Labor Divided

Labor Divided

What happens after the union splits

In October 1973, delegates from the 113 affiliated unions of the AFL-CIO made their way to Miami Beach for the federation’s quadrennial convention. Like a strange flock of migratory birds, the glaziers, the engravers, the boilermakers, and all the subspecies of American labor returned to the Florida shores they’d grown to know so well in the Age of Meany. But that fall, as the delegates headed south, their travels were disturbed by a blistering op-ed in the Washington Post entitled, “Labor’s Battle with Itself.” The piece had been written by Jerry Wurf, the much-aggrieved president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. During the 1950s and 1960s, AFSCME had helped shore up the house of labor by organizing hundreds of thousands of public employees, a group other unions had long neglected. But after seeing Wurf’s union grow from a small band of Wisconsin state workers into one of the AFL-CIO’s largest affiliates, the rest of labor honored the achievement by shamelessly invading AFSCME’s public-sector turf and stealing thousands of government workers.

By 1973, the unionized share of the U.S. work force had been declining for two decades and Wurf was appalled that so many unions were “fighting each other for the right to represent workers rather than working together to organize the unorganized.” Starting at the Miami Beach convention, Wurf argued, the AFL-CIO had to get serious about wide-ranging reform. The American economy was changing—manufacturing was shrinking, corporations were consolidating—and labor had to change as well. The federation had to merge its small and failing affiliates so that just twenty or thirty large and powerful unions remained. And those mega-unions, instead of “chopping each other up” in a competition for members, should each focus on organizing a particular industry or sector. Only with that strategic focus, Wurf said, could the labor movement reverse its decline.

Not without reason, delegates from many AFL-CIO affiliates read Wurf’s article as a scathing attack on their sacred, if no longer sturdy, institutions. Wurf had already earned a reputation as a brash, some said arrogant, leader, one who too often frayed the fraternal bonds of labor. And so, when the delegates arrived in Miami Beach in 1973, they gave short shrift to his reform proposals—and once they got home, they went right on raiding AFSCME’s turf. One of the worst offenders in that turf war was an old AF of L affiliate called the Building Service Employees International Union. At least that’s what BSEIU was called before its leaders realized they could supplement their sagging janitorial membership by poaching AFSCME’s public employees. Thus, in 1968 the BSEIU shed its “B,” and the SEIU was born.

There is no small irony in the fact that today perhaps the strongest proponent of Jerry Wurf’s vision for labor is Andy Stern, the brash, some say arrogant, president...