When Labor Walks

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The house of labor has divided against itself once again, and predictions are rife that it is about to fall. When Andrew L. Stern led his Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and three other key unions out of the AFL-CIO during its convention this past summer, it seemed to many a nearly suicidal move, considering how badly the ranks of American labor have already been diminished by globalization, the changing nature of the workplace, and a hostile federal government. The four departing unions constitute about one-third of the organization’s total membership. Yet if history is any guide, look for this division to rejuvenate those unions that are staying and going.

Stern is one of the very few rising stars in labor by dint of his unprecedented success in organizing workers in the fast-growing service sector. His SEIU walked—along with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and Unite Here, which is mostly composed of the plucky old garment workers’ unions —because they claimed that the AFL-CIO as currently structured is helpless to halt labor’s long decline. The portion of unionized private-sector workers has dwindled over the past 50 years from a high of 35 percent to a mere 8 percent. In response, Stern proposed a new coalition, to be called Change to Win Coalition, that would concentrate less of labor’s resources on election battles and more on membership drives, including daring multiunion efforts to organize such giants of the new economy as FedEx and Wal-Mart.

Stern’s exodus was greeted with a predictable round of vituperation from leaders of the 52 unions remaining under the AFL-CIO umbrella, several of whom accused him of being a self-interested, grandstanding egotist.

Yet however counterintuitive it may seem, the walkout will probably help the labor movement, not hurt it. As in most aspects of our national life, contention and debate are signs of vigor, while unanimity and compliance signal stagnation. Even at the height of its success in the mid-1950s, the AFL-CIO lost two of its most powerful unions, albeit for very different reasons. When the Teamsters defiantly elected the Mobbed-up Jimmy Hoffa their president in 1957, the union was ejected from the AFL-CIO. Eleven years later Walter Reuther led his United Auto Workers (UAW) out because the AFL-CIO did not live up to his idea of dynamic social unionism. Neither loss hurt much. The UAW went on pursuing its own useful agenda, pushing for social justice and educating political leaders, before quietly returning to the fold years later. Meanwhile, the rest of organized labor benefited by distancing itself from the corrupt Teamsters.

Still, with as much pressure as American work-ers are under today, their plight could hardly be considered worse than it was, say, during the Great Depression. Yet that era, in which unemployment soared to one-quarter and perhaps even one-third of the work force, produced labor’s widest and most bitter split—and its greatest gains.

At the outset of the Depression the labor movement was as moribund as it has ever been in this country. The big manufacturers had seized upon the reactionary atmosphere that prevailed in the years just after World War I to provoke a series of bloody strikes and lockouts that all but crushed unions in most industrial fields. The owners had relied on the complete support of government at all levels in these bitter battles, on the active intervention of the courts against the unions, and the added muscle provided by police, state militias, and even federal troops.

But with the failure of the national economy, this entire political calculus suddenly changed. The backlash filled Washington, and even many statehouses and city halls, with labor’s allies. First, the famous Section 7a of President Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery Act, and subsequently, the Wagner Act, for the first time guar-anteed labor unions everywhere the right to organize. Almost overnight the union movement had been granted unprecedented federal protection, and many locals and individual organizers moved to take advantage of this fact. When business ignored the law and tried to crush these organizing efforts, violence once more roiled the nation.

For practically the first time in American history, Washington reacted by either supporting the workers or at least refusing to back the owners. Victory hung in the balance for the unions, but the American Federation of Labor, the nation’s only significant sur-viving labor federation, was nowhere to be found. It had become all but terminally cautious and hamstrung by its long-standing aversion to organizing industrial, mass-production workers. Instead, the AFL hid behind incredibly byzantine rules regulating each member union’s jurisdiction by craft and region. The results were predictable. By 1937 the AFL could count, at most, 3.4 million workers in its ranks, out of a total wage-earning work force estimated at 40 million.