Some of the dust has begun to settle since the serious split in labor that finally emerged at the AFL-CIO convention at the end of July. The Change to Win unions (consisting of SEIU, Teamsters and Food and Commercial Workers — disaffiliated; Unite Here, Laborers and Farm Workers — still affiliated; and the Carpenters who had already left the AFL-CIO a few years ago) are planning a conference or convention for late September. They seem to hint, and many fear, that it will be a founding convention of a rival labor federation to the AFL-CIO.

Meanwhile central labor councils and state AFL-CIO federations are meeting and beginning the difficult task of assessing where things stand in their areas: How will Change to Win (CTW) and AFL-CIO unions continue to work together? Or will they? What will be the impact of the split locally? On basic union solidarity? On common campaigns like Wal-Mart and Comcast? On full mobilization against the anti-labor Republican right wing in the 2006 congressional election?

The main thing emerging is the strong determination at the local level to fight for unity. All kinds of creative ideas are being discussed, in both union groups, to keep all working together and united at the local level.

Tensions ran high during the AFL-CIO convention, with most of the CTW unions boycotting the convention and holding multiple press conferences. AFL-CIO unions with the greatest fears of raiding by CTW unions took a very hard line against allowing unaffiliated unions to participate in local and state councils. Given the huge financial hit the national AFL-CIO will take, it is little wonder that many resent the CTW unions wanting to pick and choose to remain in local councils where it suits them.

Labor unity is not about tactics alone, or just about winning this particular strike or campaign. Workers and their unions are not just up against this or that corporation. Nor are they just up against this or that bad piece of legislation or this or that really reactionary political regime like the Bush administration. Rather, labor unity is ultimately about uniting the entire working class and all its allies against the terrible social, economic and political power of transnational capital and the ultra-right. In reality, this much broader strategic notion of unity is the only way labor and workers can finally defend themselves against capitalist globalization.

In fact bigger, more global notions of trade union unity have to be developed.

An important reason for patience and due deliberation in charting a course in this situation is that this is not a left vs. right or progressive vs. conservative split. This splitting is itself a backward move that weakens labor. Yet there are significant left/progressive forces in both the AFL-CIO and the CTW unions. Some in the CTW unions have likened themselves to the CIO being kicked out of the AFL because the CIO championed industrial unionism. There are many reasons why this analogy fails, not the least of which is the completely different political and economic situations then and now.

In any case, if these folks delved a bit deeper they would remember that the left, while certainly largely in the CIO unions, did not abandon the AFL unions. Instead many communists and other left and progressive unionists stayed in their AFL unions and continued to fight for industrial unionism. And in the end they won the point. By the time of the formation of the AFL-CIO in 1955, many AFL unions had been transformed into industrial unions that had organized millions of new workers also.

All in all there is still much tension and much more dust to settle. It would be a mistake to draw too many hard and fast conclusions about how things are going to develop down the road. One of the most important roads to rebuilding unity will be in struggles and campaigns that bring all the unions together. It is very heartening that the Sweeney leadership has made it clear that in California nothing is to change while all of labor concentrates on defeating the Schwarzenegger anti-union ballot initiatives.

It would be a serious mistake for left and progressive trade union activists to take hardened positions. We have to see how things work out in the many state and local labor bodies. We have to watch the ongoing discussions and negotiations that are taking place on the national level between the AFL-CIO and the CTW unions. And most of all we have to carefully monitor the rank-and-file membership’s reaction to the split. We are not passive observers. We have to work with all those who organize and speak out for unity, especially rank-and-file and local council-level activists.

For us, reuniting all unions into a single federation, that can speak with one voice, is a central strategic question.

Scott Marshall (scott@rednet.org) is chair of the Communist Party USA’s Labor Commission.

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