WEST HARTFORD, CONN. AND NEW YORK
The growing rift between insurgents in the AFL-CIO and the leadership of the labor federation looks increasingly like civil war. Those who care about the future of organized labor will now weigh the relative merits of the two factions. Important as these considerations may be, however, the real import of the battle within the house of labor is the battle itself. The recent establishment of the Change to Win Coalition, which will probably be a rival federation to the AFL-CIO, could be the best thing to happen to the American labor movement in decades.
Anyone who still cares about the labor movement agrees that it is in crisis. Unions today represent only 15.5 million - or 12.5 percent - of the nation's 124 million workers, the lowest percentage in decades, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The AFL-CIO claims to have 13 million members. Most American workers have no experience with unions and those who do often complain that union leaders are not responsive to their demands. Indeed, these twin crises - dwindling numbers and bureaucratic inaccessibility - have plagued the labor movement since the merger that created the AFL-CIO in 1955. The new competition among unions will create more dynamic unions and will force labor leaders to be accountable to their constituents.
Following months of threats to disaffiliate from the AFL-CIO, five of the federation's largest member unions have now established the Change to Win Coalition and forcefully implied that if the AFL-CIO does not meet certain demands for restructuring, the coalition will offer a new, independent alternative to American workers seeking union representation. Barring unexpected concessions by the AFL-CIO to the insurgents at the federation's convention July 25 to 28, it appears that we will soon have two competing labor federations in the United States for the first time in 50 years.
The heyday of organized labor in America, from the split of the CIO from the AFL in 1935 until the merger in 1955, occurred during another civil war within the labor movement. These were the years when organized labor constituted a vibrant movement full of drama and passion that inspired a generation of labor activists.
As unions battled for the allegiance of workers the rival federations grew exponentially, labor's story was headline news, and union membership reached its high point in American history.