The opposite of unionism is “go it alone.” According to some recent suggestions in the American labor movement, that’s what some top office-holders would like to see. They want to lessen their financial commitment to the AFL-CIO federation, ostensibly so that they can spend more money on organizing projects.

Even if it were true that they would spend the money on organizing, and I seriously doubt it would turn out to be true, it’s still a lousy idea. The American union movement needs more cooperation and more coordination, especially on organizing drives. That leadership can only come when the different unions come together in the federation.

Take a little look at American labor history, then let’s make two projections for the future of the union movement in the United States.

The American Federation of Labor began under another name in 1882. Basically, it did not organize. Its constituent locals did all of the organizing. Almost all of them, with the notable exception of the mineworkers, were craft unions as opposed to industrial unions. They tended to “cherry pick” the most skilled and highest-paid craftsmen from every workplace. The skilled machinist was recruited into the machinist union; the guy who swept the floor had no union. The oiler had none. The burr-man had none. Naturally, they scabbed on the machinist when offered the opportunity.

The Congress of Industrial Organizations was begun under another name in 1935. It pledged to organize everybody in a workplace into the same union. It organized General Motors, for example, top to bottom. It ran across craft lines, language lines, ethnic lines, geographic lines, gender lines, and racial lines to put together the strongest unions this nation had ever known. The individual CIO unions worked together under the leadership of a strong and well-funded central organizing department to accomplish all these miracles. They continued this wondrous organizing machine until they merged with the AFL during the great conservative witch-hunt of the 1950s. After that, recruiting again became the almost exclusive function of individual unions.

In 1995, the AFL-CIO elected dynamic new leadership. They began pushing all of the affiliated unions to spend 30 percent of their funds on organizing. That meant taking big financing away from grievance-handling and business-as-usual. A few unions responded mightily, and organizing picked up. Other unions barely responded at all. They continued the long, slow, deadly retreat that has been the way of life for most American unions since the 1950s. The net result was continued erosion of labor’s power.

If some conservative leaders get their way, America’s unions might ditch the AFL-CIO. They might claim that they will spend more money on organizing. Some of them probably would, but some of them probably wouldn’t. After all, they are running as fast as they can right now, just to stay in one place or to keep from falling behind any faster. Most likely, they would spend a little bit more on organizing and put the rest into their desperately failing servicing operation. When they went out to organize, they would find themselves bumping into one another and working at cross-purposes. The bosses love it when two unions both try to organize the same workforce. The workers get to vote for one union, the other union, or “no union,” and the winner has to get 51 percent of the vote. I know of at least one case in Texas where this is going on right now.

The result of this terrible future projection is almost inevitably further weakening of the labor movement.

A really good projection for the future of the American labor movement after the AFL-CIO convention in July is that union leaders put aside their fears and establish a strong centralized organizing body within the federation. They might consider modeling it after the CIO. If they do, unions would cooperate more on organizing, and undoubtedly on other things as well. Unions would tend to organize more. Even if they didn’t, they would be drawing together better against the common anti-labor enemy. As time goes by and other opportunities and challenges come, they would be facing them together. This is the strength of organization.

Disunity is death. Union is our great hope.

Jim Lane (flittle7@yahoo.com) is a labor activist in North Texas.

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