How a Changing of the Guard Has Changed Unions and Politics

A New Chapter in the Union Movement

I remember back in 2008, when the Democrats had a big year on Capitol Hill, hearing Andy Stern on TV raising Hell. He stated “If they (elected politicians) don’t pass the Employee Free Choice Act then they need to know that we (Unions) put them in office and we will take them out of office”.

Stern had been an advocate for spending less money on political puppets and more on grass roots organizing efforts for many years. In 1984, when AFL-CIO President John Sweeney appointed Stern as the head of the organizing department, they were already showing signs of internal conflict when discussing the best way to use union resources.

Ricardo Torres President & CEO - PSLC


A New Chapter in the Union Movement

I remember back in 2008, when the Democrats had a big year on Capitol Hill, hearing Andy Stern on TV raising Hell. He stated “If they (elected politicians) don’t pass the Employee Free Choice Act then they need to know that we (Unions) put them in office and we will take them out of office”.

Stern had been an advocate for spending less money on political puppets and more on grass roots organizing efforts for many years. In 1984, when AFL-CIO President John Sweeney appointed Stern as the head of the organizing department, they were already showing signs of internal conflict when discussing the best way to use union resources.

Sweeney and Stern were at war with each other for nearly 30 years. The tension between the two ultimately caused the split between the AFL-CIO, which brought forth the Change to Win Federation. The two groups operated on different principals of organizing. The tactics were identical when going after a target, but the way they rationalized spending and the use of their resources were very different. Today, there is a paradigm shift happening right before our eyes, yet few have recognized it. Today we see the two groups coming closer together in their political strategy of supporting who “will” benefit the union more, not which party “may” benefit the union more. All of this is happening sans Sweeney and Stern and it is working. There is a new union movement unraveling that will surely gain momentum as coal is thrown on their fire.

A Fractured AFL-CIO and the Birth of Change to Win

Since its inception in 1955, when the AFL and CIO merged, the federation had been under the philosophy that political influence and power was the union’s key to their long term security and what was best for them to grow a strong labor movement. George Meany, the first President of the newly formed federation, was very active with influencing politicians to provide wind to the sails of the union movement, especially towards the end of his tenure as President.

In 1995, Sweeney took over as AFL-CIO President with Thomas Donahue leaving the post. In 1995, the pace of which money was being spent (and the amounts of money being spent) influencing political powers was out of control. Still, Sweeney’s goal was to accelerate the spending. After many years this caused the split and exodus of many unions who pulled away from the once powerful AFL-CIO to form a competing federation. Change to Win was born.

The election in 2008 seemed to validate Sweeney’s strategy with their high hopes of having the EFCA passed as a law. Of course this never happened (even though it was a tight battle on the Hill).

The relationship between Richard Trumka and John Sweeney had been strained for years. Internal disagreements between the two are well known in Washington D.C. and the death of the EFCA had only intensified the push for Sweeney to retire.

Richard Trumka had been biting at the bit for years to take a much more aggressive attitude towards organizing and utilizing resources spent on political action. I spoke with Trumka in private on several occasions when I was a union official concerning what needed to be done to change the downward spiral of the membership. Trumka blamed both Sweeney and Stern for the breakup of the AFL-CIO. In fact, sources tell us that, inside the Washington D.C. AFL-CIO headquarters, the last 8 months of Sweeney’s presidency were so filled with tension the two would hardly talk.

Trumka and his new up and coming team knew that bleeding money into a political system where promises were often empty, was a wasted effort. They understood that there was a better way to organize without sacrificing resources and dollars to a bunch of “liars” in Washington. This is a philosophy I agreed with when I was still on the union side.

When I was working as a lobbyist in D.C. and with union legislative departments across the country, we were always frustrated at the lack of commitment politicians had in honoring their promises after they were elected. I can recall many times where I was told after heated meetings about supporting a union targeted bill or other initiative that they were all we had and if we wanted, we could try the Republicans and see how much support we would get from them. Years later, there was an instance that stood out for me when talking about how little regard these politicians had for the union when they were supposed to be allies. When I was a USW official, I was asked to attend an interview in Michigan with the young upcoming Democratic candidate for Mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick (who now is infamous for the scandals that happened in office which landed him in jail while waiting for a federal case to be completed). Kilpatrick came into the Michigan district office, along with his wife and advisors, and asked for an endorsement from the USW. To my amazement, his top advisor had a newspaper under his arm and promptly set it down on the table in front of him as they started telling us how much they respected the unions and what they were willing to do for labor in return for our support. I confronted Mr. Kilpatrick on the fact that his advisor brought into our union office, a newspaper involved in a major labor dispute in Detroit (which I was heavily involved with from a national level prior to working with the USW) and made it clear that the newspaper was on our “boycott” list. I became upset with them and asked them how they had the “guts” to come asking for support while insulting us at the same time by not doing their research prior to their visit. My vote was not to support them but I was in the minority and regardless of my influence, the USW wound up helping him get elected.

