Below are three articles, the first of which is witten by labor journalist Steve Early, sizing up the recent national AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles. Early is highly critical of the conference. Veteran labor activists Jeff Crosby and Bill Fletcher take issue with Early's view of the recent steps taken by the AFL-CIO. This is then followed by an additional prespective by veteran labor activist Peter Olney. All three viewpoints are well worth a read.
House of Labor Needs Repairs, Not Just New Roommates|Labor Notes
by Steve Early
As AFL-CIO leaders packed up to leave their Los Angeles convention last Wednesday, they basked in the glow of favorable media coverage. Cribbing from Labor Notes’ own 30-year-old slogan, a union president told the New York Times that the federation had finally “put some movement back in the labor movement.”
Writers Guild of America-East President Michael Winship claimed he had just witnessed the “the most radical restructuring of labor since the AFL and CIO merged nearly sixty years ago.” Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson agreed that the AFL-CIO had made a “strategic shift.”
Feedback was also quite positive from the hundreds of invited guests from worker centers, labor support coalitions, public policy groups, student, feminist, and community organizations, and “social change” foundations—present in larger numbers than ever before.
These enthusiastic “solidarity partners”—from constituencies younger and more diverse than the delegate body—got to make “action session” presentations, hold press conferences and side rallies, and network with unions and foundation funders. Sometimes, rank-and-filers from “alt-labor” groups like worker centers even got airtime on the main stage, for moving celebrations of their difficult organizing work among fellow immigrants.
Who wouldn’t like to believe that a more exciting convention format prefigures a turning point for labor? Unfortunately, greater inclusiveness, closer ties with non-labor allies, and the adoption of pleasingly progressive resolutions only begin to address the real organizing challenges facing labor, whether “alt” or traditional.
Missing from the festivities were strategies for defending and re-energizing labor’s existing members.
Given the extreme attacks both union and non-union workers are suffering, the convention’s heavy emphasis on conventional political strategies and growth through diluted forms of membership was not “transformative” enough to meet the challenges of the day.
The proceedings did have a progressive buzz and grassroots sheen not seen since “New Voice” candidate John Sweeney won the federation’s first contested presidential election in a century, in 1995. Sweeney’s team, which included now AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka, pledged to promote new organizing and political initiatives, community-labor alliances, and anti-globalization efforts, while expanding the role of women, immigrants, and people of color.
Yet, as former AFL headquarters insider Bill Fletcher reported in his book, Solidarity Divided, these reform efforts ran out of steam as early as 1998. For the next decade or more, AFL-CIO restructuring was more rhetorical than real.
Last week, with two younger-generation staffers (both in their 40s) on Trumka’s new leadership team, the convention re-adopted New Voice ideas from 20 years ago. Delegates again embraced the need for community-labor coalitions, greater independence in politics, and, of course, more members—preferably in the millions.
It was taken as given that these additional working Americans can’t be recruited into traditional bargaining units. The new thinking is that labor can boost its membership stats—and political clout—through closer structural ties to the Sierra Club, NAACP, National Council of La Raza, or MomsRising. This would enable the house of labor to count as members people on those groups’ mailing lists, too.
The other method is to count as new members anyone ever solicited on their doorstep by a canvasser from the AFL-CIO’s own, soon-to-be-expanded alt-labor vehicle, Working America.
This outfit, set up originally for political action purposes, now claims 3.2 million “members.” Almost none pay dues or have any workplace connection to each other. The federation spends more than $10 million a year on Working America, which is also subsidized by national and local union donations.
GETTING OFF MESSAGE
To keep convention messaging on track, AFL headquarters prepared helpful “talking points.” The most frequently heard refrain was, “This convention will be the most innovative and diverse in history. It’s an exciting time as we open our doors and engage with allies and the non-union community as never before.”
Unfortunately for federation spin-doctors, some avatars of the AFL’s more traditional labor organizations didn’t stay on message, and their political influence was still much felt behind the scenes.
For example, Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger warned, in an interview with The Nation, about the AFL becoming “the American Federation of Progressive and Liberal Organizations.” Schaitberger didn’t want a labor movement that’s “an extension of one ideological part of our society.”
