David Bacon Stories & Photographs


By David Bacon
San Francisco Bay Guardian, 8/10/05

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – In Chicago’s cavernous Navy Pier convention center, delegates were lined up at the four microphones scattered across the floor. San Francisco’s Nancy Wohlforth stood at mic number 2. She’d been waiting for this moment for two years.

The mic went live, and she stepped forward. Wohlforth is a slight woman, but her voice cut through the hubbub of the little conversations across the floor, stopping them dead. With the intensity and anger of a twenty-first century Mother Jones, she began to give her fellow delegates a dose of straight, unvarnished truth.

“All we hear are the lies and deceit of the Bush administration,” she called out, “that put us in Iraq on a false pretext, and keep us in Iraq for absolutely no good reason except to enrich his cronies in Halliburton,” Her voice rising, she pointed to a group of Iraqi workers who’d braved the long, dangerous road from Baghdad to get to the AFL-CIO convention.

“I'll tell you what they want,” she thundered. “They want an end to the U.S. occupation.” Applause broke into her speech. “They want it now, and not yesterday.” The applause got stronger. “Because as long as we are there, they can never really achieve self-determination and build a truly democratic state.”

She brought the house down.

Wohlforth, whose face breaks into sharp angles around flashing eyes, is a piece of San Francisco in Washington, DC. As secretary-treasurer of the Office and Professional Employees union, she’s now one of the highest-ranking labor leaders in the country. She heads Pride at Work, the national organization of gay and lesbian union members. For two years, she and her anti-war cohorts in US Labor Against the War fought the long battle that finally put the Iraq war on center stage at the AFL-CIO’s Chicago gathering.

But just as the labor movement was taking this historic step in opposing the war, it was also sacrificing its own unity in an orgy of internal strife. The day before Wohlforth’s speech, three unions left the federation, not over international politics, but over disagreements on how to respond to the decline in labor’s political and economic power. The war may seem far away from these more concrete concerns, but many labor activists, looking at the blood on the floor after the convention ended, connected the dots. What labor needs, they concluded, is less internal division, and more courage and political vision.

In an interview after the convention with activist Alan Benjamin, Wohlforth called it “a very bad day for the labor movement.” From her observations, most union members don’t understand why it had to happen. “Even I am having a hard time understanding what it's all about,” she said, “and I've been in the labor movement for a very long time.”

For labor activist Bill Fletcher, while the debate caused profound rifts, it never came to grips with labor’s basic problem: “We have to be prepared to talk about something we’ve been afraid to say out loud – that capitalism is harmful to the health of workers,” he said in an interview. “Something is fundamentally wrong with the priorities of this society, and we have to be courageous enough to say so.”

At the debate’s end, the AFL-CIO passed a resolution, calling for the “rapid withdrawal” of US troops from Iraq. For progressive trade unionists, it was a bright moment, but one that came in dark times. San Francisco’s Tim Paulson connected the dots for his fellow delegates between the war and the problems facing workers closer to home. According to the city’s central labor council secretary, “all this money that is being spent on bombs and occupation could have been used for health care, jobs, and infrastructure. It could have been used for the things that working men and women value. That's what we believe in.”

Nationally, unions face a serious crisis of declining numbers. Just after World War 2, unions represented 35% of US workers. By 1975, after the Vietnam War, it had dropped to 26%. Today only 12% of all workers, and 8% in the private sector, are union members. They’re mostly concentrated in the urban areas on each coast, and the former industrial belt of the Midwest, leaving workers in large parts of the country on their own in dealing with their employers.

Declining numbers translate into a decline in political power and economic leverage. California (with one-sixth of the AFL-CIO’s members) and New York have higher union density than any others. But even here, labor is facing an all-out war with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Measures on the governor’s special election ballot threaten to cut to shreds the ability of California’s powerful public worker unions to engage in any meaningful political action.

So this might not be such a good time for labor to split ranks, but that’s just what has happened. On the first day of the AFL-CIO convention, two unions quit the labor federation – its largest union, the Service Employees International Union, with 1.8 million members, and the 1.1 million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Following the convention’s end, one more union pulled out – the United Food and Commercial Workers.

All three are large and important unions in northern California. SEIU locals include 790, which represents public workers from San Francisco to Stockton, 535, a statewide union for social service workers, and United Healthcare Workers, one of the largest union locals in the country. Teamster locals throughout the Bay Area represent workers in trucking and transportation, warehouses, food processing plants, and numerous other private companies. The United Food and Commercial Workers is the union in grocery stores and meatpacking companies.

