Both Restructuring & Member Involvement Needed

Authors’ Note: Our views are not the official position of our union, the Health Professionals and Allied Employees/AFT, but they are broadly consistent with the position taken by the union’s leadership.

By "calling the question" about how the labor movement responds to its current crisis, the Service Employees union has done us a great service.

In the following, we analyze the SEIU proposal and present an alternative perspective shaped by our vision of a democratic, politically progressive labor movement, but also by our experiences in working for a union representing primarily health care professionals in New Jersey.


We agree with SEIU that there is a crisis in the labor movement, and we agree that the fragmentation of unions, inter-union competition, and the trend toward “general unionism”—the tendency of unions to organize and bargain in many unrelated sectors—are severely damaging to the labor movement.

We have direct experience with that problem in the New Jersey hospital industry, where seven unions represent registered nurses and 10 unions represent hospital workers as a whole. There is virtually no coordination among those unions. There are no joint organizing campaigns. Because there is no effort to line up contract expiration dates and take a unified approach in bargaining, we are limited in our ability to establish high standards of wages, benefits, and conditions. Our political clout is diminished.

SEIU is correct in arguing that realignment and greater coordination of the labor movement will not occur because national unions agree to do it on a purely voluntary basis. The structure, politics, and practices of the U.S. labor movement encourage, instead, a narrow, self-interested way of functioning by all unions, placing severe obstacles in the way of unity.




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At the same time, we have significant disagreements with SEIU’s approach. While there are several references to democracy and membership involvement in the SEIU plan, union democracy and membership involvement are not key elements of SEIU’s reorganization plan, which focuses instead on structural deficiencies in the labor movement.

We think this a big mistake. Although many SEIU locals encourage rank-and-file involvement, SEIU’s approach is top-down: for them, labor’s revitalization will be initiated when a small group of national union leaders decides to cut up the jurisdictional pie into fewer, larger pieces. We believe that, to develop a feasible plan to change labor, we need to get input from all levels of the union movement (rank-and-file activists, local leaders, national officers) through a wide-ranging, inclusive discussion of the crisis that we’re facing.

More broadly, a lack of membership involvement and union democracy is as serious an obstacle to labor’s revitalization as are structural deficiencies. To the extent that our union, HPAE, has been successful in bargaining, organizing, and politics, it is because we constantly engage our members in collective activity.

Whether it was the persistent lobbying efforts of hundreds of our members in support of a ban on mandatory overtime for New Jersey health care workers or our aggressive membership mobilization during our coordinated bargaining campaign last year, we know that membership involvement and rank-and-file leadership are the keys to our success.

There are other problems with SEIU’s approach. While its 10 principles recognize the need for international solidarity and the importance of diversity and equality, these are subordinate to the priority goal of changing labor’s structure.

In addition, SEIU’s proposals don’t adequately recognize dramatic changes in the economy and workplace which demand that we develop new forms of unionism as part of a multi-faceted, long-term strategy to organize workers in industries and occupations with low union density, particularly in the right-to-work states. Given the weakness of U.S. labor law, we must provide resources for non-majority unions, worker assistance centers, associate membership programs, and other organizations that can serve as a “bridge” to unionism.


Proposals for labor’s revitalization have to address both the need for restructuring (mergers, increased coordination, etc.), as well as union democracy and members’ involvement. At the same time, we must go beyond business unionism by embracing equality and diversity; building a movement for international workers’ solidarity; and experimenting with new forms of unionism. The following are proposals based on these core ideas.

  • Realign unions to consolidate the number of unions per jurisdiction or bargaining structure. Revise Articles XX and XXI and establish financial incentives/disincentives to encourage mergers and/or transfer of members between unions. Where more than one union represents workers in a jurisdiction or bargaining structure, create a mandatory bargaining council and mandatory, joint organizing project as part of a plan to build density in that jurisdiction or bargaining structure.
  • Give the AFL-CIO authority to facilitate the reorganization and greater coordination of unions by facilitating mergers, establishing bargaining councils and joint organizing projects, and establishing standards for participation in these projects. The standards will deal with minimum, mandatory resources provided by unions for organizing, membership mobilization, and cooperation with other unions. The AFL-CIO’s authority will be based on a combination of internal rules and financial incentives/disincentives.
  • Reorganize state federations and central labor councils so that their focus is on building power through coordinating the work of unions in the following areas: state- and area-wide bargaining councils/joint organizing projects, strike support activities, coalitions with progressive groups around “issue” campaigns (like the living wage), and political/lobbying activity. The work of the state federations and central labor councils needs to be consistent with the national agenda.
  • Build power in low-density jurisdictions, particularly right-to-work states. Unions need to put aside the concept of “return on investment” and spend the money necessary for long-term survival without any likelihood of gaining short-term financial benefits from increased dues. Unions need to establish worker centers to provide day-to-day assistance on employment issues (workers’ comp, health and safety), create alternative forms of membership, and build issue-based political alliances with progressive community groups to create a long-term presence for unionism in these areas.
  • Establish standards that guarantee members’ democratic rights, create real opportunities for members to have a say in their unions’ activities, and ensure the ultimate control of their unions by the membership. We need to have a “Code of Conduct and Responsibility” for leaders that promotes democracy and transparency, limits the economic gap between leaders and members, and curtails bureaucratization.
  • Expand efforts to bring women and people of color fully into the labor movement. Focus leadership development programs on women and people of color, and prioritize bargaining issues of particular relevance to women and people of color.
  • Build stronger alliances with unions outside the United States, as well as non-union labor groups opposed to the negative effects of globalization. Put more emphasis on worker-to-worker contacts across borders and solidarity efforts with progressive groups.
  • Make quality health care for all and labor law reform (including achieving collective bargaining rights for public employees in the 22 states that don’t provide such rights) the labor movement’s two key legislative priorities.