Although Edward McElroy was just recently elected President of the 1.3 million-member American Federation of Teachers, as his union's long-time No. 2 officer he had already been involved in AFL-CIO politics for many years. He says he has a lot of problems with some of the proposals being floated by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Andy Stern and the four other union presidents in the New Unity Partnership (NUP). But he agrees that labor needs to make major changes to survive. He recently spoke with BusinessWeek Senior Editor Aaron Bernstein. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow:
Q: What do you think about all these ideas coming from Stern and his NUP colleagues?
A: The thing that's lacking is substance, frankly. There have been discussions by them about mergers issue, and about the issue of whether enough of the resources of the AFL-CIO are being devoted to organizing. But after that, I haven't seen much meat on the bone.
Q: What about mergers? Are there too many small unions that don't have the size to bargain and organize effectively, as they argue?
A: I have some difficulty understanding their proposal. Making decisions about mergers is a democratic process that deals with members of unions. For any organization, the AFL-CIO or individual unions, to point a finger and say, "This union or that should merge," strikes me as totally antidemocratic. Those are the kinds of decisions individual workers should make. To say to those people, "This union is not functioning the way we think it should be," that isn't right.
Q: One idea I've heard floated is for the AFL-CIO to set up a process to help unions merge or even to say that if small ones don't, they might be sanctioned or kicked out of the AFL-CIO.
A: That's ridiculous, to say the AFL-CIO will exclude unions if they don't merge. To say you can't be part of labor movement unless you take part of a preformed decision by 10 to 15 people is ridiculous. Other countries do it differently, and have large unions based around broad categories, which become huge confederations. This is the case in Australia and Germany. But we're not there yet.
Q: But don't some union leaders oppose mergers just because they would lose their own jobs? How do mergers happen in those cases?
A: By example. Like the UNITE/HERE merger. [UNITE, the needletrades union, and HERE, the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees union, merged this summer, and the presidents of both are NUP members.] It's essentially a democratic process. I don't know what else you can do. I'm good at defining problems, too, but the question is, can we come up with the right solutions?
Q: What about another idea coming from Stern and the NUP, of getting unions to focus their organizing on specific industries or workers to build bargaining strength?
A: I agree with some of that. Health care is one example. There are a number of unions in the AFL-CIO that have had some success in organizing health-care workers. One thing I suggested some time ago to Stern is putting together an umbrella of health-care unions to do multi-union organizing in health care. But it hasn't gone anywhere yet. And you don't see NUP doing multi-union organizing.
Q: How do you think AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has done in terms of pushing some of these ideas?
A: [He] put a committee together that had broad discussions of some of these things, but it never got to the point of optioning them. The reason, in my opinion -- and I went to some of the meetings -- was it made people nervous. The committee got ahead of itself. It didn't deal with the broad issues affecting labor. Sweeney didn't do that, make it so narrow, it was the [labor leaders] on the committee. They made it all about which union has jurisdiction [over particular industries], so it became about what unions might lose.
Q: So do you support Sweeney now?
A: Any leader has to be able to look back and see faces behind him. If Sweeney is looking back and doesn't see people behind him, it doesn't matter how much he pounds the table. I was on [former AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Thomas] Donahue's side against Sweeney [when the two ran against each other for AFL-CIO President in 1995]. But that's over. Sweeney is tried.
There's nothing wrong with public discourse like the NUP wants, but it's wrong to turn around and blame people who are trying make changes, especially if they weren't forthcoming enough to put their own ideas on table. The AFL-CIO is a voluntary organization, and we've got to bring people along.
Q: How do you do that?
A: We do need changes, that's for sure. The question is, how do you get unions that haven't changed to change? Do I support Sweeney? Certainly, I support him. I don't know of any other candidates so far. There are challenges we face, and we have to take a different look at some these things.
We need get through this [Presidential] election and look at it again to see if there are some things we can do. Any institution that doesn't change dies, so we need to keep questioning what we're doing. I'm not a stick-in-the-mud, we made lot changes here in our union. I'm not sitting here saying everything we doing is fine, if we go from 9% to 5% of the U.S. workforce, that's fine. It's an emergency, and this discussion has to take place.