The AFL-CIO Debate and the South

Here at Facing South, we haven't commented much on the massive upheavals in the AFL-CIO, which are now playing out in the labor federation's convention in Chicago, starting today. Yesterday, the Change To Win coalition of insurgents, led by Andy Stern of the Service Employees International Union, announced they were boycotting the gathering, which marks the beginning of the final chapter of the AFL-CIO as we know it.

Make no mistake -- the implications of these events, especially for labor in the South, are potentially huge. Perhaps more than any region, there's a desperate need for a new vision for labor in the South, one that grapples with a host of difficult challenges: the decimation of textiles and other staples of the old manufacturing economy, a hostile anti-union climate, the rise of new immigrant populations, persistent poverty and underdevelopment in the African-American "black belt," and so on.

A labor movement which takes the call to "Organize the South" seriously would be an historic and welcome development -- over the last 50 years, there have only been two concerted, broad-scale efforts to organize in the region: Operation Dixie, the CIO's massive post-WWII drive, and the late-60s/early-70s insurgencies by the United Mine Workers (think "Harlan County, USA") and textile workers ("Norma Rae"), both of which the Institute was intimately involved in. Any attempt to revitalize labor in the South will have to use innovative approaches and find new points of leverage in the union-hostile region, which requires resources and a willingness to take risks not in abundant supply in the movement today.

Back to Chicago: There's a lot of commentary floating around about the split and the convention, and it's hard to separate the wheat from the chaffe. Making things more difficult is the fact that many of the commentators have a dog in the fight (not necessarily a bad thing -- I've worked off and on with union campaigns over the last 12 years, and definitely have an opinion -- but it does mean it's hard to get the full picture).

One good piece I ran across this morning is by Kim Fellner, who worked for 17 years at SEIU and was also the founding director of the National Organizer's Alliance. She advocates for change in the AFL-CIO, but also feels the current debate is missing the bigger picture:

[M]ost of us progressive labor folks think a shake-up is long overdue. But there's a nagging unease on all sides about the terms and tenor of the debate. The sound bites never get much beyond "blah, blah, blah, blah, organize, blah blah blah, blah change." And the skirmishing is all about mathematics: How much money for organizing? How many international unions should there be? What percentage of dues should go to the Federation?

But the numbers obscure the bigger questions at the heart of our struggle: Organize how? Change how? What kind of labor movement do we envision? How will it make the world more equitable for the most number of people? And what are we willing to sacrifice in order achieve it?

Good questions, and ones that have special relevance in the South. Read the whole piece for more good questions, as well as good analysis and history.