Jonathan Cutler and Thaddeus Russell: Workers of the World ... Disunite!

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Cutler is a professor of sociology at Wesleyan University and the author of 'Labor's Time: Shorter Hours, the UAW, and the Struggle for American Unionism.' Thaddeus Russell is a professor of history at Barnard College and the author of 'Out of the Jungle: Jimmy Hoffa and the Remaking of the American Working Class.']

The growing rift between insurgents in the AFL-CIO and the leadership of the labor federation looks increasingly like civil war....

The heyday of organized labor in America, from the split of the CIO from the AFL in 1935 until the merger in 1955, occurred during another civil war within the labor movement. These were the years when organized labor constituted a vibrant movement full of drama and passion that inspired a generation of labor activists.

As unions battled for the allegiance of workers the rival federations grew exponentially, labor's story was headline news, and union membership reached its high point in American history.

Although today's feuding union factions and most friends of organized labor lament the competition, history suggests that it is essential for the revitalization of American labor. A labor movement in which dueling organizations are forced to compete for the support of potential members can provide workers with the leverage necessary to force union leaders to be accountable to the interests of their members. In a competitive environment, a union leader who does not deliver the goods - higher wages, shorter hours, better benefits, and improved working conditions - risks losing out to a more responsive rival.

In many countries around the world, employers dread the rising expectations unleashed by union competition. Now, business leaders in the US will face a labor movement as divided - and vigorous - as the Canadian, French, Spanish, Korean, and Argentinian labor movements.

A leading law firm that advises US employers on handling labor issues recently published a report on the labor feud here in which it predicted, "For employers with unions from both competing factions at their facilities, competition for better wages, benefits and other terms and conditions of employment is likely."

Competition among unions leads not only to the creation of better options for the already organized rank and file, but also to the organization of new industries as unions animated by the rivalry generate enthusiasm among the unorganized. Employees participating in union representation elections have been far more likely to vote for union representation over "no union"
when the election involves more than one union vying for workers. Rivalry has also forced down initiation fees and union dues. When unions compete, workers win.

The 1955 merger of the AFL and the CIO all but eliminated competition among unions. For nearly 50 years, the AFL-CIO has operated like a one-party state. There can be no more fitting way to celebrate the anniversary of labor's unification than to end it.

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