The three unions that withdrew from the AFL-CIO have organized a new labor coalition, called Change to Win, which also includes other unions which have notpulled out, at least not yet,. UNITE HERE is one. The union’s Local 2 has been involved in an epic struggle with 14 of San Francisco’s largest, most luxurious hotels. Other UNITE HERE locals represent workers in the garment and laundry industry. Change to Win also includes the United Farm Workers, the Laborers International Union, and the Carpenters (who pulled out of the AFL-CIO several years ago.)

This is a very contradictory moment in the life of US unions. Public attention has focused largely on this split among unions, yet the impact of the debate on the war will reverberate for years. The generation of anti-war, solidarity activists who were young marchers during Vietnam, and rank-and-file militants during the Central American interventions, today are leading unions. Some of them may have forgotten, or chosen to forget, those roots. But many have not. Like Wohlforth, they’re tired of seeing their movement remain quiet when the US military is used to prop up an economic system they’re fighting at home. The labor movement may be awash in internal dissention over its structure, but it is growing surprisingly single-minded over the Iraq war.

Brooks Sunkett, vice-president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), gave one in a train of passionate speeches on the convention floor, saying that the government had lied to him when it sent him to war in Vietnam three decades ago. “This war seems very similar to that war,” he declared. “Lies were told to me then, and lies are being told to me now.” Henry Nicholas, a hospital union leader in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, told delegates that his son, who has served four tours of duty in Iraq, is now threatened with yet another.

With no one voicing dissent, speaker after speaker rose to condemn the war and occupation, and to demand the return of the troops. The debate was the high water mark in an upsurge that began sweeping through US unions before the war started two years ago. From the point when it became clear that the Bush administration intended to invade Iraq, union activists began organizing a national network to oppose it, US Labor Against the War. What started as a collection of small groups, in a handful of unions, has today to become a coalition of unions representing over a million members.

Watching from the visitors’ gallery were the Iraqi union leaders to whom Wohlforth had pointed. One of them had traveled to the US two months ago, with five other union activists, to plead the case of Iraqi workers. For 16 days they traveled to more than 50 cities, urging their US union counterparts to take action to end the occupation.

In May two of the Iraqis, Hassan Juma’a and Faleh Abood, leaders of the General Union of Oil Employees, arrived in the Bay Area. They won standing ovations at San Francisco longhore union halls, from SEIU’s big public worker local in San Jose, from refinery workers in Martinez, and from almost every Bay Area labor council. These experiences were repeated from Los Angeles to Seattle.

The USLAW network organized the tour of the Iraqi unionists, to provide them a chance to speak directly to US workers. “We believed strongly that if unions in our country could hear their Iraqi brothers and sisters asking for the withdrawal of US troops, they would respond in a spirit of solidarity and human sympathy,” said Gene Bruskin, one of USLAW’s national coordinators. “We were right.”

The debate at the convention was the answer to the call. Starting in San Francisco, 18 resolutions calling for troop withdrawal poured into the AFL-CIO from unions, labor councils, and state labor federations across the country. As the convention began, however, AFL-CIO national staff tried to substitute another resolution that called for ending the occupation “as soon as possible.” This was the language used by the Bush administration.

Delegates at the convention in the USLAW network then called for substituting the phrase “rapid withdrawal” of the troops. Knowing a fight was in store, and suddenly unsure of their ability to win it, AFL-CIO staff agreed. When the proposal for rapid withdrawal was put on the floor, Paulson made clear that “when you say ‘rapidly,’ that would be the same as ‘immediately’ -- and that is why we are going to support this resolution.” The new language was adopted with the votes of an overwhelming majority.

The resolution marks a watershed moment in modern US labor history. It is the product of grassroots action at the bottom of the US labor movement, not a directive from top leaders. The call for bringing the troops home echoes the sentiments of thousands of ordinary workers and union members, whose children and family have been called on to fight the war. A growing number, now a majority in US unions, believe the best way to protect them is to bring them home.

The war in Iraq never had much credibility as an effort to find weapons of mass destruction, since none were ever found. The administration’s claim that it is fighting to bring democracy to Iraqi people inspires a similar disbelief. After five years of administration attacks, none but the most diehard of Bush’s supporters have much faith left in his pro-democracy pronouncements.

Over the last year, however, the Iraqis themselves have provided a new way of looking at the occupation’s anti-democratic impact. American military authorities, they told US union members, have banned labor organization in oil fields, factories and other Iraqi public enterprises. Meanwhile, Bush political operatives have begun to engineer the sell off of those enterprises to foreign corporations, with a potential loss of thousands of jobs – and the income needed to rebuild the country.

“This is not liberation. It is occupation,” said Ghasib Hassan, a leader of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, one of the unions that sent its members to speak in the US. “At the beginning of the 21st century, we thought we’d seen the end of colonies, but now we’re entering a new era of colonization.”

Rapid withdrawal means more than just bringing US soldiers home. Calling for it puts American workers on the side of Iraqis, as they resist the transformation of their country for the benefit of a wealthy global elite.

