What’s the Matter with Labor in San Diego?

by on May 15, 2017 · 0 comments

in Labor, Under the Perfect Sun

…there is no great philosophical debate over principle at stake here in San Diego. In fact, principle or coherent strategic thinking has nothing to do with the current state of affairs at all.

laborBy Jim Miller

In one of my first columns of the year, I made a plea that San Diego labor should not allow itself to be distracted by the trials and tribulations of Labor Council President Mickey Kasparian.

With everything from a looming anti-labor shift on the Supreme Court and at the National Labor Relations Board, to “right to work” legislation in Congress along with a host of other perils, I argued that the Trump era simply holds too many dangers for labor to get bogged down in the petty drama surrounding one leader:

2017 awaits us fierce as a tiger with major assaults looming on multiple fronts. As I have written here quite recently, it is not an overstatement to say that we face existential threats. With so many things to worry about in the near future, what should labor and progressives be focusing on in anticipation of the coming storm?

Let me start by saying that our first order of business should definitely not be whether you are with or against the imperiled San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council President. It should also not be about which side you choose in a toxic internal struggle between factions inside of the San Diego labor movement.

As I have said elsewhere, the honorable and prudent course of action would be for labor leadership to take these issues off the table because they will prove to be fatal distractions if we allow them to stop us from confronting a long laundry list of crises to come after inauguration day.

Sadly, Kasparian and his main ally, Dale Kelly Bankhead, did not take the issues off the table, insisting instead on operating the labor council in bunker mode for months which led the AFL-CIO to investigate and subsequently put the Labor Council in Monitorship.

Last week after the AFL-CIO removed them from office, Bankhead and Kasparian refused to accept the results of the investigation that resulted in their removal and instead announced the formation of the Working Families Council along with a number of other local unions following suit.

For those of you wondering whether it was a bad idea to split the local labor movement during a time of dire threats to unions, you are correct to question the wisdom of such a rash and destructive move both for those individual unions and for San Diego labor as a whole.

Kasparian had long threatened to pull out of the Labor Council and take it down if he didn’t get the outcome he desired

But, to be clear, that was the point. Kasparian had long threatened to pull out of the Labor Council and take it down if he didn’t get the outcome he desired, so this move was no surprise to those of us who are familiar with his frequent threats and lack of big picture thinking. As for Bankhead, her very brief tenure was defined by her lack of independence from Kasparian and inability to be anything other than the figurehead leader of a faction of the council.

Despite all this, it is still worth considering whether there is any successful precedent for such a move resulting in positive results for labor as a whole. In this regard, history is the narrative that hurts.

Anyone with even the slightest understanding of the history of the labor movement knows labor’s greatest gains have happened when it has been more inclusionary and broad-based, and it has frequently suffered when it has given in to exclusionary impulses and factionalism.

Indeed, the only split that has ever served labor occurred when the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) broke off from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in the 1930s in the service of a broader vision of social justice unionism that brought in scores of the unskilled workers, women, and workers of color previously scorned by the more exclusionary AFL. This forced the AFL to do the same and open its doors also as hard-pressed workers in the throes of the Great Depression were clamoring for the tools unions gave them to improve their lot in the newly favorable atmosphere of the New Deal era. Eventually, the two rival organizations reunited in the 1950s seeing the greater advantages that would come from a unified labor movement that embraced a broader vision.

Of course, this is not the New Deal era and there is no great philosophical debate over principle at stake here in San Diego. In fact, principle or coherent strategic thinking has nothing to do with the current state of affairs at all.

Thus, perhaps a better place to look for an illustrative precedent is the more recent AFL-CIO/Change to Win split at the national level. By doing so we get closer to the kinds of issues that are driving the disaster that is San Diego labor at present and see what results we might expect.

Decades after labor’s mid-twentieth century zenith, in the wake of a precipitous decline caused by both internal and external factors, 2005 brought us Change to Win (CTW), a new federation led by SEIU, that broke away from the AFL-CIO claiming that their organization would be more focused on organizing, commit more resources to that endeavor, and subsequently lead labor out of the wilderness despite the deeply anti-union political environment of the Bush era.

In spite of warnings from wiser voices who understood that the dramatically different context of the AFL-CIO/Change to Win split did not bode well for the success of the new organization, top labor leaders in CTW forged on with little to no input from rank and file workers and thrust labor in to a brave new world.

