Joe Hansen was recently elected president of the 1.4-million-member United Food & Commercial Workers. His first focus has been on his union, which is still reeling from a months-long strike that ended last spring against major supermarket chains in Southern California.
Hansen has known Bruce Raynor, the president of UNITE/HERE, and John Wilhelm, the No. 2 in that union who used to be the head of HERE, the hotel workers union, before the two merged this summer. Hansen has supported Wilhelm's union in strikes in Las Vegas and is generally supportive of their aggressive approach to organizing, which the UFCW chief is trying to pursue in his own union.
He spoke with BusinessWeek Senior Writer Aaron Bernstein about the push for changing the AFL-CIO. Following are edited excerpts from their conversation:
Q: SEIU President Andy Stern and other leaders in the New Unity Partnership (NUP) have been throwing around a lot of ideas for the labor movement. What do you think?
A: If you look at where we are now vs. 20 years ago, there's no question the labor movement has diminished. It's not right to lay the fault on [AFL-CIO President John] Sweeney, but if we continue to do things the way we're doing, the trend won't change. I agree with Andy on some things and not on others. John inherited a structure at the AFL-CIO, and sometimes it's hard to change that.
Q: Do you think the AFL-CIO need to have a major debate about its future?
A: Yes, and John raised the issue at the [AFL-CIO] Executive Committee [which met in June]. He brought it up and said, "If we lose our solidarity, I don't think it's a good thing, but we shouldn't stop the discussion of change." But, he said we should wait until after the Presidential elections to talk about all this.
Q: What's your opinion about some of the substantive issue Stern is raising, like getting unions to focus more on their core industries so they can increase their bargaining clout?
A: The talk about jurisdiction [which industries unions should focus their organizing on] is not new. It deserves serious thought. At our union, we have core jurisdictions in retailing, meat-cutting, poultry, and food processing. In some areas we conflict with other unions, like with Bruce [Raynor, president of UNITE/HERE, which represents some retail workers in distribution centers]. But we're also working together on some organizing campaigns.
The problem with telling unions they should stick to their own jurisdictions is that while the theory may be right, it's hard to do in practice.
Q: So what's going to happen at the AFL-CIO convention? Stern and the NUP are saying they will propose constitutional amendments on some of these issues.
A: There's going to be a showdown on all this next summer. I'll bet money on it. Knowing Sweeney, I think he will be trying to drive a consensus. We haven't talked about this on our union's board, but we will before we decide what position to take. I don't know the outcome, but I do know that the status quo won't stand.
Q: What about the issue of union mergers?
A: This is difficult. If 40 small unions won't merge, then what? Some of them might leave [the AFL-CIO], and then you have a bifurcated labor movement, which is John's point. If there's not a thoughtful debate, then people will develop their own ideas, which is a recipe for disaster. Although I don't think that the fear of division should stop the debate.