Okay, it's going to be official tomorrow (Monday) but you heard it here first: the United Brotherhood of Carpenters is going to join the Change To Win Coalition (The UBC's executive board meeting starts Monday, coincidentally on the same day as a meeting of the AFL-CIO's Executive Council). That puts another union with half-a-million plus members into the coalition (its website says 520,000 but the CTW is saying they have 600,000...I'm not impressed with the website's current info so who knows? Take your pick but it's a lot of folks).
This is a big deal in a variety of ways, which I'll explain in a moment. First, for our community here that is a bit less up on labor's internal historical soap opera, here's a bit of background. The Carpenters left the AFL-CIO in March 2001, long before the current rage of unions threatening to bolt from the Federation. Back then, its president, Doug McCarron, basically leveled the same charges against the AFL-CIO that are now the main focus of the CTW coalition's arguments: the labor movement was not doing enough to organize new members and the AFL-CIO was a moribund institution wasting money on an ineffective bureaucracy. John Sweeney has made a number of attempts to get the Carpenters back--with no success.
The weird thing is that the Carpenters continue to belong to the Federation's Building and Construction Trades Department (BCTD). If you look at the description of the Carpenters on the BCTD website, it doesn't even mention that the Carpenters are not part of the AFL-CIO. Over the past few years, a variety of resolutions and threats and negotiations have volleyed back and forth between the Carpenters and AFL-CIO Executive Council about the Carpenters relationship with the BCTD.
And, as of today, the Carpenters still belong to the BCTD because no one wanted to have a complete break...though that may change real quick. More recently, Sweeney has said that if the Carpenters don't come back into the Federation by the July AFL-CIO convention, they'll be kicked out of the BCTD. To which McCarron recently said in so many words, according to a well-placed source, "Well, fine, we stopped paying per capita taxes to the BCTD." And, you may remember the memo I posted from Sweeney regarding the ability of disaffiliated unions to remain inside the Federation's central labor bodies; the poke was probably aimed at the current insurgents, particularly SEIU, but it tracks the tiff with the Carpenters, too.
So, why does this matter?
1. Numbers. Adding a union with a half-million new members gives the Change To Win folks more heft. And there's been some tantalizing notion that the National Education Association, the big momma of all unions at 2.7 million members, might join up, too. I wouldn't bet on it yet (and this site has already seen thousand dollar bets being thrown around), but even without the NEA, the Coalition is beginning to build a large enough constituency where it could, at some point, equal or surpass the non-Coalition members total. Remember, except for the Carpenters, the coalition members have not disaffiliated from the Federation--yet. But, if the coalition begins to quack like a new Federation, and can even swim like a new Federation, some folks might have fewer qualms about jumping ship.
2. Intensifying the Critique: McCarron is no Johnny-Come-Lately to the critique of the Sweeney Administration. And he can show others what leaving the AFL-CIO did for his union--since going it alone, the Carpenters have completely restructured the union, hiring 700 organizers (which is far more than some unions have that are twice the size of the Carpenters) and bringing in millions by renovating and leasing out their big Edifice right near Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. He also hired Richard Bensinger as an organizing consultant--the man who Sweeney fired as the Federation's organizing director after Bensinger relentlessly criticized affiliates for failing to do much in the way of organizing (alert: since Richard is a friend, I acknowledge that I may have a biased view of that chapter, though none of the information on this new development comes from him).
3. It Makes Some Others Real Nervous. So, let's say I'm one of the leaders of the other unions in the building trades (say, Sheet Metal Workers or Painters). Here's what I start thinking: three major unions in my industry are in this coalition-- Carpenters, Laborers and Teamsters--totaling 2.8 million members. "Damn, what happens if they all do end up setting up a new Federation--and organizing in my turf? Sure, I'm supporting Sweeney now but if the Federation is running deficits, might have a whole lot less money if the biggies walk and if the eight cent permanent per capita increase resolution goes south at the convention...am I on the right side or should we try to work out a deal?"
In many ways, the insurgents have a very strong hand to play, even though they lack the votes--today--to get an alternative candidate elected head of the AFL-CIO and make the changes they've argued for. They can keep applying the pressure internally, while, at the same time, keep broadening the Change To Win coalition. If the coalition survives for the long-haul and makes progress, the coalition members could disaffiliate any time--or avoid the emotional step of severing ties to the AFL-CIO and simply lessen their involvement in the AFL-CIO, keep a token level of membership and treat the AFL-CIO has a sideshow.
As I've pointed out before, Sweeney has the votes to be re-elected president--today. But, the convention isn't today. And between the large looming questions about the AFL-CIO's financial condition and some unions worrying they could lose members to a newly-formed labor federation, it still *could* get interesting.