Except it wasn’t a brave new world.

Only six years after the split, a Bloomberg analysis on the efficacy of labor’s ill-conceived divorce observed: “One thing’s for sure: Working separately, these unions have been unable to duplicate the success that they had when they were working together. In the six years leading up to the split, AFL-CIO unions averaged 1,254 wins in 2,332 NLRB elections per year. In the six years since, the AFL-CIO and CTW have averaged just 819 wins in 1,340 elections per year.”

And it didn’t get any better. A Cornell University study “Estimating the Effect of ‘Change to Win’ on Union Organizing” concluded 10 years after the split that, “The results indicate no statistically significant difference in organizing success following Change to Win’s implementation of new organizing strategies and practices, relative to the AFL-CIO.”

As Harold Meyerson noted back in 2012 as it became clear that the Change to Win experiment had failed:

Of the six unions that left the AFL-CIO in 2005 to form Change To Win—the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Teamsters, the UFCW, UNITE HERE, the Laborers, and the United Farm Workers (UFW)—only SEIU, the Teamsters, and the Farm Workers (the last with probably fewer than 10,000 members) remain. Two-point-zero-something unions do not a federation make, but then, Change To Win, despite all its lofty ambitions, never amounted to a federation.

Of course the problem was, as labor scholars Bill Fletcher and Fernando Gapasin observed in their book on the split, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice, there never really were fundamental differences between the AFL-CIO and Change to Win labor leaders with regard to “consolidation, core jurisdiction, pragmatic international solidarity, and political flexibility.” The real issue was a power struggle between AFL-CIO leaders and Andy Stern of SEIU, so the deeper philosophical questions that might have led American labor to finally abandon top-down business unionism in favor of a renewed social justice unionism were never in play.

Meyerson echoed Fletcher and Gapasin’s critique when he observed that:

[By]2007, it was already clear that Change To Win hadn’t cracked the code to organizing private-sector workers. Indeed, it was increasingly clear that the real impetus for its formation was that SEIU, then under the leadership of Andy Stern, had just wanted out of the AFL-CIO, and had persuaded the other unions to follow. But for unions in either federation, the decline of organized labor continued apace.

The lessons of this history for our local labor movement ought to be clear: splits based on personality disputes and individual power plays are damaging to the labor movement and to all of our progressive allies in the community. A weaker labor movement hurts the efforts of community activists fighting for social justice and progressive candidates that rely on unified labor support to win.

… this split isn’t based on any principle at all, save the notion that the interests of two ousted leaders are more important than those of the workers they are supposed to represent or the labor movement as a whole.

There is not a single good rationale for splitting the San Diego labor movement. It isn’t good for organizing, politics, or building coalitions with our progressive allies. Indeed, this split isn’t based on any principle at all, save the notion that the interests of two ousted leaders are more important than those of the workers they are supposed to represent or the labor movement as a whole.

The fact is that there was no real input from the rank and file workers of these unions demanding a split from the labor council. Indeed, most of the workers affected by this weren’t even consulted and the largely empty press conference to announce the formation of the Working Families Council was held with the doors policed to keep out protesters and unwelcome media sources so even if members other than the hand-picked ones present wanted to attend, they couldn’t get inside. In fact, only four of the seven unions reported to be part of this new group were even there at the event and one of the unions listed in the release as part of the breakaway group is denying that it has left the labor council. Only time will tell who actually leaves.

This split, if it lasts, will hurt the efforts of grocery workers looking for labor solidarity during organizing drives, contract disputes, or strikes, and it will damage the efforts of those trying to rally support for fast-food and county workers across the labor movement and in the community. It puts our allies in the community in a terrible position as they will be pressured to side with the new organization and further divide San Diego progressives. It will also inevitably waste valuable political resources when the rival organizations support different candidates. The list goes on and on.

Contrary to the ill-advised bluster of Democratic Party Chair Jessica Hayes who praised the Working Families Council as a “powerhouse from day one,” it is clear that this organization is a danger to the movement and that it is poised to do much damage to the progressive cause if people are foolish enough to indulge this ill-advised, narcissistic folly.

This split is a shameful, spiteful maneuver by selfish leaders who refused to step down even when it became clear that they were hurting the movement and the AFL-CIO determined it was time for them to go.

Anyone who suggests otherwise is “divorced” from reality.

In these dark times for labor, THIS sideshow is strategically suicidal.

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