Discussion On the Future Of the American Labor Movement

Labor Advocate Online

The AFL-CIO Convention

Golden Anniversary Marked By Family Feud
Some Take Long Walk Off Short (Navy) Pier

by Bill Onasch

[This article is also being submitted to Socialist Action and Labor Standard. Portions have been excerpted from previous author comments about the Convention.]

In 1955 two rival union federations came together in Chicago to form the AFL-CIO. Fifty years later, in the same city, this Golden Anniversary became the occasion for a new split. It was not unexpected.

When the AFL-CIO executive council met a few days after Bush’s reelection SEIU president Andy Stern issued a public ultimatum: if the federation didn’t adopt the proposals of what was then called the New Unity Partnership, and if they failed to replace the present executive officers, beginning with president John Sweeney, then SEIU and its allies would leave the "house of labor" and start a whole new subdivision of their own.

Eight months later, on the eve of the fed convention, Stern showed he wasn’t bluffing. As this is written (July 29) SEIU, along with the Teamsters, have formally withdrawn from the AFL-CIO. UFCW, and UNITE HERE, joined them in boycotting the convention, and declining Federation offices, and are good as gone as well. Two additional affiliates, the Laborers and United Farm Workers, attended the convention while declaring their solidarity with the Stern/Hoffa faction. These six unions are joined by the Carpenters, who left the federation four years ago, to form what is, for now, designated as a "coalition," Change to Win.

When Stern crossed the Rubicon last November he also issued a call for a great debate over labor’s future. Clearly such a discussion is urgently needed–and not just about union "density." Working class standards of living are on the decline. Anxiety about job security is on everyone’s mind. Workers worry about access to health care, whether they can count on pension promises, how they can possibly pay for their kid’s education. The environment is going to hell. And, above all else, is a war with no end in sight.

Stern established a web site, Unite to Win, dedicated to the worthy objective of discussion. Dozens of local union officials, radicals, and some rank-and-file workers did submit comments on a wide range of topics to a section of that site–so many in fact that they quickly became unwieldy and very difficult to follow. But most of the site’s focus was on Stern’s personal blog, along with occasional official statements by SEIU and their allies. Soon, the Sweeney leadership established a similar format on the AFL-CIO web site. The fed’s effort was primarily given over to weighty comments by various "international" union presidents.

It soon became clear that the debate, the goals, of the two warring factions in the AFL-CIO had little to do with the issues of great concern to America’s workers. Stern proved adept at leveraging discontent against incumbent leaders–including his one-time mentor, John Sweeney. But this student challenging his master conflict was really less concerned about the needs of the working class than it was about alarm over the very survival of their species–a union bureaucracy long based on collaboration with the employers and toadying to the bosses’ politicians.

Stern is concerned that the AFL-CIO bureaucracy has not evolved to respond to the changing economy. In his view there are too many small affiliates, too many local unions, needless central labor councils, money wasted on educational projects--too much deadwood in their eroding habitat. The changers want to see resources concentrated in a few maga-unions focused on a few strategically selected industries.

Actually, in some respects Stern is a bit of a late convert to this consolidate to win approach. His allies in the Carpenters and UFCW have been far out in front in terms of merging and eliminating local unions to assert even more control from the very highest echelons. But SEIU has been frantically playing catch-up. For example, all SEIU members in Kansas City are now part of a "local" union based in Chicago.

At one time, the changers probably had some hope that they might prevail in the struggle for control of the federation. Once it became clear that that wasn’t going to happen they lost interest in "debate." They chose instead to show their contempt by boycotting the convention, instead organizing pep rallies of those who went to Chicago ostensibly to be delegates. If you can’t win to change then change to win.

Sweeney didn’t hesitate to try to embarrass the Stern & Co. no-show. "It is a shame that these unions will not come argue for their ideas and listen to others about how to improve the lives of workers," he said in a statement. "That's how democracies work." Yes, that’s how democracy works but there are few unions in the U.S. that have operated in such a manner within living memory. Most union conventions are staged events, called together to applaud decisions reached out of sight and sound of delegates. This year’s conclave on Navy Pier was no different–with one important exception that I’ll come back to.

For example, there was no real discussion of the political crisis facing organized labor. Clearly, despite the expenditure of 400 million dollars in the 2004 election cycle union political influence is completely irrelevant. Their nose was rubbed in this mess once again during the convention when 15 Democrat "friends," defying a last minute threat from the fed, ensured victory for CAFTA.

Far from any self-criticism the convention took their political marching orders from numerous exalted guest speakers including Senators Barack Obama, Arlen Specter, Richard Durbin, Harry Reid, and Edward Kennedy; Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Peter King; Chicago Mayor Richard Daley; Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich; and former Senator and hopeful for the Democrat presidential nod in 2008, John Edwards. Mostly Democrats but with a couple of good Republicans mixed in. The delegates approved, with hardly a murmur, a proposal to devote even more money to such labor "friends."

