Without exception, Chicago is home to the richest history of labor in the United States. Its downtown contains literally hundreds of notable sites relevant to the struggle of working class people for more than 150 years. Chicago was the seminal site, in 1886, of the struggle for the eight hour work day – a struggle which resulted in the execution of four innocent labor activists and the creation of an internationally recognized holiday, May Day. Chicago was also the site of one of the most important strikes in American history, the Pullman strike, which was led by the fiery socialist and populist, Eugene V. Debs. In 1905, when the radical syndicalists of the Ind! ustrial Workers of the World (IWW) needed a city to host their first convention, Chicago was their choice. Chicago was also the organizing turf of A. Philip Randolph, the courageous labor unionist who tirelessly organized African American sleeping car porters. And finally, it is the city that provided the setting for Upton Sinclair’s brilliant exposé of the brutal conditions of the meat packing industry, The Jungle.

These are only some of the highlights of Chicago’s prominent place in the struggle for economic justice which has been fought for centuries by working people of all genders, races, and ethinicities. With such a prominent place, then, it should come as no surprise that the American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the United States’ largest unbrella labor organization, would, like the IWW did 100 years earlier, choose Chicago as the site of its Constitutional Convention. But unlike the wobblies, this convention was to mark the 50th anniversary of the AFL-CIO. It was to be an historic celebration of the solidarity and unity of the American labor movement.! And as it happened, the convention did indeed mark an historic moment in the history of organized labor, thereby contributing substantially to Chicago’s heritage and reputation as the American labor movement’s center of gravity. The convention was certainly historic, but not for solidarity, unity, or what happened inside the Exhibition Halls of Navy Pier, where it was held. It was historic, rather, for what happened outside the convention’s walls.

On July 25, 2005, two of the largest and strongest member unions of the AFL-CIO ended a nine month debate about the future of the labor movement in the United States and voted to break ranks with the federation. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents over 1.8 million workers, and the Teamsters which represents another 1.3 million, both publicly disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO on the opening day of its convention citing irreconcilable differences in principles and strategies to acheive security and fairness for working people everywhere. A new labor coalition has been formed, Change to Win, which will challenge the pre-eminence of the AFL-CIO as American labor’s vanguard organization. Adding to the controversy, three other major unions, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the United Farm Workers (UFW), and UNITE HERE rebelled against the AFL by boycotting the convention and joining the Change to Win coalition spearheaded by SEIU and the Teamsters. Although none of these three have formally disaffiliated from the federation, the revolt against the status quo of organized labor in the United States could not have been made at a more prescient time or with more emphasis.

Continuous economic and political blows have been rattling the ailing American labor movement for decades. Not only is union membership down in this country, it is way down. In fact, when the AFL-CIO was founded 50 years ago, 1 in 3 workers belonged to a union. Now 9 out of 10 workers have no union representation in the workplace. Free trade policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the newly passed Central American Free Trade Agreement, which allow transnational corporations to shift production to countries with little or no respect for workers’ rights, have meant, and will continue to mean, the loss of important union jobs in the United States. Thus far, unions have not been able to muster the international solidarity necessary to combat the onslaught of corporate globalization. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the governmental agency which is responsible for protecting the rights of working people to form a union, is recognized by everyone within the union movement as a bureacratic slug that is more beneficial to employers than to workers. Right to Work legislation, which has made organizing a union more difficult in many states, has severly hampered the labor movement’s ability to grow. And finally, there is Bush. If anything has symbolized the decline of the labor movement in the United States, it has been the re-election of one of the most rabidly anti-worker administrations in modern history. Although organized labor was effective in mobilizing its members to vote last election – union households accounted for 24 percent of all votes and of those votes there was a 5.8 million vote majority for John Kerry – in the end, the effort failed and Bush was returned to office for another 4-year term of assaulting the rights of working people.

There have been some bright spots amidst these dark anti-union clouds, however. The service employees, SEIU, has been able to increase their membership by 900,000 over the past nine years. They have grown to be the largest, most diverse, and most powerful union in the United States and they have done so through intensive organizing campaigns, shrewd political dealings and industry-wide collective bargaining. It is little wonder then that SEIU and another successful union, the Teamsters, would decide to abandon the sinking ship of the AFL-CIO which has been unable to successfully react to corporate America’s attack on organized labor.

Enter the Change to Win Coalition, the SEIU-led rival to the AFL-CIO, which emphasizes putting more of labor’s money towards organizing new members and the elimination of cross-sector unionism, that is, unions organizing workers outside their core industries. According to members of the Change to Win coalition, having the United Steel Workers organize health care workers makes little, if any, sense because the USW does not possess the industry specific experience, understanding, or strategy to win health care workers the best possible deal. Likewise the Service Employees would be ill equipped to provide steelworkers with the best possible representation. Althoug! h some advocates of this cross-sector organizing believe that competition between unions gives workers a choice for their preferred representatives, the Change to Win coalition argues that such organizing creates division within the movement and diminishes the power of unions to bargain collectively with such corporate titans as Wal-Mart. It is through large, consolidated unions that organized labor can challenge the corporate bohemoths, not through small, employer-specific locals. Anne Burger, Chair of the Change to Win Coalition, has articulated the plan of the new group: ‘industry-wide organizing, coordinated bargaining, and political action aligned with aggresive organizing campaigns’.