Now the 30 year “hot” war of ideals has turned into a “cold” war within the labor movement and the head combatants have both left the war zone after effectively changing the terrain of internal union dispute resolutions and weakened their organizing strategy pitting union against union.

Union Paradigm Shift

Even before Richard Trumka became the new AFL-CIO President, our sources tell us that he was reaching out to James Hoffa Jr. and the Change to Win leadership to start cooperating more and began to talk of slowly rejoining forces in some endeavors on a national level. Although they always continued working together within the state CLC’S (Central Labor Councils), most people outside the internal union structure would miss the significance of these events.

Faced with a shortfall of funds and other resources and most of all credibility within their affiliates to organize new members, the unions have decided to change their strategy. Years ago the AFL-CIO forgot the first rule to organizing new members that we taught at the Organizers Institute. An organizer has to create the environment needed for successful organizing. An organizer has to trigger passion, excitement, a now or never urgency, and make it as personal to your target as possible (the same dynamics you need to use when you have to get members to strike). I have known members with over 40 years seniority who put their livelihoods at risk because they believed to lose the fight would be worse than throwing a career away without an “organized” fight. This degree of manipulation takes time and planning. Over the past 20 years, the union’s plan was just to throw manure on the wall and hope it sticks without a clear plan for growth that they could sell to their affiliate unions. The fact of the matter is that each union has its own concerns and will always look out for their interests first, a sharp contrast from the one-for-all and all-for-one philosophy they try to force on everyone else.

AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka thanked Wisconsin Governor, Scott Walker, for igniting an impassioned debate on workers' rights.

"Well, thank you, Scott Walker," Trumka said during a speech in Washington, DC to the group Campaign for America's Future. "We should have invited him here today to receive the Mobilizer of the Year award! Because Gov. Walker's over-reaching has brought us to this moment to talk about jobs. This is the debate we've wanted to have. Well, guess what? Suddenly the debate came to us, and we're winning."

"In your lifetime, have you ever seen this much solidarity, this much excitement, this much activism?" he continued. "As progressives, it is our job to transform the outrage and make this moment a movement – to ensure that this corruption in the Midwest does not stand."

There have been many serious discussions about how best to grow the union density across the country driven by the AFL-CIO and the national union leadership which includes the Change to Win leadership. Some fundamental changes are coming. They know that in order to grow the union, they need to not only stop talking to themselves but they also need to create an atmosphere (and belief) that the labor movement is a more populist movement, where joining a union not only means you get better wages and benefits (and dignity & respect), but it also helps move popular social movements forward (or at least movements that are popular to their target population).

2006 produced mass marches in cities across the country and the unions were in the middle organizing them. One day, over 50,000 people marched in LA and the unions had a platform. They lost that opportunity because they were reacting to events but not driving them. Insiders tell us that the AFL-CIO plans to start not only to get ahead of the curve on these emotional events but to also anticipate and drive them. Wisconsin (and other states with similar issues) will help them energize people for the next 6 to 8 months; the strategy is to set up regions throughout the country to get better control of events before and as they happen and of course at the same time build support for organizing efforts, and make a connection between the two.

The unions plan on supporting politicians more on a state and grass roots level rather than a national level, more money and resources will be spent on a local level.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is stepping up with a plan for unions to declare “independence” and back candidates — no matter what their party affiliation — who are committed to support workers and their unions. Trumka and the unions that follow his lead are changing the way they approach politics NOW!

Trumka says they will now have an Independent labor movement and they are no longer interested in building the power of a political party or candidate. This move will have a significant impact on the 2012 elections.

This is a direct shot at the Democratic party and sends a strong message that now politicians will be held accountable for their support of union initiatives, and is meant to force their hand to make changes in the National Labor Relations Act that are more favorable to union organizing strategies.

Trumka’s upcoming messages will most likely be straightforward. He will try to equate the messages with moral issues and corporations vs. social need. Unions want to add moral issues to the national debate and drive these issues to make them relevant again. Many feel if the unions play their cards right then they have the opportunity to become as influential of a player as the Tea Party movement was in 2010.


So once again the battling warriors, (Sweeney and Stern) have left the battlefield, a battlefield of their own making. Sweeney and Stern had such a difference of opinion when it came to political support and where to focus money and efforts that it caused the split of the once most powerful federation of unions.

Once split, the two were unable to find a way to work together towards a common goal. But Sweeney and Stern are gone. Union’s have an inherent capacity to change and evolve with differing wants and desires of the membership (after all, they must cater to members to attract new members). With these two union leaders out of the way the new regime of national leaders are setting the stage for a more focused attack on management.

There is new blood running the show with very different views on strategy than their predecessors. If the new leader’s in the union machine figure out a way to work together, management will have a more difficult fight on their hands (and signs are starting to point towards a reborn unified front).