The debate over Iraq highlights an important problem, however. Union members are becoming more sophisticated, and better at understanding the way global issues, from war to trade, affect the lives of people in the streets of US cities. But the percentage of union members is declining, and the organization they need to put that understanding into practice is getting smaller. Deeper political awareness alone will not change the world.

In the months leading to the convention, therefore, Iraq was not the main subject of debate in unions. In fact, it was often submerged in a much different discussion, where participants mostly talked about a crisis of survival. The proposals for changing the direction of US unions, which finally culminated in the split, had very little to do with foreign policy, and much more with the structural problems that keep unions from acting effectively.

The best local example of the issues at stake is the yearlong saga of San Francisco’s hotel workers. Inspired by the idea of unions in many cities around the country sitting down at the same time with giant hotel operators, hotel workers nationally are demanding a common expiration date for all their labor agreements – in 2006. Most have won it – San Francisco is the main holdout.

The city’s Multi Employer Group refuses to agree. They represent hotel operators, including multibillion-dollar corporations like Hilton, Intercontinental, Starwood and Hyatt, who manage hotel properties around the country and the world. They understand that if the union orms a common front of workers in city after city, they’ll be able to win a new standard of living that individual local unions can’t achieve on their own.

Hotel workers are also trying to avoid the bitter experience of grocery workers in Los Angeles two years go. There 40,000 workers struck the grocery chains of Safeway, Albertsons and Ralph’s throughout southern California for five months. In the end, however, they were forced to accept substantially lower wages and conditions because the chains kept stores open, making profits, in the rest of the country. The lesson for unions here was that regional bargaining with huge multinational companies no longer works. What was lacking was solidarity – the ability to act together.

United Airlines taught unions a similar lesson. The carrier dumped its pension plan on the Federal government earlier this year, and retirees saw their benefits slashed. The airline industry is divided up among eleven different unions (four at United alone). With such division, it’s hard for workers to win. If they all belonged to a single union, and almost all airline employees were organized, it would be much easier. Workers could refuse to accept the dismantling of the retirement system they spent decades building. If one company went bankrupt (as United threatened to do), its workers could easily be absorbed by other airlines – if there was only one union and one contract.

In wages, benefit cuts, and lost pensions, California workers have paid a high price for sticking with an outmoded way of organizing themselves. On the other hand, the San Francisco’s dockworkers' union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, beat a lockout of its members three years ago. They won because in the 1930s and 40s, the union was very smart about the same issues. Longshore workers used to be considered bums and derelicts. After the San Francisco General Strike of 1934, they won the ability to negotiate a single contract with all the shipping companies on the west coast, covering all the ports. As a result, longshore wages are now among the highest of US industrial workers. Solidarity worked.

Last year, therefore, many unions began making proposals for changing the way they operate. The discussion started in San Francisco, at SEIU’s August convention, when President Andy Stern called for deep structural change. Then, after labor lost the 2004 presidential election, the union issued a 10-point proposal called Unite To Win. It immediately stirred intense controversy, and other unions responded.

The most controversial item of the 10 points would give the AFL-CIO the authority to require small unions to merge into ones large enough to have strength to bargain and organize. The federation would also make sure that workers in the same industry would no longer be split among many unions. “Take the airline industry,” said Stern in an interveiw, “where unions are divided by craft, by companies, by union and non-union. We have to look in the mirror and be honest. When we divide the strength of workers, and we don’t have a united strategy, workers pay the price.”

Many unions disagreed violently that they should be forced to merge. Eventually, however, the debate collapsed into an argument over money. Unions who formed the Change to Win Coalition want the AFL-CIO to rebate half of the money they contribute in dues, to fund strategic campaigns to organize new members. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney (himself a former president of SEIU, and Stern’s mentor) said the federation should increase spending on organizing, but put even more into election campaigns. In reality, both sides advocated increasing the resources for both organizing and political action – the difference was over the proportion going to each.

Was the issue worth splitting the labor federation?

Eliseo Medina, vice-president of SEIU for the union’s western region, says yes. “No one is going to save us,” he said in an interview, “no politician or public official, no matter how well-intentioned. We can only save ourselves. To do that, we need to reach out and bring a lot more people into our movement. Politics is part of the solution, but we must also mobilize the millions of workers who would join a union if given the opportunity.

“We felt we need to rebate 50% of per capita back to unions willing to organize in those core industries, or about $50 million. The AFL-CIO was only willing to go as high as $15 million, with the rest of the resources allocated to politics. That was a clear-cut difference – what they proposed was just not sufficient to do the job.”

