The decision of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Teamsters unions to disaffiliate from the AFL-CIO federation last week has created a huge debate inside the trade union movement in the US.
The split is one response to the decline in union membership in the US over the last two decades. The AFL-CIO represented 13 million workers before last week’s break-up, but just 12.5 percent of US workers are members of unions.
The SEIU and the Teamsters made up three million of the AFL-CIO’s members.
Andrew Stern, the president of the SEIU, and James Hoffa, the president of the Teamsters, wanted a massive restructuring of the federation.
They set up the Change to Win coalition, in which union leaders campaigned for a large rebate on the dues paid to the AFL-CIO.
This money would then have been spent on organising the unorganised. The SEIU has recruited 900,000 members in the last nine years.
At a press conference after their announcement of disaffiliation, Stern said, “We are not trying to divide labour — we are trying to rebuild it.”
Stern and Hoffa were the leading figures in a faction at the top of the union movement in opposition to AFL-CIO president John Sweeney.
It is unlikely that the split between the rival union leaders will lead to the changes necessary to revive the unions. Both factions are committed to supporting and funding the Democratic Party.
Both support partnerships with the employers. Stern has argued that the way for unions to survive is for them to merge, creating super-unions.
Events in the US are likely to feed into debates in the British unions. There is already a debate here over whether mergers or recruitment campaigns are the key to rebuilding the union movement.
The split in the US came because of minor disagreements at the top of the union movement. The rank and file had no say in the decision. The split is also a symptom of the trade union movement’s crisis in the US.
But a revival in union power is urgently needed. Millions are working for long hours, for low pay and in terrible conditions, including large numbers of immigrant workers.
Militant, democratic rank and file organisation is needed to represent these people. The debate about the way forward inside the union movement may help this.
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