Staying Power | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Staying Power

Despite divorce and defection at the AFL-CIO, local unions want to keep the family close



Nobody knew what would happen locally when three dissident unions pulled out of America's largest labor organization, the AFL-CIO, at the group's Chicago convention in July. Among other complaints, the so-called "Change To Win" coalition -- which includes the Service Employees International Union, the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers, plus three other unions who haven't defected -- said the AFL-CIO was spending too much money on political campaigns, and not enough to organize new members.



"Everybody's just holding their breath," says Rich Stanizzo, business manager for the Pittsburgh Building and Construction Trades Council. "So far, we're acting like it's not happened."


Local labor leaders say Pittsburgh's cross-union ties are strong, thanks in part to the city's rich labor history. They'll keep their focus on Pittsburgh's rank-and-file workers, not the squabbles of national muckety-mucks, like the dramatic and personally charged fight between AFL-CIO head John J. Sweeney and SEIU president (and former Sweeney protégé) Andy Stern. But whether locals like it or not, the national split could cause fallout at home, particularly in local unions' collaborative organizing, politics, public relations and even a Pittsburgh-based construction fund.



Stanizzo was not pleased that the three unions jumped ship. "The only way you can change things is by being in the game," he says. "You can't take your ball and go home." He would know: One of his building-trades affiliates, the International Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, left the AFL-CIO in 2001. Sure, there's a philosophical difference between the factions, Stanizzo grants, but "you've got personalities and egos in the mix, too."


Among local leaders of the defecting unions, there's also a sense that something had to be done to fix organized labor before union membership declines any further. The Change To Win unions reportedly wanted more AFL-CIO dues to go to member organizing and less to political action.


Charles Byrnes, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 926, agrees.


Byrnes came into the labor movement as a 17-year-old trucker more than four decades ago. "In the '60s things were good for labor," he recalls. "We had strong political influence and we were sitting on our hands. We had Kennedy in office: Camelot is here again."


Today, knights of labor are scarcer: It was widely reported after the AFL-CIO split that the percentage of the American private-sector workforce in unions was down from a 1960s high of 30 percent to just 8 percent today. As manufacturing plants -- and union jobs -- move overseas, organizers have to run to stand still.


In the Pittsburgh metro region, the numbers are slightly higher but show a similar decline, according to a University of Pittsburgh study by economist Chris Briem: As late as 1987, about 31 percent of manufacturing workers were organized, or 18 percent of all private-sector employees. By 2004, unionization in manufacturing was down to 16 percent, while overall private-sector unionization was just 9.5 percent. This places Pittsburgh -- home to the convention that founded the AFL in 1881 -- at lucky number 13 among the 25 largest metro areas. (Detroit tops the list with 19.3 percent; Dallas comes in last with 2.7 percent.)


Last fall, Western Pennsylvania rank-and-file members from a broad union coalition participated in a huge get-out-the-vote effort modeled on an old-school block-captain strategy. The result was discouraging, notes Greater Pennsylvania Carpenters' President John A. Brooks: "The biggest fallout is $100 million against Bush and [Kerry] lost. Why are you putting money into this?"


Politics and organizing go together, Byrnes says, but he wants much more of the latter: "The laws in this country are not favorable to workers, but that doesn't mean you can't organize.


"Unions will never be able to throw as much money at politicians as corporations. When we had 30 percent before, it wasn't our money that counted, it was our votes."



Locally, the first concern isn't the political implications of the split, but the practical ones.


Labor leaders including Stanizzo worry that locals whose unions left might also have to leave the AFL-CIO's home "branches," the Pennsylvania Labor Council and the Allegheny County Labor Council. These organizations are locally funded by unions to collaborate on political, organizing and community service projects (and the annual Labor Day Parade).


The AFL-CIO's national constitution bars nonaffiliated unions -- i.e., the defectors -- from participating in the local councils. If that rule is enforced, the councils' budgets would take a hit and members of the defecting unions might have to resign local leadership posts.


Vince Larence, one of several Allegheny County Labor Council vice presidents, may have to go. Larence is public affairs director for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 23, which represents Giant Eagle workers, among others. "We've received letters [from the AFL-CIO] saying that as a union that's disaffiliated we shouldn't be attending any labor council meetings," Larence says.


As for the Building Trades, says Stanizzo, "Teamsters and Laborers, if they pull out, that's 25-30 percent of our council."


At first, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney insisted that these unions couldn't be in locally but out nationally. At press time, Sweeney had floated a compromise proposal to allow defecting unions to stay in the local councils if they paid a 10 percent surcharge in their local council dues, according to an AFL-CIO press release. In a statement, Change to Win spokesperson Anna Burger described the suggestion as only "the rhetoric of unity."


In or out, pledges ACLC President Jack Shea, "It's not gonna change the way we represent the workers. We're here to protect them."


Arguably, it's rank-and-file members of departing unions -- many of them economically vulnerable low-wage service workers -- who need county-wide solidarity most.


Most of the defecting unions aren't in "old labor" businesses such as steel, machining and mining. The largest defector -- the Service Employees International Union -- is the virtual definition of post-industrial labor. Another dissident union that hasn't yet defected, UNITE-HERE, represents hotel and restaurant workers. Even at union scale, these employees typically make less than tradesmen or manufacturing workers. And despite their macho image, the Teamsters include a lot of service workers, such as the local parking attendants (who are currently in contract negotiations).


The SEIU, in particular, has gotten help from other unions in its so-called "Justice for Janitors" organizing campaigns here and elsewhere. Organizing and improving wages and job security for janitors is difficult: Unlike a factory workforce, janitors are usually employed by subcontractors, not building owners. To save money, a manager can dump the subcontractor and hire one that pays workers less -- usually a "market rate" of about $6 without benefits, rather than a union rate of about $10 per hour plus health insurance.

In early 2004, when exactly this scenario played out at the Centre City Tower Downtown, nine SEIU janitors lost their jobs. SEIU's first line of defense was community pressure. Over four months, SEIU staged several large demonstrations at Centre City Tower; in late January, four people offered themselves up for arrest on trespassing charges, including three clergymen and Jack Shea, president of the Allegheny County Labor Council.


Despite the split at the top of the AFL-CIO, Shea says, "If I gotta get arrested for them again, I'll get arrested for them. I'm not kidding."



Even if AFL-CIO defections don't shake the house of labor locally, there's a chance it could cause some scrambling around the houses that labor's building.


Several construction projects -- including the Armstrong Cork Factory renovations -- are underway locally thanks in part to the Employee Real Estate Construction Trust (ERECT) Fund. ERECT invests in construction projects with union pension money, under the condition that projects are built with union labor.


About 10 percent of ERECT contributions come from the Greater Pennsylvania Regional Council of Carpenters, says the Building Trades' Stanizzo. The Carpenters left the AFL-CIO four years ago but have still been able to contribute to ERECT. Stanizzo worries that the recent split could keep the "Change to Win" coalition from contributing to this fund -- and jeopardize the arrangement with the Carpenters.


Stanizzo is hoping for a compromise. "They can't afford to force it," he says of the split. "History has shown that when those ties have been broken, it takes years to put them back together." c

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