One big (EMI) union?

In light of intense interest among union activists in the EMI sector, I prepared the following post on the Change to Win union group that broke away from the AFL-CIO as well as on the new Industry Coordinating Committee that has been formed by the AFL-CIO in the arts, entertainment and media industry sector. It has also been posted in slightly different form on Actors Access, so I apologize for cross-postings! As always, comments and questions are welcome.

Background on the ICC and CtW

The core facts about the Change To Win (CtW) group are pretty well known. Assessing the real meaning or long-term impact of CtW is a bit harder. CtW is made up several major affiliates, with some 40% of the membership of the pre-split AFL-CIO, including SEIU, the Teamsters, the Hotel and Restaurant Employees, the Carpenters and the Food and Commercial Workers.

In their own way and for their own reasons each of these affiliates was increasingly dissatisfied with their relationship with the AFL-CIO. If I was forced to choose one reason among many for that dissatisfaction I would likely say that each of those affiliates has been able to grow their membership in various ways over the past few years, largely because they organize workers in sectors of the economy that are not hurt as much by globalization. So, while the Steel Workers and the Auto Workers have been devastated by technological change and free trade, the Hotel Employees have seen huge job and membership growth in places like Las Vegas, while the SEIU has seen job and membership growth in janitorial work in office parks and cities. The strategy of concentrating on lower paid immigrant labor in the “new” service economy seemed to make sense to those affiliates poised to take advantage of it. That is more easily done by the Teamsters, for example, which has always been willing to organize workers outside its core jurisdiction, than the Auto Workers.

That core idea leads to the ICC debate. If you take the view that you can organize large numbers of workers in these new sectors of the economy you are less interested in the craft and other jurisdictional divisions in the labor movement. So Andy Stern at SEIU developed the idea that many current AFL affiliates should be merged out of existence. At one point he proposes merging all affiliates down to just six big unions. Of course, that has, I believe, terrible implications for union democracy. But Stern has shown little hesitation at forcing through mergers within SEIU so that, for example, the LA janitors were merged into a statewide janitors local with janitors in the Bay Area – coincidentally after a union election in LA put a more militant largely Hispanic group of activists in power who threatened then SEIU president John Sweeney and Stern, who was Sweeney’s number two guy.

When in 2005 it became clear that the idea of a breakaway was real, the AFL stalwarts recognized that they needed to respond. The idea of the ICC came out of the Teachers Union and made its way to the Executive Council where it was passed in 2005. It moves some way towards what Stern wanted but did not go far enough and so Stern and Hoffa left anyway. But the ICC idea was put in place. It does not mandate the formation of ICC’s – that was what bothered Stern. It says that affiliates can form an ICC if they want. If they do there is supposed to be some discipline to the grouping as the “binding” language in the ICC principles that some commentators have highlighted indicates.

However, the ICC idea is on paper and what happens in reality may be very different. There is actually already one ICC for nurses and health care workers (at least those that are left after the departure of the SEIU). And now there is the AEMI ICC. The AEMI ICC idea came out of the Department for Professional Employees, which is a semi-autonomous department within the complex AFL-CIO structure that is heavily influenced by the Teachers Union. S.A.G. is part of the DPE.

Of course, on paper the idea of a bigger stronger union in the entertainment industry makes sense if you are facing bigger stronger global corporations as well as Wall Street and Silicon Valley. But the challenge is not sacrificing the democratic participation of the rank and file membership in the process since after all that is what gives unions their real power and legitimacy. In addition, it is one thing to lump all janitors into a “one big union” but acting, writing, etc., are “skills” of a completely different order. And then there are the rich traditions and culture in the Guilds that gives them such significance. That is why I have suggested elsewhere that the devil is in the details of the ICC. Coordinating with the other affiliates, such as CWA and IBEW, could be very helpful in making sure the ICC hub responds to the needs of the spokes, as it were.