Terence O’Sullivan of the Laborers ranted at length about the Sierra Club’s betrayal of labor, because it opposes the Keystone XL pipeline favored by the building trades and the Teamsters.
But O’Sullivan did make one constructive suggestion: “We came here to talk about a new movement,” he said. “But let’s not forget about the old movement.”
MOST IN NEED?
Trumka has made his questionable new focus quite explicit. “The labor movement needs to be not where we’ve been but where workers are most in need,” he told a conference of labor academics in June.
The federation’s de-emphasis on union members’ workplace problems was reflected in what proposed workshops were scheduled (or rejected) at the convention. Judging by the content of the “action sessions,” dealing with employers in traditional workplaces is barely on labor’s to-do list at all.
You could learn much about the health and safety needs of workers in Bangladesh, but there was no brainstorming about strengthening local safety committees here. Fighting givebacks and speed-up, organizing strikes, mobilizing members on the job, creating a “stewards’ army” face to face (as opposed to online) were all given little play.
Labor’s most important public sector struggle since the 2011 “Wisconsin Uprising” was allotted a single presenter on the one panel (out of 50) that dealt with contract campaigns. Chicago Teachers Union organizer Matt Luskin recounted how reformers won office, rebuilt their local, and worked with the community as a precursor to last fall’s successful nine-day strike against Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and his school board.
As dissident academic Stanley Aronowitz noted several months ago, “Organized labor is still more than 15 million strong…. Why not seek reform of the existing unions?” Encouraging this course of action is, of course, not part of the AFL-CIO agenda, this year or any year.
ALT-LABOR ORGANIZING NOT EASY
One thing is certain. U.S. unions aren’t going to meet the challenges they face by further abandoning the workplace terrain still occupied by their own members or by workers strategic to the future of important industries like telecom.
Generic “associate member” programs, like Working America, may be useful for building political mailing lists, conducting voter registration, and doing voter education and turnout. Maybe next, promoting labor-endorsed insurance plans in the state insurance exchanges?
But dumbing down the concept of membership, in the process, is not a “strategic shift” so much as a shell game. It has little in common with existing serious, long-term efforts to build workplace organization in the absence of employer recognition and bargaining rights.
One instructive example—the decade-long “minority union” campaign at T-Mobile—was given some airtime in L.A. last week. The plenary and workshop presentations by fired T-Mobile worker Josh Coleman and Communications Workers President Larry Cohen provided a much-needed reality check: building and sustaining TU, a voluntary membership organization of T-Mobile workers, has not been easy.
Even with help from the German union at T-Mobile’s parent company and much CWA local union and member-organizer involvement, it has taken 10 years of work to recruit 1,000 TU supporters in a union-eligible workforce of 20,000.
Only 15 T-Mobile workers in Connecticut have been able to win formal bargaining rights thus far. But workplace education, cross-border networking, direct action, publicity, legal complaints, and community support have produced some important non-contract gains.
For similar union-building candor, plus in-depth discussion of organizing, bargaining, and strikes, readers should consider attending Labor Notes’ national conference, April 4-6 in Chicago. It won’t change the world of labor all by itself either, but it will have the workplace perspective so MIA from the AFL convention.
Alt-laborers and “old union movement” members alike will find common ground—more solid than labor’s official terra firma in La La Land last week.
As a longtime staffer of the Communications Workers, Steve Early assisted CWA-backed alt-labor experiments like the Massachusetts High Tech Workers Network, the Alliance @ IBM, and WAGE at General Electric. His new book, Save Our Unions, forthcoming from Monthly Review Press in November, contains an account of CWA’s ongoing “minority union” campaign at T-Mobile.
AFL-CIO Convention Repositions Unions to Speak for All WorkersBy Jeff Crosby and Bill Fletcher Jr.
The AFL-CIO Convention in September took an important turn to reposition unions toward speaking for all working people in the United States. This was a correction to the narrow focus on its dues-paying members and traditional electoral work that has cursed the movement for most of its history.
To argue that this turn represents an abandonment of current members, as Steve Early does here, is factually false and politically wrong.
