Early predictions that last year's split in the union movement would spell its doom haven't panned out. As the two coalitions gear up for November's mid-term elections, it looks like just the opposite.

Policy Today magazine cover
September 20, 2006

Like any messy divorce, last year's split in the AFL-CIO has spawned its share of finger-pointing, speculation and despair. But with this year's mid-term elections around the corner, the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win coalition are following their respective paths, and they're doing it in concert.

Following the breakup in organized labor last year, experts rushed to speculate about organized labor's political prospects following the split: Two major coalitions would be redundant. It would waste precious resources. Political power would wane even further, and the lack of coordination within the movement would continue to diminish its stature among employers and workers alike.

One year later, as the AFL-CIO and Change to Win barrel forward, many of those predictions have rung hollow. Instead, relations between the two groups are marked by shared goals and enthusiasm, if not reconciliation.

Fundamental questions

The turmoil that upended the AFL-CIO's 50th anniversary party last year was rooted in fundamental questions facing the movement today. How would labor confront the pressures of globalization? How would it maintain its political stature next to the growing power of corporations? How would it address job mobility, health care and pension issues? For the 15.7 million American workers represented by unions—12.5% of the workforce—answers to these questions are still forthcoming. Initial attempts to address the issues quickly divided into two camps: AFL-CIO President John Sweeney argued for continuing organized labor's tradition of accomplishing its objectives through political influence, while Change to Win's Andy Stern had become a staunch advocate of outreach and increased union membership.

Both coalitions have since followed the visions laid out by their leaders. "We believe that each of our unions should focus on building capacity to organize their industry," says Anna Burger, chair of Change to Win. "We have to leverage our power to make the campaign bigger."

A bigger campaign would involve some sort of reconciliation between the two labor groups, a thought Sweeney acknowledges. "The split is certainly not helping American workers and their issues, especially at a time like this."

But is the split a divergence in the true sense of the word? Comments from both camps indicate that it is not. "We have set up a process of solidarity charters where locals of the disaffiliated unions may affiliate with the AFL-CIO at the state and city level," says Sweeney. "Approximately 2,200 of those solidarity charters have been granted to about 1,500 different locals across the country."

But do these solidarity charters—which bring the AFL-CIO's number of local affiliations close to its pre-split level—portend any type of convergence or reconciliation at some point in the future? "No," says Burger. "When we left the AFL-CIO, we said that we would work together whenever we could, and that working together at the local level made sense. That's exactly where we were one year ago, and we're doing exactly what we said we would do."

Playing politics

The division in the labor movement appears to have created only a ripple at the local level, but many experts and union members alike worried that the split would reduce labor to a chorus of competing voices on K Street. While the two coalitions may get together to turn out the vote in November, contending with one another for legislators' time and attention poses another challenge. Not so, says Sweeney.

"There will certainly be strong legislative efforts and initiatives by the unions of the AFL-CIO as well as Change to Win," he says. "But I think that most of our agenda will be very, very similar. They have similar priorities to those of the AFL-CIO based upon our respective polling and outreach efforts to American workers.

Burger agrees that the message isn't different, it's the medium. "Elected officials have been very interested in what organized labor has to say on both sides," she says. "The Change to Win approach has been to get our members involved and engaged with elected officials. We care less about the money—although money is important."

A perfect storm

Despite a Herculean push in 2004, organized labor was unable to put John Kerry in the White
House, and that was before 33% of the AFL-CIO's membership jumped ship. What has changed in the last year to make union members and labor bosses so confident going into this years mid-terms?

"We've made major advances in our political program over the past two years," says Karen Ackerman, the AFL-CIO's political director. First, we've increased the size of our voting membership base in many competitive races. Second, we've expanded our voter turnout operations. Third, we've developed state-of-the-art targeting techniques." Those advances, together with public concern over the war in Iraq and rising food and energy prices, have labor looking to move back into the political forefront with a $40 million effort to organize, motivate and educate voters. "For workers, a perfect storm is already happening," says Sweeney.

The general political dynamic of this election is different as well. While the 2004 election was about persuasion, the 2006 mid-term election will be about turnout, explains Ackerman. "We were very successful in 2004," she says. Nearly 77% of union members voted for John Kerry, and turnout numbers were much better than average. "But 2006 is a turnout election. We have some persuasion program, but because our endorsed candidates are doing so well, we're focused on turnout. We're focusing on those who turned out at the polls in 2004, but not in 2002."

People power

Organized labor's attempt to thrust itself back into the political spotlight has come alongside renewed efforts to reach out to groups that haven't traditionally been part of a union. For Change to Win, that means mobilizing office workers, health care workers and home care workers—three groups outside of labor's traditional sphere of influence. The AFL-CIO has reached out as well, targeting everyone from heavy manufacturing workers to high-tech employees and IT professionals.

One group that the AFL-CIO has courted adds more than numbers to the organization, however. The coalition recently formed a partnership with the National Day Labor Organizing Network, the United States' largest organization of worker centers. NDLON's focus on the exploitation of temporary day laborers—many of them undocumented illegal aliens—resonates with many in the labor movement.

"We have a strong program working in coalition with a number of Latino organizations to register, educate and motivate these voters, just like any of our other members," says Sweeney. "We're beginning to work closer together on legislative and political issues."

In partnering with organizations like NDLON, however, organized labor also takes on a variety of new political issues. "We're very involved in the immigration reform debate," notes Sweeney. Ackerman points to another increasingly important issue. "It's not enough to turn out the vote; we have to protect it as well, especially in communities of color."

Forward together, separately

Despite early predictions that the split in organized labor would spell its doom, both factions appear to be making headway in their respective directions. The AFL-CIO is mounting its largest mid-term election year campaign ever, while Change to Win has made significant advances in membership expansion and worker organization over the past year. And although maintaining a united front has traditionally been the lynchpin for labor's success in the past, the current paradigm may have its advantages. With each coalition focusing more directly on specific elements of the struggle, both may stand to benefit. Ultimately, it may not be the scope of their differences, but the efficiency of their remaining connections that defines the future of American organized labor.

About Frank Holland

Frank Holland is Policy Today's managing editor.