New Labor Federation Downplays Corruption Issues

It began on June 15 of this year as a rump faction within the AFL-CIO. And now the Change to Win Coalition, on Tuesday, September 27, made it official: It is now a federation in its own right. The group split from the AFL-CIO after several years of growing acrimony. Change to Win (CTW) unions came to believe that the AFL-CIO was pouring enormous amounts of money and energy into political advocacy at the expense of organizing. The result of misguided priorities was a decaying labor movement. “Organizing is our core principle. It is our North Star,” declared Change to Win founding chair, Anna Burger, before a large, cheering convention in St. Louis. Burger, longtime (and still) political director for the 1.8 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), added, “We will put our money where our mouth is, with three-quarters of our resources going to a groundbreaking organizing crusade.” That figure, notes James P. Hoffa, president of the Teamsters, one of Change to Win’s seven member unions, represents about $750 million a year. Yet this federation, no more than the AFL-CIO, appears to be acknowledging corruption within their ranks as a major issue.     


Change to Win consists of the SEIU, the Teamsters, and five other unions: the Laborers; UNITE HERE; the Food and Commercial Workers; the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners; and the United Farm Workers. The Carpenters, with about a half-million members, already had left the AFL-CIO back in 2001. The six others, at various points, bolted this past July or afterward. Together these unions comprise some 5.5 million workers, a figure representing a 1.5 percent growth rate over the past five years. CTW leaders are going all out to hike this number. “We have to grow way beyond the size of the AFL-CIO,” said Burger. Laborers President Terence O’Sullivan put it similarly: “The excitement here hopefully can be turned into an organization that helps us grow not by the thousands, but by the millions.”


In theory, competition between the AFL-CIO and the new upstart federation is beneficial. Labor as well as business organizations have an incentive to deliver better, cheaper service, since they are vulnerable to losing members. The AFL-CIO, with 52 unions still in the fold accounting for 8 million workers, especially has a need to focus on curbing expenses and combating corruption as a result of its challenge. Change to Win has made clear it plans to run a “lean, mean organizing machine,” to use Teamsters President James P. Hoffa’s term. The new federation plans to charge its union affiliates only 25 cents a month per worker. By contrast, AFL-CIO collects 63 cents a month from each worker’s paycheck. The departure of the Teamsters, the Service Employees, the UFCW and UNITE HERE together will cost that federation an estimated $29 million a year.


But lower dues don’t necessarily translate into more integrity. The major unions in Change to Win, particularly the Teamsters and the Laborers, have experienced corruption problems with the current regimes in place. Moreover, should CTW’s organizing drives produce large increases in membership, this will serve to raise the pot of dues, especially in non-Right to Work states – and with it, the temptation by its officers and employees to steal. 

It’s still premature to assert whether or not a bifurcated labor movement will reduce embezzlement, extortion and other financial crimes. But it is significant that the Service Employees have emerged as Change to Win’s dominant player. The Washington, D.C.-based SEIU is by far the nation’s fastest-growing major union, this at a time when membership in many other unions not only isn’t growing, it’s declining. And the union is raking in the dough. Between 1993 and 2004 SEIU revenues grew by 600 percent, observes labor activist Robert Fitch in his forthcoming book, Solidarity for Sale (Public Affairs). Anna Burger is a career SEIU operative, and it is that union’s president, Andrew Stern, who appears to be setting the tone of the new federation’s agenda. Stern sees institution-building as a concern trumping all others, including corruption. Keep your fingers crossed – there are likely more than a few scandals on the horizon. (Washington Times, 9/27, 9/28).