Online Extra: "I'm Not Ready to Tear Down the Institution"

Communication Workers head Morty Bahr agrees that labor needs to make changes, but carefully

Morty Bahr, president of the Communications Workers of America, is one of labor's elder statesmen. He felt divided about John Sweeney's drive to take over the AFL-CIO nine years ago, when he sided with Sweeney's opponent even though he agreed with many of the reforms Sweeney was proposing. His main concern at the time was the stability of the federation, which Bahr thought was ill-served by contentious leadership challenges.

Today, Bahr still feels that way and is just as divided about Andy Stern's new reform campaign. He agrees with many, though not all, of the ideas but still sides with Sweeney. He recently spoke with BusinessWeek Senior Writer Aaron Bernstein. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: Stern has been saying that the labor movement continues to decline and needs to make major changes to save itself. Is he right?


The AFL-CIO is a voluntary organization. I don't know how you change that.

Q: Do you think Sweeney has been doing a good job?


I'm persuaded he's going to run [for reelection next summer, when his term is up]. He called and asked me if I support that, and I said I did. If he didn't run, we'd back [AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Rich] Trumka.

Q: What about some of the ideas put forth by Stern and his colleagues, like merging smaller unions?


I absolutely believe that if you don't have 100,000 members you should merge. [Former AFL-CIO President George] Meany used to say that decades ago. In fact, today it's probably more like 500,000. And we've done a lot of that. When the AFL-CIO was formed in 1955, we had 165 union affiliates. Now we have 60.

Q: Stern argues that unions need to focus their organizing more on specific industries, to increase their membership density and therefore their bargaining clout? Is that right?


Union density only makes sense when employers compete against each other. But, for example, hospitals in New Jersey and California don't. Stern wants his union to do health-care workers, but lots of other unions are active there, too, including us.

For example, we got calls from nurses in Buffalo asking if we could help them form a union. I asked, why call us? They said, because your union is the most active in the community here, represents the most union members in the area, and bargains with the large employers, so you should be able to bargain with the local hospitals.

Now we're the largest health-care union in Western New York. Workers are well served there because we have geographic power, [and] we represent all kinds of workers there, in television, radio, newspapers, and phones. I'm not minimizing what Andy says, but there are different models of unionization that work.

Q: Does he have a point about the need for more unions to organize more effectively?


I'll concede that every union has not made enough efforts on organizing. But am I supposed to say to the bricklayers, you have to merge with the plumbers, or we'll kick you out of the AFL-CIO? I'm not ready to do that. The NUP [New Unity Partnership] has a lot of ideas, and I'll listen to what they propose, but I'm not ready to tear down the institution in order to remake it. The problem is, I don't know what the AFL-CIO president can do to make unions do something they don't want to do.

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