News Analysis

In early January the leaders of the New Unity Partnership (NUP) decided to disband. NUP was a loose caucus of national unions in the AFL-CIO, including SEIU, HERE, UNITE (now HERE-UNITE), the Laborers and the Carpenters. They got together during the summer of 2003 with the avowed purpose of pushing for reforms in the AFL-CIO.

Their strongest emphasis was on measures to increase organizing and on restructuring unions to maximize their power in specific industries and sectors of the economy.

While many in labor agree with the need for reform and building a bigger, stronger labor movement, much of the NUP program was immediately controversial. Many felt the proposals were too “top down.” Others felt they were too radical. Still others resented what they saw as a provocative and too aggressive approach. The height of this feeling came when SEIU President Andy Stern said, in effect, if the AFL-CIO didn’t adopt NUP reforms then his union might consider leaving the federation.

Still, the NUP group helped start an extremely valuable debate in labor at a time when labor is on the move in new, dynamic ways. The tremendous mobilization in the electoral fight to defeat George Bush and the ultra right stands out. Not since the early CIO days has labor mounted such efforts: impressive, independent grassroots involvement of the membership, ground-breaking coalition building, incredible unity in action, massive dedication of resources, and all with renewed energy and militancy.

What better time for a broad-based debate in labor on program, organizing, structure and direction? A rich and productive debate can take place precisely because labor is so aroused and in motion.

The problems are real. Despite creative and heroic efforts, union membership is in decline. Labor’s political, economic and social clout is not yet strong enough to blunt the corporate and right-wing attack.

While many in the AFL-CIO felt blindsided by the approach NUP first took in demanding the debate, to its great credit the AFL-CIO leadership welcomed the opening for a far-reaching discussion. Embracing the chance to make improvements and reforms, they’ve come up with a great plan to broaden and deepen the discussion. They are calling on all affiliates and related institutions to submit ideas and proposal. They are making special efforts to involve rank-and-file members, local union officers and central labor councils, the grassroots of labor. And they are reaching out to coalition partners and “friends of labor” to participate in the discussion.

Disbanding NUP is a big step towards unity and a more productive and effective discussion. The NUP leaders are putting the goals of reform above their own particular ideas. They clearly don’t want NUP to become a distraction from the broader plan of debate and change being developed by the AFL-CIO.

Despite strong feelings, there has been a lot of positive give-and-take on all sides. These combined efforts point in the direction of rebuilding labor as a social movement that can help lead the struggles of the whole working class.

Scott Marshall ( is chair of the CPUSA labor commission.