An Open Letter to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney


John Sweeney

President, American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations


Dear Brother Sweeney


I thank you in advance for giving attention to a letter from a rank-and-file member. While I don’t currently hold any office in the labor movement, and can only speak for myself, I think the issues I raise are of concern to many working people. For that reason I have posted this letter on Labor Advocate Online, on the web site, and offer to post any reply from you as well.


Let me begin by congratulating you on many significant achievements since your leadership team took charge of the federation. In my view those would include:



It hasn’t all been rosy of course. Many organizing drives still fail. Some strikes are still broken. We take our lumps now and then. But, by and large, most working people now believe that the trade union movement has touched bottom and is on the way back up. You must feel proud of this accomplishment—as you should.


But, precisely because progress has been made in many areas, it is extremely frustrating for many of us to see atrophy in an important sector that consumes so much of our energy and money—electoral politics. We really shouldn’t have needed any fresh reminders of how ineffective labor’s electoral strategy has been—but we recently got a big one anyway.


Defeating the China trade bill was certainly the federation’s top legislative priority in this session of congress. An excellent job was done in mobilizing public opinion, winning many allies, holding impressive demonstrations, mounting massive lobbying and letter-writing campaigns.


But we lost that fight. We lost not to the people we opposed in the last election, but to the very people who could not have been elected without our support—the President, the Vice-President, and dozens of Democrat Representatives.


After the defeat in the House, federation spokespersons tried to spin the story that Gore shouldn’t be held responsible, that he was only being loyal to Clinton. But we know, Brother Sweeney, that whatever beliefs and feelings Al Gore may harbor deep down inside, he energetically hustled support for the China bill. The fact of the matter is that Gore, like Clinton, supports the globalization process that has brought unprecedented prosperity for the rich and increasing problems for working people everywhere. President Gore would be no different in this respect than Vice-President Gore.


Of course globalization is not the only important issue. Most people say health care is their single biggest concern. As you know, nearly all other industrialized countries guarantee quality health care to all of their residents. It’s considered a vital public service, financed through taxes.


But the most that Gore, and others we have supported, are willing to discuss are some inconsequential reforms of HMOs. Most of our “friends” in office are committed to allowing the insurance companies to continue to hold our health care hostage. Brother Sweeney, don’t American working families deserve at least the same kind of health care that working people in Canada, Europe and Japan have?


We have also been put in a no-win situation in regards to Social Security. Despite great increases in productivity, which should have allowed working people to take an earlier retirement, we have already had normal retirement ages pushed back and there is talk of forcing all of us to work until age seventy. And, of course, there is a big movement afoot to turn our Social Security funds over to the tender mercies of Wall Street traders.


The best we have seen from “labor’s friends” is a pledge not to reduce our benefits any more. That is currently Gore’s position. But we can’t forget that he has supported privatization schemes in the past and can hardly be trusted not to sway in the wind to the other direction again. Instead of gaining improvements in benefits that we’re entitled to during this time of unprecedented prosperity we are relegated to fighting rear-guard battles to try to hold on to what we have.


Some union leaders, especially after the China vote, have said that labor ought to take a hard look at the Ralph Nader campaign. When you were asked about this you were quoted in the press words to the effect that “Ralph Nader won’t be the next President. Either Gore or Bush will be. Our job is to make sure that it’s not Bush.”


This reminds me of a story the old-timers used to tell about a fellow in a small town who regularly lost a substantial part of his paycheck in a back room poker game down at the filling station. His friends tried to warn him that the game was crooked. His reply was “I know—but it’s the only game in town.”


Brother Sweeney, I think it’s high time we pick up what we’ve got left on the table and leave this crooked game run by the bosses. We need to start a new game with honest players.


It is no coincidence that those industrialized countries that have universal health care, decent Social Security, superior labor laws, and higher wages, are also countries where the labor movement has political parties of their own. As you know, there is a fledgling Labor Party in this country, endorsed by several international and hundreds of local unions. So far the Labor Party here is concentrating on issue campaigns and winning support in unions and the communities necessary for further steps. There will be no Labor Party electoral campaigns until the party has won wide support throughout organized labor and built a mass membership base. That won’t happen in the 2000 election.


But the Nader campaign does offer us an opportunity to express ourselves and to build political alliances for the future. Ralph Nader is the only candidate that has opposed globalization from a working class perspective. Nader is the lone candidate supporting genuine universal health care. Nader is the only candidate that can be trusted with Social Security. He is the sole candidate that champions real labor law reform, including such measures as card checks for union recognition.


You are probably right that Nader won’t be our next President. But I think we should heed the admonition of the great Eugene Debs—“It’s better to vote for what you want, and not get it, than to vote for what you don’t want, and get it.”


Thanks again for your attention.






Bill Onasch

Member, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1287

Kansas City, Missouri