By Peter Zschiesche
For those who read Jim Miller’s recent articles recounting the unfortunate splits in the local Labor movement, it may seem they result from just personal differences among labor leaders. Jim reported the events that led the AFL-CIO, the parent organization of the Labor Council, to take over the council and restore it to functioning as it should.
However that came about, that is what the AFL-CIO as the parent organization is supposed to do. It will be hard work.
This work will pay off if San Diego’s Labor Council is restored to the level it maintained for over two decades beginning in the late 1990s when it helped union families leverage their collective strength in improving wages and benefits, as well as playing a key role in local elections. It can be said definitively that the lives of hundreds of thousands of people improved in this region because San Diego had a strong, unified Labor Council.
They improved because good leaders worked through their differences and put union solidarity ahead of their particular interests on any one issue or even a series of issues (such as immigration or trade or candidates.) Leading the Labor Council effectively is not easy and each of its leaders over the last 20 years has worked hard to unite Labor on several fronts.
At the same time, each local union joins voluntarily and has an elected leadership that answers first to its members and to its international union. These unions represent workers in a wide variety of private industries, from janitors to airline pilots. Area locals also represent workers at all levels of government, including teachers, social workers, attorneys, and landscapers.
Even in the best-run labor councils, member unions sometimes have competing interests regarding what public policies they support.
Consider the contrasting agendas of unions representing border patrol agents and those representing janitors who are largely immigrants. Some unions are large and have considerable influence; some are small and exercise little local influence. Some locals consider themselves “progressive”; others are “non-partisan”, with these differences affecting who they may support in local, state, and national elections.
Unions also have vastly different experiences, with some toughened by hard bargaining with their employers. Other locals have easier dealings with management. Some expend great effort in servicing contracts, processing grievances and regularly dealing with enforcement of their agreements. And there are unions focused more on organizing and bringing new workers into their unions.
Unions also vary widely in their visions. Some see themselves building a broader, more active labor movement; others remain focused largely on getting the best for their local members. Others are focusing more resources on building community alliances and partnerships.
All these differences play out in Labor Council meetings and in elections to the Executive Board. Strong personalities and the relative power of the various unions are at play, increasing the difficulty of working together. Adding to the volatility, affiliation is voluntary, as we’ve recently seen, so local unions can leave whenever they choose. But changes in affiliation are not new.
In 1995, when Jerry Butkiewicz challenged the incumbent Labor Council leader, several building trades and other unions had left the Council because they would no longer work with the incumbent leader. Butkiewicz convinced those unions to rejoin the Council and force the incumbent to “retire.”
With new leadership, the Labor Council was energized but faced an immediate challenge in that UFCW Local 135, one of the largest locals, had strongly supported the incumbent and left the Council after his defeat, pushing the Labor Council into great financial difficulty. When Mickey Kasparian became the leader of UFCW 135, he led it back into the Labor Council to build greater local union solidarity.
This union solidarity is particularly important in San Diego. The region has few unions with a large staff or significant resources to support their work. Instead, most locals are small and have their hands full supporting their members and enforcing their contracts, without the resources for engaging in effective local or state political campaigns.
For organizations of this size, a strong Labor Council can be of greatest benefit. A vital Council becomes a centralized resource for all member unions to do things they cannot do by themselves. It can bring important moral and logistical support during contract struggles, bolster turnouts at rallies and, picket lines, more effectively demand meetings with local officials, and help locals make their cases with employers.
Ask union members who have received this support how important it can be, particularly when butting heads with powerful employers. They know.
Strong Labor Councils also amplify labor’s voting clout, a fact often acknowledged by opponents. The enormous internal effort to reach consensus on a candidate or proposition is well-worth it when Labor has a clear message for its members, working families in general, and the community at large.
Simply engaging all unions in a get-out-the-vote campaign adds to Labor’s clout. And when Labor cannot agree, it’s best when the Council’s members respectfully “agree to disagree” and let local unions go their own way, while maintaining solidarity on a broad array of issues on which they do agree. Over the past 20 years, union solidarity on many core issues has enabled the election of a worker-friendly majority on the San Diego City Council, gained a minimum wage ordinance, and enabled more labor-friendly candidates to win local elections.
The biggest recent challenge to local Labor Solidarity came from the “Change to Win” effort that began over ten years ago with the disaffiliation from the AFL-CIO of several large international unions, including SEIU, UFCW, Teamsters, UNITE HERE, and the UFW. Their stated focus was to set up a new union movement that would focus on organizing new members. To Butkiewicz’s credit, he worked at the national level with the AFL-CIO to create memorandums of understanding that allowed local affiliates of these breakaway unions to remain in the Labor Council here, which they all did.
“Change to Win” was the largest split-up of the AFL-CIO in many years, but there had been plenty of others since the AFL and CIO united in 1955. Even the joining of those two labor groups took 20 years after the birth of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). In both cases, there were strong differences in strategic purpose, politics, and use of resources. You could argue for or against the “Change to Win” split, but many good unionists agreed with their strategic views and priorities for collective action, while opposing leaving the AFL-CIO.
More recently, individual union locals have chosen to disaffiliate from the Labor Council because of their differences with its leadership, but seldom over great political differences with its purpose. What do we make of this latest split? The breakaway group of unions seems to be considering its place in Labor. In the meantime, what has been gained by broad Labor unity in our recent history must not be lost due to a lack of leadership. It is time for our leaders to step up, new leaders to emerge and for Labor’s friends to work with us as before.
Peter Zschiesche is a former Machinist Union Business Agent and President of IAM Local 389. Over the past 30 years, he has worked with the last 5 leaders of the San Diego Labor Council and served on its Executive Boards with 3 of them. He founded the Employee Rights Center in 1999, retired from there, and remains active on its governing body, Labor’s Alliance. He also serves as a Trustee of the Board for the San Diego Community College Board since 2002.