NC unions on both sides of labor fight see need for change
Events in Chicago last week sent a ripple through central North Carolina Piedmont union halls as a Teamster local president in Greensboro sought to explain to rank-and-file union members why his union walked out of the AFL-CIO, and a small-town mayor in Randolph County looked upon Teamsters’ defection as a knife blade cutting through the heart of the labor movement.
‘“We’re shaking things up,’” said Chip Roth, an international representative for the Teamsters union who is based in Greensboro. ‘“We believe that for the labor movement to succeed we have to focus on organizing. We believe our decision represents a vision of building new opportunities for working people to succeed in the face of globalization and corporate control that is lowering people’s living standards.’”
The Teamsters, who represent thousands of North Carolina workers, including employees of Roadway in Kernersville, Gilbarco factory workers in Greensboro and United Parcel Service drivers, announced their withdrawal from the AFL-CIO on July 25. The Teamsters, who represent 1.4 million workers, were joined by the 1.8 million member-strong Service Employees International Union. And on July 29, the United Food and Commercial Workers union joined the Teamsters and service workers in walking out, withdrawing another 1.4 million members from the AFL-CIO. The three unions’ combined memberships represent a loss of more than a third of the labor federation’s membership.
The Teamsters, the service workers and the Food and Commercial Workers, who are part of the dissident Change to Win Coalition, decided to break from the AFL-CIO because the federation was unable to meet the unions’ demand to shift resources from political campaigning to workplace organizing. Another union, UNITE HERE boycotted the AFL-CIO convention in Chicago, but has not elected to disaffiliate with the federation. The Change to Win Coalition also includes the Carpenters union, the United Farm Workers and the Laborers union, whose president said on July 25 that the union would engage in a ‘“serious discussion with its leadership and members about its place in the AFL-CIO.’”
In a July 28 interview Roth said that Teamsters Local 391 President Jack Cipriani, who lives in Rockingham County, plans to write a letter to rank-and-file members outlining plans for a new labor organization made up of the dissident unions. He added that the organization plans to hold its founding convention sometime this fall. Cipriani formerly served on the 16-member AFL-CIO Executive Council where much of the debate over the labor federation’s direction took place, Roth said.
The walkout by the Teamsters and the service workers is the most significant rupture in the labor movement since the Congress of Industrial Organizations broke from the more conservative American Federation of Labor in the 1930s and undertook aggressive organizing efforts among industrial workers during the Great Depression. The two organizations merged in 1955, making this year’s convention the organization’s 50th anniversary.
Roth suggested the Change to Win Coalition has inherited the legacy of the old CIO.
‘“It will function more in the mold of the CIO prior to the time it merged with the AFL ‘— to provide resources for strategic initiatives for national organizing efforts of large non-union corporations like Wal-Mart and FedEx,’” he said. ‘“It is important that the coalition has the resources to function, and the Teamsters will contribute to support a core staff to initiate these strategic organizing efforts, unlike the AFL-CIO bureaucracy that has failed to generate innovative organizing efforts.’”
Meanwhile, Hampton Spivey, president of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1902 in Charlotte, reacted to news of the Teamsters and service workers’ disaffiliation from the AFL-CIO with distress. The IBEW has committed to remaining in the labor federation.
‘“I don’t see how it can happen to us,’” he said. ‘“It might be the end of us. It has the potential to destroy the labor movement.’”
Spivey, an employee of Piedmont Natural Gas, is serving his third term as mayor of Ramseur, a town of 1,588 in Randolph County.
The IBEW leadership is acutely aware of the dramatic decline in union membership that accounts for the Teamsters’ and service workers’ decisions to bolt from the federation.
‘“People in the South don’t understand unions,’” he said. ‘“They don’t understand that it’s the main reason for OSHA, child labor laws and the eight-hour day. People think because they get up and go to work at seven in the morning and come home at three their boss is going to take care of them. It’s a cotton mill mentality.’”
Spivey said the IBEW is confronting the decline in union membership by organizing from within. Because North Carolina is a right-to-work state, workers in unionized workplaces like Piedmont Natural Gas are not required to be members of the union and pay dues. The local wants to sign up more of these employees, but a July 20 open letter from Business Manager Robert Neely attests to the uphill struggle.
‘“I know we cannot make everyone happy but we try to do what is right and fair,’” the letter reads. ‘“Brothers and Sisters getting out doesn’t make anything better; it only hurts the stance that the local has and July 2006 is closing fast along with a new contract and new changes. 100% membership will help have a voice at the table.’”
Spivey said he looks at the combined factors of declining union membership and the transfer of manufacturing jobs from North Carolina to China, and recognizes the labor movement has to adapt to survive even though he finds himself on the other side of the fence from the labor rebels.
‘“It’s a new day for everybody,’” he said. ‘“We’ve got to get going or we’re all going to be swept away.’”
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