The Dean Campaign and Labor Shakeup

There has been a lot of speculation about the future of the AFL-CIO, and that of the organized labor as a whole. The 50th AFL-CIO convention begins tomorrow in Chicago. And led by the SEIU, several unions representing about 30% of AFL-CIO membership have decided to boycott the gathering. Unite to Win, the coalition of unions led by the SEIU is shaping up to be a rival of the AFL-CIO, and SEIU has threatened to quit the AFL-CIO. Unions allied with the SEIU believe that labor needs to move in a new direction. The papers have been watching this development with interest, and have been publishing articles. The pros and cons of this possible split are all out there, if you want to learn in depth about this, just do a Google search. Suffices it to say that I am and always will be loyal to the SEIU. I am here to talk about something else. Something the media has largely ignored or been silent on. It's not the rivalry. It's where the rivalry can be traced back to (I am not saying it began there). The presidential campaign of Gov. Howard Dean. Primarily, if you look at the news sources, this divide, in significant part, is one between two biggest unions of the AFL-CIO. The Service Employees International Union, the largest union with 1.8 million members, and the American Federation of State, County, and municipal Employees, the second largest with 1.3 million members. Those of you who were keeping score then know that the SEIU had been leaning to Dean from the beginning, while AFSCME hesitated for the longest time. Ultimately they ended up making a joint endorsement, but that was primarily because AFSCME thought that Dean was going to be the nominee, and they wanted to get on the bandwagon, be the kingmaker, so to speak. That AFSCME had something other than a pro-Dean only commitment became clear when after the Iowa loss, AFSCME withdrew its endorsement of Howard Dean, and AFSCME's president said something to the effect of Howard Dean being a mad man. SEIU, for its part, stuck with the Dean campaign till the very end through thick and thin (now you know why I said I will always be loyal to them). At that point the rift between the SEIU, people who wanted to chart a new labor movement - much like Dean's pledge to change the Democratic party itself - and others in the AFL-CIO - primarily AFSCME - became clear. Endorsing Dean was a bold move and an unmistakable signal for advocates of change. But the moment Dean's star seemed halted in its effort to topple the status quo in the Democratic party , so the AFSCME went back to the status quo of AFL-CIO. The SEIU, on the other hand, supported Dean because they saw their vision expressed in the governor. That vision - now stronger with the solidarity of the Dean-DFA movement - never faltered or changed or was sacrificed by SEIU and unions of similar mind. You may ask, "Well then why are the Teamsters in Unite to Win? They endorsed Gephardt, and you don't get more entrenched in the Democratic party than Dick Gephardt." But you have to remember that for all of Gephardt's shortcomings, his labor credentials were unquestioned. He was, undoubtedly an ally of Labor. If President Gephardt ever walked into the Oval Office, organized labor could not have a greater friend in government. Gephardt's unquestioned and unrelenting devotion to the cause of organized labor, I would say, made a lot of labor unions forget his other misgivings, and focus on one issue. But that doesn't mean that these people weren't hungry for change. They found that change in the continuing vision of shaking up the labor movement that SEIU called for. It was the fall of the Dean campaign that showed how entrenched and incumbency oriented the Democratic party - the most important ally of organized labor - had become. But there wasn't much time left then for introspections and questions, the Democrats had chosen a nominee, and John Kerry had to be given every possible support for the sake of this country. The labor movement - like other progressives and Democrats - shut their mouths, got behind Kerry and prepared for battle. As history tells it, that was a battle we lost. So when we lost that battle, the reformers in the labor movement and in the general progressive community - in my opinion correctly - knew that they were right all along, and the entrenched hierarchy needs to go. As an outpouring of that realization, Democratic grassroots everywhere put together a campaign that propelled Howard Dean to become the new DNC chair, despite every attempt by the Democratic establishment to stop him. And SEIU (which I believe was emboldened by the grassroots solidarity and inspired by Dean's message of change) the pioneer of change in the labor movement expanded its course and forged new partnerships (Americans for Healthcare, United to Win, Purple Ocean) to root out entrenchment within AFL-CIO, put more resources into organizing and consolidating unions so that workers would not be splintered and divided. But the forces of inertia - not any single person - pushed back, offering less than meeting the demands of change. That divide is now playing itself out within the labor movement - much as the battle between the culture of beltway entrenchment and the Dean grassroots is playing out within the Democratic party. I am not saying this split is a good thing. I am not saying it's a bad thing, either. I am simply saying that the movement of change that was thrust into the mainstream by the Dean campaign has a lot to do with this, and a lot of what is happening today could have been seen back then. Feel free to discuss your opinions, as well as the future of organized labor here. Is the SEIU doing the right thing? Is the AFL-CIO? Why?


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