It helps to understand what the federation is and is not. It is a collection of unions “held together by a rope of sand,” as a former federation president put it. From the central labor councils to the national organization, affiliates that don’t like the turn of events just quit.
And the federation is forbidden by its bylaws from engaging in collective bargaining without the specific invitation of an affiliated union. So expecting a convention that focuses primarily on collective bargaining makes no sense.
What the convention did do was focus on new forms of bargaining and organizing. The heroic organizing campaign by the Communications Workers at T-Mobile and the powerful strike by the Chicago Teachers Union were hardly the only examples promoted.
Organizers for domestic workers were honored from the stage on opening night. Immigrant “dreamers” hired to organize traditional bargaining units in car washes, grocery stores, hotels, and construction in an L.A. County Federation pilot program were likewise headlined the next day.
The president of the New York Taxi Drivers Alliance was added to the AFL-CIO Executive Council, and is getting Steelworkers and federation support to organize in other cities.
Workshops focused on international campaigns and organizing in the South. Day laborers, previously seen as the enemy of the building trades, have been welcomed into the house of labor in their own organizations. Worker center partnerships with unions in Texas and other states were featured in workshops and on the convention floor.
How exactly this amounts to “It was taken as given that these additional working Americans can’t be recruited into traditional bargaining units” is hard to comprehend.
MIND MADE UP
It was simply impossible to dismiss these developments at the convention unless you had your mind made up before you went there.
The false charge that “the new thinking is that labor can boost its membership stats—and political clout” by “counting as members people on those groups’ mailing lists” (referring to the Sierra Club, the NAACP, etc.) was never even proposed at the convention, never mind adopted. It surfaced in the press a few months ago, but was dismissed.
Much of the political focus of the convention was oriented to improving conditions for current members as well as non-members. Does the fight against privatization, or defeating right-to-work laws, count as in the interest of current union members? Or is this somehow a part of what Early calls “further abandoning the workplace terrain”?
Working America, another target of Early’s disdain, does not “dilute” the current membership of the AFL-CIO. It adds folks to whom current members can reach out for solidarity.
In Lynn, Massachusetts, for example, the labor council built a several-thousand-strong Working America membership. When the council wanted to help pass a bond for a new middle school, we had double the number of folks to reach out to. We won the vote, and this helped our union teachers and building trades—not to mention the working-class children of Lynn. (Of course, those kids don’t pay dues.)
Working America membership is not at all the same thing as traditional union membership—something that WA organizers and skeptics inside the AFL-CIO would agree on. But it is a tool to expand our reach, and WA is experimenting with building traditional workplace organization in New Mexico with the stagehands union, IATSE, and building rooted community organizations in Pittsburgh. In Lynn, a small group of WA activists meets monthly on a campaign to raise the minimum wage.
Perhaps the most telling part of Early’s trashing of the AFL-CIO convention is when he quotes what he refers to as one of the more retrograde leaders in the movement. The Laborers’ president said, “We came here to talk about a new movement. But let’s not forget about the old movement.”
Early then agrees with the call to return to more focus on the current dwindling membership. Pedal harder, fight, fight, fight?
PROGRESS ON RACE
This raises a more fundamental question—not just what convention are we talking about, but what country?
Labor’s history on fighting white supremacy has been poor. We are a labor movement that promised to kill Senator Wagner’s National Labor Relations Act in 1935 unless he eliminated anti-discrimination language. Our federation refused to endorse the 1963 March on Washington, although all unions claim that legacy today. Until very recently unions were openly hostile to immigrant workers joining our organizations and even hostile to those workers’ efforts to organize themselves.
This convention marked a long overdue strategic shift. The shift is to speak for the whole working class.
Nothing was more indicative of the shift than a resolution condemning private prisons and mass incarceration of peoples of color. This was a response to internal pressure from AFL-CIO members, the inclusion in pre-convention committees and discussions of representatives from worker centers and academics like Stephen Pitts of UC-Berkeley, President Rich Trumka’s influence, the Teachers union responding to widespread criticism of the “school-to-prison pipeline,” and intense discussions with AFSCME, which represents correctional officers.
