If a moribund political movement fell on its face, would it make a sound? Apparently so, if the hubbub over this week's breakup of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)—widely trumpeted as the largest split in the labor movement since the 1930s—is any indication. When the Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) belatedly announced that their failure to show up for the AFL-CIO's Chicago conference this week was more than just an extended coffee break, few missed the event's significance. The future of American labor now hangs in the balance, and the big losers will almost surely be the union-dependent politicians of the Democratic party. Katrina Vanden Heuvel, beloved editor of The Nation, describes the split as a regrettable but probably necessary step needed to rejuvenate a labor movement "that can provide an organized and intelligent moral center to a majoritarian progressive politics—the folks who brought you the weekend, the eight-hour day, and so much else that makes this country (almost) civilized." (In solemn witness to these lofty ideals, the first question put to SEIU president Andrew L. Stern after he made his announcement was about the money he still owes to the AFL-CIO.)
All these characterizations are almost certainly wrong. To say the fate of American labor is at stake when less than eight percent of the private-sector work force is unionized is like saying a major rift among third-party supporters threatens the workings of the American political system. The Democrats, if anything will have their hands strengthened by the union split. And while the defectors in the so-called Change To Win Coalition (CTWC) (in addition to the SEIU and Teamsters, the dissidents include the United Food and Commercial Workers, Laborers, and UNITE HERE, a collection of textile, hotel, and restaurant employees) do recognize the need for change, the story of the AFL-CIO split is like the tale of this summer's box-office "slump"—an attempt to make a sensible short-term story out of a decline that's happening in geologic time.
The death of organized labor has been going on now for more than 40 years. It has proceeded under liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, in boom times and bust, through every change in work environments, job types, and worker demographics. In 1978, the last year union membership increased at all, 23 million workers were unionized; that figure had dropped to about 16 million in 2004. (During the same period, the U.S. population grew from 222 million to 295 million.) This has happened despite ample legal protections for workers and very creative efforts to keep union membership high. (The departure of the member-rich, achievement-poor SEIU, which is able to extort union dues from new employees in what are generally high-turnover jobs, is a particularly heavy blow to the AFL-CIO.)
Lefty holdouts like What's the Matter With Kansas? author Tom Frank can blame this trend on workers too stupid to know their own interests, and labor stalwarts can blame it on Pinkertons rafting down the river. (The popular explanation that Republicans starting with Ronald Reagan declared war on unions and gutted labor laws is a souped-up version of both claims.) But this trend is bigger than any politician or union boss. Fewer Americans work in jobs that easily lend themselves to union organization, and those who do have found unions are not meeting their needs (undoubtedly in part because labor behemoths like the AFL-CIO spend so much time fussing in electoral politics). If people don't want to come, Yogi Berra noted, nobody's gonna stop 'em.
As for the scenario in which the labor schism hurts the Democratic party: This is founded largely on the amount of money labor contributes to the Democrats. Since 1989, unions have kicked in half a billion dollars to the party and its candidates. One of the CTWC's goals is to get the umbrella organization to divert more money from political campaigns into organization efforts. The SEIU pointedly gave $750,000 to the Republican Governors Association in 2004, and the Teamsters' endorsement of Kerry was so lukewarm as to be almost a non-endorsement. Dems should fear that they no longer have organized labor in the bag, or so the conventional wisdom says.
But with the unions in chaos and virtually no prospect that the Republicans will listen to their message, the Democrats are freer to act in their own interests and ignore labor demands. In particular, the "New Democrats" who provided the party's brain power in the 1990s have long been looking for a way to break the party free of the constraints of labor, which gives the party money but costs it elections. Is there any doubt, for example, that the pro-CAFTA Democrats are now at liberty to ignore yesterday's threat from the AFL-CIO? Nobody watching the way California's teachers unions have made mincemeat of Governor Schwarzenegger's budget plans can doubt that unions remain potent political weapons; but Republicans still have the most to fear from those weapons. However the Democrats end up reinventing themselves, the back-to-back labor-indebted candidacies of Al Gore and John Kerry should provide a clear message: Two generations of imbeciles is enough; nobody need attend to a dying labor movement.
Of course, the hope for the labor dissidents isn't that they'll free up the Democrats but that they'll reverse the downward long-term trends of the American labor movement. A willingness to break apart the labor behemoth is an encouraging sign, and there's nothing inherently wrong with workers pooling their resources in order to negotiate better contracts. Whether the CTWC, with its New Deal–era fondness for awkward acronyms, sees the future is another matter. But they could start by recognizing that this is now a free-agent nation. If there's a model for labor negotiations in the future, it's the model of the Major League Baseball Player's Association, which works out very bare-bones collective agreements featuring salary basements and basic work rules and benefits, but doesn't punish high achievers for the good of the benchwarmers. Unions have been grotesquely slow to learn the benefits of flexibility in the workplace. A strategy for the lumpenproletariat has no future in a country where even the fattest of fat slobs like to think of themselves as all-stars.