The spin-offs from the AFL-CIO last week might have caused a small sigh of relief in corporate boardrooms across America.
Three words come to mind: not so fast.
The departure of large member unions (including the Service Employees International and the Teamsters) from the AFL-CIO was well-chronicled (see the NY Times view). It was particularly embarrassing for president John Sweeney, since it happened on the eve of the union’s 50th anniversary. Mr. Sweeney was not in a fraternal mood:
â€œPulling out of our convention dishonors the founders and the members of my union,â€ Sweeney said to loud applause. â€œIt is a grievous insult to all the unions who helped usâ€”and to the unions in this hall who came here to discuss and debate the difficult issues and make historic changes.â€
Sweeney, 71, was elected to another four year term as AFL-CIO president. He ran unopposed.
So corporate America might stand back and think: “what’s not to like?”
Well, the main reason for the break-up wasn’t a feeling from the departing unions that membership had outlived its usefulness. Rather, it was a view that the AFL-CIO was more interested in political maneuvering than grass-roots organizing. According to the New York Times, leadership of these breakaway unions think that:
Millions of workers, they say, are ripe for labor’s message because of stagnating wages for ordinary workers, declining benefits, growing insecurity on the job, and a sense that the haves are leaving the have-nots further behind. Moreover, workers in the low-wage service sector are disproportionately women, immigrants and members of minority groups that have all been traditionally more open to unionization.
Thus management perceiving AFL-CIO’s troubles as a decline in union influence are probably reading the tea leaves wrong.
Unions flourished over the years for many reasons. But if business today wants their employees to see unions as an historical relic, at a minimum it needs to listen and make worker concerns and communication a priority. Whole Foods Market has done this recently.
Unions may use corporate campaigns (via Hughes Hubbard) or check card recognition (via Brown Raysman) to gain a foothold against an unwary employer. Whatever the strategy, the management distraction and long-term cost are not part of any sound strategic plan. The Economist reports that unionization campaigns against Wal-Mart, Comcast, Clear Channel and Toyota are planned.
When a union gains a new foothold in a business, it doesn’t matter whether it’s AFL-CIO or not.
It’s SNA-FU any way you look at it.