For the AFL-CIO to speak out on the current system of racial oppression is a dramatic step, particularly in the face of decades of racist crime-baiting by the right. You can’t unify the working class by ignoring the divisions that exist.
The convention did not abandon current members or the workplace, although no one has a blueprint for the future relationship between current collective bargaining structures and new forms of organizing.
The convention recognized that there is no way forward for current members without a re-direction of the movement, to construct an alliance of working class forces and allies to change the country.
Launching such a strategic offensive while our movement is under siege will be, needless to say, extremely difficult. But this is the context in which we can rebuild collective bargaining, even as we scratch and claw to defend our current position.
Jeff Crosby is president of the North Shore Labor Council in Massachusetts. Bill Fletcher, Jr. is co-author of Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice.
The AFL - Path of Least Resistance? Response to Bill Fletcher & Jeff Crosby
by Peter Olney
It is true as Jeff and Bill point out, that the AFL-CIO's Convention's focus on new alliances with formerly excluded workers is a healthy and a positive development, it is also true that the Convention was unwilling to grapple with fundamentals that are crucial to its long term growth and viability.
Fletcher and Crosby state that "The federation is forbidden by its bylaws from engaging in collective bargaining without the specific invitation of an affiliated union" While very true, that statement could be extended to any activity. The federation is not affiliated with the Blue-Green alliance because of the controversy among its affiliates on the Keystone Pipeline. It is also true that if the Federation were to attempt to adopt a more powerful resolution on local hire in urban construction markets to redress historical racial inequities it would face a rebellion from many of the trades.
The operative phrase here is "path of least resistance"
It is far easier to deal with external alliances or affiliations than the cruxes of our crisis. Our federation and our state and local bodies are not equipped to carry out their original charge which is class wide solidarity. Are we swarming to the defense of workers in major contract fights, strike and lockouts? With few exceptions we are not. Therefore we lose those battles, and every loss resonates in the broader working class as a defeat for workers and organization just as our precious wins resonate in positive fashion.
Ultimately the alliances with external groups and organizations are built on the backs of the resources and members of existing unions, the dues money of our existing affiliates and their members. If the unions can't show power for its own members, how do those members play a meaning full role on a broader stage? How does the organization of workers appear attractive to the new group we are allied with or new workers we are working with?
Our "national" trade unions exist to exert industry wide solidarity and power. The whole concept of national unions is built on that outlook and foundation. It is all fine to pursue the largest retailer in the world, Wal-Mart or car wash workers but how are we doing with giant national supermarket chains we represent or the steel contracts that we still have. Are we condemning our local unions to bargain on an individual or regional basis without national coordination or action? Often we are.
Further our federation and its affiliates are not ready to confront the challenges of using our existing base in certain industries to grow in non-union sectors of those industries and linked industries. Those discussions and strategies require challenging the inertia of the status quo. They are difficult discussions that challenge the power and positions of our elected trade union leaders.
The interplay of the old and the new is one of the keys for renaissance as it was in the 30's when old AFL unions played a crucial role in birthing the new with their money and members.
The ban on bargaining that Crosby and Fletcher cite is not a ban on the hard discussions and debates that need to happen to redirect our resources, empower our existing members and win some of the key defensive fights in an offensive way. These debates cut to the heart of unions, their leaders and their strategies. Do we allow industry contracts with two tier wage scales as a way to preserve jobs? Does that enable us to organize non-union workers in the same industry? There is no legal or structural bar to these debates. It is all a matter of political will and leadership?
Fighting a defensive battle in an offensive and community minded way is the lesson of the Chicago Teachers Union. You can be sure there were deep discussions in the Chicago Central body and among other unions on how to win that battle, and they were uncomfortable and difficult discussions because some affiliates had their relationships with the Mayor and the powers that be in Chicago. Nevertheless those obstacles to difficult discussions, subjects and decisions can be and must be overcome with strong leadership.
It is great to see the convention focus on new and long overdue alliances particularly with organizations based in communities of color, but that is no replacement for confronting the difficult questions in the family about survival and growth.
Peter Olney has been a labor organizer for 40 years working with trade unions and community organizations focused on the organization of immigrant workers.