The Right Coast

July 26, 2005
Division of Labor
By Gail Heriot

It is interesting to compare the San Diego Union Tribune and the New York Times in their coverage of yesterday’s split in the AFL-CIO.

The Union-Tribune emphasized that the dissident unions–the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union–were fed up with the AFL-CIO ‘s extravagant spending on political campaigns and causes and wanted to increase efforts at organizing non-union employees. It story read:

"At the core of the dispute is the rejected demand by the two breakaway unions and several allies that the federation shift resources from political action and devote them instead to organizing nonunion sectors of the economy.

"Speaking for 1.4 million Teamsters, Hoffa declared, ‘We must have more union members in order to change the political climate that is undermining workers' rights in this country. The AFL-CIO has chosen the opposite approach. . . . Their idea is to keep throwing money at politicians.’"

I find this a thoroughly believable story. I’ve long been surprised at how much money and effort unions put into backing Democratic candidates and left-of-center political causes that their own members often oppose.

In contrast, the New York Times–with its headline, "Ambitions are Fueling Union Split"-- attributed the split mainly to a clash of egos. "[A]s much as anything," the Times explains, "the schism reflects the conflicting ambitions of two titans of labor, John J Sweeney, the president of the AFL-CIO, and his onetime protégé, Andrew L. Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union, until now the largest union in the labor federation."

Both stories can be true, of course. But the way the New York Times reports it, the reader will be inclined to fault Stern and Hoffa destroying a once-great institution simply to further their individual ambitions. The reader of the Union Tribune story, on the other hand, will be inclined to sympathize with dissidents.