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Irish-Americans chime in on AFL-CIO split

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

The schism came about when the two biggest unions, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), led by Andrew Stern, and the Teamsters, led by James P. Hoffa, announced they were leading their members out of the federation. The United Food & Commercial Workers’ Union later followed the lead provided by the SEIU and the Teamsters.
Stern, in particular, has been to the fore in arguing that the massive federation has been spending too much time and too many resources on attempts to influence politics in Washington D.C. Stern contends that the labor movement, which has been experiencing grave difficulties in recruiting and retaining members, must place much greater emphasis on organizing if it is to reinvigorate itself.
Union activists who remain loyal to the federation and to its Irish-American president, John Sweeney, argue that the SEIU and the Teamsters have weakened organized labor by leaving the fold. They contend that Stern is driven primarily by personal ambition.
Irish workers have traditionally been well represented within organized labor, especially in New York. Interviewed by the Echo, leading Irish-American union activists in the city seemed to display as much of a divergence of opinion about the split as the labor movement at large.
Stephen McInnis is political director of the New York City District Council of Carpenters. The union has traditionally had a significant Irish membership, especially in Local 608, which represents carpenters in Manhattan and the Bronx.
McInnis pointed out that, at a national level, the carpenters’ union, the United Brotherhood Of Carpenters, disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO in 2001. The carpenters joined the rebels’ “Change To Win” coalition at the end of June. However, McInnis stressed that, in New York, the Carpenters have maintained close and warm relationships with all sides, and work closely with many labor groups.
McInnis told the Echo that there was a view among many of his union’s New York members that the current turmoil is “a Washington D.C. issue and a D.C. problem.”
However, asked for his personal opinion, he appeared implicitly supportive of the rebels:
“It’s obviously unfortunate any time you have disunity,” he said. “But at the same time, if you were to ask me whether I would prefer the labor movement to be split but effective or unified but ineffective, I would obviously say that being effective is the most important thing.
“If you do something,” he added, referring to the AFL-CIO, “and it doesn’t work and you keep doing it — well, that clearly isn’t the smartest notion.”
McInnis also appeared to hold some sympathy for the view that the AFL-CIO had become distracted from issues that were of most importance to workers:
“From our perspective, the critical things for our members are pay checks and also healthcare benefits. Now you can get involved in debates about other things, like Social Security, if you want, but you have to question the extent to which that is a priority for members.”
The current leadership of the labor federation, he continued, “has been running the risk of putting the cart before the horse, so to speak. They have wanted to be influential without wanting to build up their internal strength. You have to pay attention to the internal stuff first, and it is that which gives you the strength to affect external issues.”
A very different view is propounded by Jim McNamara, public relations director of the International Longshoremen’s Association (I.L.A.). The I.L.A. has a total membership of about 60,000, with Irish and Irish-American workers strongly represented in Manhattan, Boston and New Jersey, in particular.
The I.L.A.’s president, John Bowers, is a vice-president of the AFL-CIO and strongly loyal to Sweeney, the federation’s leader. No surprise, then, that McNamara is critical of the breakaway faction:
“John Bowers was very disappointed by the decision, first by the SEIU and the Teamsters, and then later the United Food & Commercial Workers’ Union to break away,” McNamara said. “He would have much preferred to have seen Andy Stern or James Hoffa run for office [within the AFL-CIO].
“That would have been much better for everybody than for them to do what they did, which was to fracture the labor movement at a time when we already have so many enemies out there. It goes against the basic principles of trade unionism.”
McNamara also suggested that the rebel leaders were taking advantage of the luxury of hindsight when they criticized the AFL-CIO for over-committing to its political efforts:
“Obviously we all tried very hard to get John Kerry elected President,” McNamara said, “and we didn’t quite succeed. But it John Kerry had been elected, I don’t think this situation would have arisen. It’s very easy to say that more money should have been spent on organizing rather than politics after you know the result of the election.”
McNamara also contended that the split raises a number of troubling practical issues. The new faction, he argued, will need to spend a lot of money to get off the ground — money that could have been put to better use had everyone stayed under the AFL-CIO umbrella. He added that the possibility of rival unions now raiding each other’s ranks for members was “a real concern.”
A grassroots voice weighing in on McNamara’s side of the argument came from Robert Fitzsimons. Fitzsimons is business manager of the Bronx-based Tunnel Workers’ Local 147, a division of the Laborers’ Union. The Laborers are staying with the AFL-CIO, and Fitzsimons is supportive of that decision:
“You don’t want to jump ship too quickly,” Fitzsimons said. “You certainly don’t want to split the whole thing up.
“I would still hope everyone could talk it out,” he added. “It’s like a family. If you have a brother, you might have an argument with him. But he’s still your brother. That’s what the labor movement should be like.”

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