Transit Workers Back in the AFL-CIO Fold; California Nurses May Join

It’s hardly front-page news that the AFL-CIO has fallen upon hard times. Since late July, seven unions representing some 5.5 million workers have formed their own alternative federation, Change to Win, in hopes of adding to that total by millions more. Six of the unions had broken away from the AFL-CIO beginning this July; a seventh, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, already had taken flight back in 2001. Yet with understandably less fanfare, the AFL-CIO, whose unions represent 8 million union members (plus another 1 million workers who are not full-fledged members), has begun to recoup some of the lost ground. In September, the California Nurses Association, with 65,000 members, requested a charter from the AFL-CIO to begin petitioning for membership. This month another union, the United Transportation Union (UTU), which along with the Carpenters had left the federation four years ago, is back in. 


The Cleveland-based UTU represents around 125,000 active and retired railroad, bus and mass transit workers across the U.S. and Canada. The union parted ways with the AFL-CIO over a bitter dispute with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, which had charged the UTU with raiding its membership. The AFL-CIO sided with the Locomotive Engineers, and was in the process of preparing sanctions against the Transit union, when the latter bolted. But over the past year and a half, under new leadership, the UTU harbored second thoughts. Current President Paul Thompson in March 2004 took over the reins from Byron Boyd, who four months later pled guilty to federal racketeering charges, admitting he’d diverted more than $50,000 in union funds for his own personal use. The departure of the Teamsters this summer from the AFL-CIO further hastened the return of the UTU to the fold. 


The AFL-CIO’s pickup of one union and imminent pickup of another surely will boost membership and dues revenues. But it also signifies that the federation is still heavily focused on political activism. UTU spokesman Frank Wilner explains his union’s re-affiliation this way: “It’s more about a philosophical belief that there should be one umbrella organization in order to send a clear and unambiguous message to lawmakers.” 


The pending admission of the California Nurses Association (CNA) to the AFL-CIO is especially telling. The union’s president, Deborah Burger, R.N., a diabetes care nurse at the Kaiser Permanente facility at Santa Rosa Medical Center, made clear her views at her union’s biennial convention in Oakland a month ago. Burger denounced Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and “increasingly aggressive health care corporations” for putting profits ahead of patient welfare. Delegates approved resolutions calling for admission to the AFL-CIO, a single-payer health care system, government-mandated hospital staffing levels, higher taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals, and opposition to Social Security privatization, NAFTA and CAFTA.

The convention also suggested a potential “War of the Titans” match-up in next year’s California governor’s race. As guest speaker, actor-director Warren Beatty praised the CNA for “standing up to power.” Also present were Beatty’s wife, actress Annette Bening, and fellow actor-director Sean Penn. Though Beatty, a longtime Democrat activist, has not yet shown an inclination to challenge Gov. Schwarzenegger in his re-election bid, the memory of 500 nurses chanting, “Run, Warren, run” might cause him to reconsider. As director Rob Reiner also has not discounted rumors he may seek the Democratic nomination, a real-time Hollywood political thriller could be in the making. The endorsement part would be a slam-dunk for the AFL-CIO. (Washington Times, 10/7; UTU and CNA Web sites).