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Breaking big labor in order to fix it

TO NOBODY'S great surprise, the Service Employees and Teamsters have left the AFL-CIO, and at least two other unions may soon follow. What's really going on here? Is the split a setback or a gain for working people and progressive politics?

In part, this schism reflects rivalries of turf, personality, and money. Had the AFL-CIO president, John Sweeney, taken a final bow and stepped down, the federation might have kept the insurgents. Some future reconciliation may yet occur.

But, as my friend Marshall Ganz, former organizing director of the farmworkers union, observes, it's also about principled differences of how to rebuild a struggling movement. Organize by trade, industry, or community? Build a centralized movement or a popular, democratic one? These differences have echoes in the history of the labor movement, going back to the 19th century Knights of Labor, the ''Wobblies," and the CIO.

Ironically, Sweeney himself is a militant at heart. As the antiestablishment candidate in 1995, he made some of the same demands as today's insurgents, and he implemented many. But his spiritual children have now raised the bar.

At the level of strategy, many unions that emphasize organizing, notably the service employees and the merged textile, hotel, and restaurant workers (UNITE HERE), want the AFL-CIO to rebate half of members' contributions to constituent unions to the extent that they spend that money on organizing. They want to slash the AFL-CIO's headquarters staff and reduce its spending on politics. Sweeney met their demands halfway. That proved not to be enough.

But in the end, does this split portend a stronger or weaker labor movement?

In the short run, it's a real setback. Even a weakened AFL-CIO is still a crucial voice on pro-worker legislation and for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. It's one more progressive institution that seems on the ropes.

Below the national radar, the AFL-CIO has done important work helping to create local and state labor councils, which often become key players in local politics. In Los Angeles, the local labor federation was a major factor in the rise of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. This may be jeopardized.

But the longer-term picture is more complex. If real resources are indeed shifted to organizing, that's a huge plus. There was hand-wringing in the 1930s when labor radicals founded the Committee on Industrial Organization outside the established (and enfeebled) AFL. It was CIO unions that organized new industries like autos and steel, where earlier efforts by craft unions had failed.

The AFL-CIO has certainly been a mainstay of grassroots progressive politics. But individual unions and union members are the foot soldiers. In 2004, the AFL-CIO's role was partly supplanted by independent, so-called ''527" voter mobilization groups like America Coming Together, which happened to be run by the AFL-CIO's former political director.

Friends of the labor movement worry that with a rival federation, there could be new jurisdictional battles between AFL and non-AFL unions fighting to organize the same workers. But the AFL has not been all that effective at preventing fierce battles between member unions.

Face it, this is a period of conservative ascendancy. Not surprisingly, American progressives face agonizing reappraisals and tough choices that sometimes turn fratricidal.

When Ralph Nader ran for president, it was out of sheer frustration that progressive politics was almost totally blocked by the influence of big business on both parties. The move did not exactly prove helpful to his larger cause, but you can understand the exasperation.

Last year, two young environmentalists published a paper titled ''The Death of Environmentalism," which rocked that movement. Their contention was that the coalition of mainstream Washington-based environmental groups were spending hundreds of millions of dollars and losing every major battle. Better to blow it up, they urged, and start over with a broader, fresher coalition.

Looking at American history, from the civil rights movement of the 1960s to the industrial labor movement of the 1930s and the agrarian revolt of the 1880s, one can never predict where the next movement for social justice will break out. But you can safely bet it will be led by the young and the radical.

It's one thing when Martin Luther King and student civil rights workers are up against against brutal, racist sheriffs; it's more painful when it's a fight within the progressive community.

It is always risky to tamper with liberal institutions when they are under assault, as the Naderites found out. It's also better to break some china than to fade slowly into irrelevance.

Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect, can be reached at His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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