Change to Win cynically opposed this "throwing more money at politicians," but offered no political alternative. As a matter of fact, they too are big spenders in this area. But some of them are more inclined to try their luck with the GOP. The Hoffa family, of course, has close ties to the Republicans going back to Nixon. The Carpenters have a cozy relationship with Karl Rove. Even the "progressive" SEIU was the single biggest contributor to a Republican governor’s PAC. Both the Sweeney and Stern factions have remained completely silent about the Labor Party project.

What can we expect to happen after this split? If the surviving majority at the fed convention was sincerely interested in unity of the movement they would say something along these lines to the changers: We’re sorry you feel you have to leave us. We hope we can be reunited soon. In the meantime let’s try to collaborate where we can to advance the interests of American workers. Clearly this was the sentiment of most delegates from local levels where polished shoes must occasionally touch the ground.

There has been little evidence of such a fraternal approach on high, however. When Linda Chavez-Thompson spoke at the Sweeney camp’s pre-convention rally she ran off a litany of labor’s enemies, including George W Bush, the Right to Work Committee, Chamber of Commerce–and Change to Win. Before adjournment, central labor bodies and trades councils were instructed to purge the splitters. Raids are certainly a good possibility.

(Parenthetically, the departure of the Teamsters will probably clear the way for the return of the United Transportation Union to the AFL-CIO. New UTU leaders–replacing those, now incarcerated, who had carried out an ill-advised split a few years ago–had their application for reaffiliation vetoed by the Teamsters who recently absorbed long-time UTU rival, the BLE.)

Since the split means the fed will lose more than a third of its per capita dues base further cuts in federation staff are a certainty. You can kiss goodbye what’s left of health & safety and other training and research programs–and probably a lot more.

Will Change to Win succeed in salvaging a prosperous wing of an endangered union bureaucracy? I don’t know–and frankly I don’t care. I do know that the union movement has been seriously weakened by this unprincipled split. It will embolden the bosses to sharpen their attacks. It will weaken organized labor’s already marginal political influence.

And, to the extent that Change to Win implements its plan for internal restructuring we will see even less opportunity for the rank-and-file to participate in making the decisions that affect our lives so much.

Both camps will undoubtedly be conducting organizing and strike campaigns that deserve our support. But neither camp deserves our confidence.

And we still, more than ever, need a real debate about labor’s future. We have to figure out how we can gain power in the workplace through our unions and how we can build a labor party to advance our interests politically.

War Demands An Exception
One remarkable episode at the AFL-CIO convention was the adoption of an amendment from the floor to an executive council resolution–in its self something as rare as a steak tartare. On the face of it, it was a simple change of one phrase. But its impact was a major policy shift on one of the most important questions of the day–the war in Iraq.

Fred Mason, president of the Maryland/D.C. state fed, and a national co-convener of US Labor Against the War (USLAW), proposed to change a call for the troops to be withdrawn "as soon as possible" to "rapidly."

The formulation submitted by the Sweeney faction was in line with Kerry’s position on the war–which happens to be the Bush position as well. Everyone wants the troops home as soon as possible but Bush and Kerry say that’s not possible until the mission is completed–maybe not for a number of years. In this context, everyone recognized that inserting "rapidly" was virtually equivalent to saying "bring the GIs home now"in a way that didn’t humiliate the executive council.

As I said in a report to the Kansas City Labor Against the War mailing list:

This great success was possible only because of lots of hard work, on many fronts, both prior to and at the convention. For example:

• There were the numerous USLAW initiated resolutions adopted by national, state, central labor council, and local union bodies.

• The presence of Iraqi trade unionists had a great impact at the convention and, of course, the recent national tour of Iraqi unionists organized by USLAW paved the way for this intervention.

• In collaboration with Pride At Work, USLAW was able to distribute literature and conduct a forum for delegates.

• USLAW was also able to intervene in a international solidarity event that was part of the convention activities.

• Jesse Jackson, in his guest appearance on the convention floor, spoke forcefully for bringing the troops home.

• And USLAW delegates were organized to take the floor during the discussion.

I am also pleased to report that Nancy Wohlforth, a leader in OPEIU, and Pride At Work–as well as a national co-convener of USLAW–has been elected to the AFL-CIO executive council

This new resolution strengthens our argument that our unions should actively participate in actions calling for the "rapid" withdrawal of GIs from Iraq. When United Mine Workers president Cecil Roberts asked an Iraqi trade unionist what American trade unionists could do to help she replied that joining the protests in the streets would be one good way.

As you know, USLAW’s next major project is to build a labor contingent in the September 24 March on Washington. Now that the AFL-CIO convention is behind us we need to move quickly to gain support from AFL-CIO unions–and SEIU and the NEA who are on record against the war as well.


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