- The Washington Times - Monday, September 4, 2006

The landscape of organized labor in the U.S. today is considerably more tranquil than Labor Day 2005, when weeks earlier the powerful AFL-CIO was rocked with the defection of several major unions.

The federation has come to accept the presence of the upstart Change to Win coalition, which includes former AFL-CIO heavyweights Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

The two labor federations, which have a combined 15 million members, are cooperating on several issues, including get-out-the-vote campaigns for the 2006 midterm elections.

But while their stated missions are the same — to protect workers’ rights and increase union membership — each maintains a different approach to reaching those goals.

SEIU President Andrew Stern led the revolt last summer after accusing the AFL-CIO of spending too much time on politics in lieu of organizing.

U.S. union membership has fallen from 35 percent of the work force in the mid-1950s to 12.5 percent currently. About 8 percent of private-sector workers are in unions.

“The core activity we need to be undertaking is strategic organizing, and the AFL is working more through the political process,” Change to Win spokeswoman Carole Florman said. “We think that politics is important, and obviously, we’ll play a role in the electoral process … but we don’t have a stated goal [like the AFL-CIO] of electing a Democrat to Congress.”

Change to Win, with about 6 million workers, spends about 75 percent of its budget on organizing, federation officials say.

The federation’s seven unions, each with its own plan for growth, readily share those plans with the federation’s other member unions.

“We’re holding each other accountable, ” Ms. Florman said. “And that is something that is most unusual. In the old days, that would have been considered proprietary.”

AFL-CIO officials deny they’re obsessed with politics, saying that seeking reform through political channels is vital for the survival of organized labor.

“Politics is the most successful path to changing public policy in America,” said Stewart Acuff, the AFL-CIO’s organizing director. “To divorce politics from organizing is either silly or naive.”

Last week, the AFL-CIO kicked off its most ambitious get-out-the-vote campaign for a midterm election in its history, pledging to spend $40 million to remind its members to show up at the polls.

Mr. Acuff said the federation, which has 9 million members in 53 unions, doesn’t neglect its need to expand, spending 30 percent of its budget on organizing.

“It’s a major part of what we do,” he said.

The two groups declined to specifically address 2006 membership-drive figures until the end of the year. But spokesmen for both said 2006 has been a strong year.

The AFL-CIO and the 3.2 million-member National Education Association signed a partnership in February allowing local NEA chapters to join the federation. And the Farm Labor Organizing Committee and the United Transportation Union became AFL-CIO affiliates this year.

Change to Win’s membership rolls have increased, and the federation is developing plans to significantly accelerate growth in subsequent years, Ms. Florman said.

Those plans include an aggressive form of organizing called “corporate campaigning,” a top-down approach in which a union puts intense pressure on an employer to submit to its demands. Unions often solicit public officials, religious and community leaders and the press in an attempt to shame the employer.

This approach differs from traditional organizing campaigns, which are triggered after workers contact a union.

Targeting a company’s top executives or board of directors often is more effective than a local campaign because companies have become larger and more global, Ms. Florman said.

“You just can’t fight the fight on your own turf,” she said. “It’s about applying a much higher degree of pressure for an even playing field for an opportunity for the workers to get a voice and to have a union.”

Corporate campaigning also is intended to bypass the National Labor Relations Board’s secret-ballot election process, which the labor federations oppose. The federations instead advocate a “card-check” approach to organizing, in which the union collects signatures of interested workers.

“We are teaching unions to surround employers with a demand that they respect a worker’s decision about whether or not to unionize,” Mr. Acuff said. “Some people call it corporate campaigning; that’s just the way we organize.”

Employer advocates say corporate campaigns have little to do with protecting workers’ rights, and instead are used as a quick way for unions to add to their membership rolls while unfairly tarnishing a company’s reputation.

“It’s union organizing by levitation — unions pulling themselves up without any visible support” from workers, said Martin Payson, a lawyer with the Jackson Lewis law firm, which represents management in labor disputes. “These are all revolutionary concepts.”

But Mr. Payson added that Change to Win’s aggressive organizing tactics have succeeded in giving its unions a higher profile and sense of importance.

“The unions really have ‘changed to win,’” he said. “For the first time in years, unions have something to celebrate this Labor Day.”

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