Others were not so sure. Some simply opposed dividing labor’s strength while it is under attack. But others felt the debate hadn’t gone far enough. Bill Fletcher is one of the latter. After the reform administration of John Sweeney was elected in 1995, he became the labor federation’s director of education, and later Sweeney’s assistant. Forced out over his radical politics, he’s become an outspoken critic of the slow pace of change in US unions. “Our unions suffer from a profound conservatism, a failure to recognize the kinds of changes that are going on, and therefore our need for a very visionary movement,” he said in an interview. “Most of the present leaders really should retire. They’ve made certain wrong assumptions about the politics and economics of this country. Unions are not accepted by the governing elite. They’re not accepted by capital.”

Fletcher and others argue that while fighting at high volume about the money that should go to hiring organizers or running election campaigns, there’s too little debate over direction – where labor is headed. The debate over Iraq at the AFL-CIO convention adds substance and politics to a discussion dominated by dollars and structure.

Labor needs that deeper discussion desperately. Lost, for instance, have been the high ideals of organizing and defending immigrant workers, which gave hope to millions of the undocumented after the AFL-CIO’s convention in Los Angeles in 1999. There a similar upsurge from labor’s base forced another change in basic policy onto the convention’s floor. Unions rejected their former position of support for employer sanctions, the provision of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act that makes it a federal crime for an undocumented immigrant to hold a job.

John Wilhelm, now UNITE HERE copresident, declared that supporting sanctions had been a big mistake. Others agreed. Yet today two bills are moving through Congress that would actually strengthen employer sanctions. Both would establish huge new guest worker programs, like the bracero program of the 1940s and 50s, bringing immigrants to the US under temporary visas to supply the labor needs of big corporations. Immigrant rights advocates have traditionally opposed these programs as exploitative – virtual involuntary servitude.

One of those bills, the Kennedy/McCain Bill, is being supported by some of labor’s national political operatives, with no discussion in union locals and among rank-and-file members, over its impact on labor and immigrants. Meanwhile, the most progressive immigration bill in Congress has no guest worker and beefed-up enforcement provisions. Although it’s supported by the Congressional Black Caucus, it has received almost no attention from unions.

Two years ago, UNITE HERE initiated the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. In contract negotiations, Local 2 has defended immigrant rights while demanding that hotels taking down the defacto color line against African American workers. This is the kind of change in unions many members would like to see – a real agenda based on principles, an honest attempt to put them into practice, and street heat to change the terms of a poisonous political environment in Washington.

Instead, even in progressive unions, what you get is Washington beltway deal making. As Fletcher says, debate has to get much sharper.

And in the meantime, unions in San Francisco, and its labor council, have to survive. No one knows quite what to expect, as labor gets ready for a new season of political and economic strife. San Francisco has a more difficult problem than most – Josie Mooney, the executive director of the city’s big public workers union, SEIU Local 790, is the council’s president. So far, Mooney hasn’t tendered a letter of resignation, and according to Medina, “we need to continue working together at the local and state level, and hope the AFL-CIO takes the same position.” he says.

Around the country, unions have close relationships they hardly want to cast aside. Further, most councils are very dependent on the dues income from unions who now belong to CTW. If they are forced to function without it, they’ll have to lay off staff and cut back on activity.

Councils do most of the heavy lifting during elections, like the one coming in California in November. Union members troop down to council phone banks, walk precincts at night or on weekends in mobilizations organized by councils, and even decide who are labor-friendly candidates in council meetings. In the building trades, the project labor agreements that cover giant construction projects like airports, schools and bridges are commonly signed with a council, and require participating unions to belong.

If this structure blows apart, unions have a lot to lose. As many see it, in a fight between elephants the ordinary people who do labor’s work have to avoid getting squashed. Sweeney has already issued one statement, however, which some AFL-CIO staff scornfully call “the company line.” It says unions that withdraw from the federation can’t continue to participate in local councils as full, dues-paying delegates with a vote.

Tim Paulson is waiting for the dust to settle. “I really see what will happen next as an extension of the debate we’ve had so far,” he said hopefully in a recent interview. “Our SEIU, Teamsters and UFCW locals were part of the labor movement before the convention, and they’re still our brothers and sisters now. I think we ought to offer our national leaders an anger management program.”

Working together with unions that have left the federation is not unprecedented. It happened when the Teamsters and United Auto Workers withdrew in the 1960s. The Carpenters Union, the largest union in construction, left a few years ago, and still participates in most Bay Area labor councils. The AFL-CIO-affiliated American Federation of Teachers cooperates with the independent National Education Association – in San Francisco, their two affiliates merged several years ago to form the United Educators of San Francisco.

“I think we’re just going to go on doing what we’ve always done,” Paulson predicts. “We have too much at stake in increasing solidarity among workers to throw it all on the scrapheap now.”

Unions have a good reason to keep it together. Arnie’s watching in the wings.


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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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