot (ultimately) force a union to do anything. It collects dues from its members, enforces certain codes of conduct for members, and is very active in social issues and politics.

What is going to happen at this convention? Well, a lot of people, mostly white dudes, will mill about Navy Pier and assorted hotels, telling war stories, drinking shallow glasses of alcohol and, yes, there will probably be cigars, but they will be outnumbered by satin jackets and brightly colored windbreakers. These delegates, the number of which is apportioned according to the size of each union, will also vote on resolutions brought before the body by affiliate unions.

This is where it starts to get ugly. A year or so ago, the largest union in the AFL-CIO (and in the country), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), lead by labor hero (or villain, depending on your view) Andy Stern formed a coalition of like-minded unions and crafted a plan to reform the AFL-CIO to reverse the trend of decreasing union density. This coalition called itself the New Unity Partnership (NUP), and included UNITE-HERE, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, and the Laborers International — its members were soon derisively known as "Nuppies," a play on the yuppified "New Labor" image, or "Nupsters" which... I guess just sounds stupid. The New Unity Partnership agreed in principle to the elements of the SEIU's "Unite to Win" plan. (Download the PowerPoint, it's worth it).

The argument between the Nuppies and the AFL-CIO got uglier and uglier, to the point where Andy Stern gave a withering speech about AFL-CIO President John Sweeney's ineffective leadership — when John Sweeney was sitting 10 feet away from him. Ouch.

Oh, does this bore you? Well it shouldn't. Why? Did you know that in states and communities with high union density, wages are higher? Standard of living is higher? More jobs are likely to offer competitive benefits? Did you know that high union density has almost a 1:1 correlation with progressive politics, improved social and infrastructure services, and pro-consumer regulations? The fact is you are a bunch of freeloaders. That's right. Every year, unions spend millions of dollars lobbying and mobilizing to get legislation passed to help ALL workers, not just their members. Really, it's to their detriment — if they could just get this stuff for their members, maybe people would see the benefit in joining unions more clearly. And why do you think companies offer benefits, healthcare, etc? That's right: to keep unions out.

No unions, no competition, monopolized job market, shittier jobs. Congratulations.

So pay attention! I'll go quickly.

The New Unity Partnership more or less dissolved late in 2004, but the coalition did not; over time, more and more unions joined with SEIU, including the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers (next time you're at Jewel or Dominick's, check out the little pins on your cashier and bagger — and if you're using non-union grocers like Whole Foods, shame on you!). So these six unions, sure that the AFL-CIO would refuse their proposals that included increased power in the president of the AFL-CIO, forced mergers among smaller unions, per-capita tax rebates and other things that are a little too arcane to explain, probably hired a public relations firm and came up with...

The Change To Win Coalition! Coming Soon! Er, Now!

This Change to Win Coalition drew up by-laws, elected officers... it's basically are functioning like their own Labor Federation. Which is weird, because they're all (except the Carpenters) still members of the AFL-CIO. Not just any members, either. Between them, they represent 6 million of the 15 million or so union members in America. Zing.

And in Illinois, four of them are of major importance: the Teamsters who represent UPS as well as many municipal hauling and trucking contracts; UNITE-HERE, which represents numerous hotels and convention spaces downtown; the Laborers, who hold much of the private construction contracts in Cook County; and SEIU, by far the largest union in the state with some 150,000 members. It is these unions — along with unions like AFSCME, which represents state workers, and the Machinists, who represent much of United Airlines — that have helped chip away at conservative dominance in the suburbs of Cook County and then the rest of Chicagoland. It is largely these unions along with the teachers' unions that have not only swung Illinois blue over the last decade, but kept the Illinois GOP a moderate shadow of the national party.

If the Change to Win Coalition does pull out of the AFL-CIO and go on its own, the two organizations may begin competing with each other, indeed fighting with each other, to represent workers in industries in which member unions have "overlapping" jurisdictions. If they were both in the AFL-CIO, the federation could settle the issue under what are called Article XX and Article XXI provisions. Not so any more. The resultant turf wars and "raids," as they're known, will hardly help grow the labor movement, and worse will give labor a black eye with the public, who already increasingly view unions as top-down dinosaurs who care more about dues than improving working conditions.

You better hope this doesn't happen. Yeah, you, over-paid graphic designer, I'm talking to you. Because of the labor movement suffers any more black eyes, if union density drops any more, real wages will fall. They have for decades. And that's for everybody, not just union members. Why do you think "thought" workers make so much money? Because you're actually smarter than anybody? No. It's because so-called blue collar workers in manufacturing, transportation, and certain direct services who tend to have a lower education level were making good wages thanks to their union contracts. In order to attract the better educated, they had to be willing to pay higher than unskilled labor was getting paid. So as a result, you play on a computer six hours a day and make more money than you deserve.

So pay attention! The fight over the future of the AFL-CIO this week in Chicago will affect you — first perhaps politically, but then economically. And then you'll be sorry!

The split could be a good thing, leading to more organizing and more creative organizing strategies. And if the six of the largest unions in the country really do devote all of their resources to growing the movement, despite the political odds against them, it could even begin to chip away at the social Darwinist culture that has seeped into the middle and lower middle class. Who knows?

One thing is for certain: like a kid in puberty, it's going to get a lot uglier before it gets pretty.

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About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon covers and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at .

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