The AFL-CIO has not taken lightly the decision of two of its largest unions to defect. Indeed the federation will now lose some $20 million from dues paid by SEIU and the Teamsters. The AFL has hit back at the members of the Change to Win coalition claiming that their split with the federation is fueled more by an obsession with personal power than with real change. President of the AFL-CIO, John Sweeney, whose re-election at the convention was cause for concern for many in the Change to Win Coalition, has been very receptive to the idea of spending more of the AFL’s resources on organizing and has already done his part to substantially increase the federation’s expen! ditures in this very area. He sees the differences that exist between the rival factions as narrower than some would like to believe and he understands the rebellion to be an attempt at a power grab by some union leaders, especially Andy Stern, President of SEIU, the union for which, ironically, Sweeney served as President before taking the reins at the AFL in 1995. “It is far easier to tear down a union movement that to build one. America’s working people cannot afford for unions to declare ‘it’s my way or the highway’ when workers are under the biggest assualt in 80 years.” He said. Other prominent members of the AFL-CIO like Larry Cohen, Executive Vice President of the Communication Workers of America (CWA) say that the Change to Win coalition has got the strategy of organized labor backwards. He point! s to the larger anti-union political-legal structure of American society as the number one priority. “In CWA, we think that the issue is the virtual elimination of collective bargaining rights and the linkage between those rights and any modern democracy. Our union identified that as a the critical crisis more that fifteen years ago, when we helped start Jobs with Justice and put enormous effort into building it…The primary crisis is not about union membership. We reject that. The crisis is about American workers’ right to join and build unions.”

To an outside observer, the debates raging within the American labor movement may seem to lack clarity as in-fighting over strategic details and personal power struggles sometimes muddy the substantive waters of a defined platform. Yet interestingly enough, the debates happening now contain some echoes of debates that were had in 1905 when the IWW held their own constitutional convention in Chicago. It was at this time that labor leaders like Mother Jones, Bill Haywood, and Eugene Debs advocated for industry-wide orga! nization, or One Big Union, to build working class power to fight the giant monopolies of the time. But labor’s current debate is fundamentally different from those had in the early 1900s in that the split from the AFL-CIO, and the AFL-CIO itself, both lack the social-revolutionary ideology that fueled the IWW constitutional process. In fact, it is difficult to sift through the positions of both factions today and find any ideologically consistent idea of what the strategy and mission of organized labor should be. Although labor’s dramatic decline in numbers and political failures have, ostensibly, precipitated the current crisis, it is hard to ascertain which direction either side will take in pushing the overall movement forward and whether or not this split will be beneficial to workers in the United States and elsewhere. On the Change to Win side of things, there is very little to suggest a definable platform. They speak of spending more money on organizing, but this is something that most labor leaders already agree about. They speak of industry-wide organizing, yet one their largest member unions is the Teamsters who are notorious for cross-sector organizing, something that they have not said they will discontinue. They speak of the AFL-CIO as being too close to the democratic party and suggest working more with labor friendly republicans. It is hard to imagine just how working with republicans can in the long term help to grow the labor movement in the United States. They talk about building the power of unions and consolidating locals but in! doing so may be sacrificing the kind of democracy that the labor movement is all about. And as for the AFL-CIO side of the debate, it is yet to be seen how the federation will react to the loss of two of its largest and most important unions. Clearly, it cannot continue as it has for the past 50 years. International political economy and labor markets are changing in ways that require a response. Whether this response comes in the form of a change in the internal structure of the AFL or whether it comes in a shift in strategy is a question that remains to be answered. Certainly, the loss of revenue, not to mention the enormous loss of membership, that accompanies the defection of SEIU and the Teamsters will have some ! impact on the structure of the federation. But exactly what it will do to answer the needs of the global economy and the challenge of the Change to Win Coalition is what those of us in the labor movement will be looking for in the coming months and years. By Edward Ellis

Walking throught the streets of downtown Chicago is in many ways similar to walking through the urban center of any major American metropolis. There are towering skyscrapers, bustling sidewalks, cacophonic taxis, and luring shop windows rife with all the fanfare of corporate semiotics. And as with other cities, much of life here takes place under the constant gaze of million dollar billboards, purposefully designed to make ordinary folks feel small and inadequate in the face of perfect people with perfect lives and perfect things. But beneath the capitalist chauvinism of the multinational banks and the fast food chains that line the streets of Chicago, there exi! sts another narrative of this city that has been buried by the slavish consciousness typical of a fast-paced and competitive, 21st century American city.