Is It Time for the AFL and the CIO to Part Ways Again?

Now more than ever we need a strong united labor movement. We do not, however, have one. [Moderator's Note: An incorrect version of this article was previously posted. This is a corrected version. Portside regrets the error.]
Ruth Needleman
February 6, 2017
The Annual King Day at the Dome drew thousands to the South Carolina Statehouse, honoring the legacy of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (Jan. 16, 2017)
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Now more than ever we need a strong united labor movement. We do not, however, have one. The Trump administration has further deepened the wedge dividing workers by hosting the Building and Construction Trades leaders on January 25, 2017.*  Trump dangled before their eyes his rejection of an already dead TPP trade deal, and, even more to their liking, a commitment to build pipelines, in particular, the Dakota Access pipeline and the Keystone XL pipeline.  
 
The AFL-CIO had already disappointed members and allies nationally when Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, came out in support of the pipelines during the massive protests organized by indigenous nations at Standing Rock. Trumka pointed to jobs. But what kind of jobs and for whom and at what cost? There are jobs and then there are jobs with justice.  Temporary construction jobs on the pipelines for the building trades would come at the expense of clean water, land, environmental and indigenous rights.
 
Now the Trades are embracing Trump; "We have a common bond with the president," according to McGarvey.  Terry O'Sullivan of the Laborers International, a dinosaur on climate issues and environmental concerns, stressed Trump's "remarkable courtesy and the commitment to creating hundreds of thousands of working-class jobs." Union Participants described their meeting with Trump as "incredible." 
 
Responding to the ideas promoted by the Trades were over 3 million women and men who protested against Trump and many against the pipeline on January 21st. The immigrants, Muslims, African Americans, Latinos, LGBTQ activists and Indigenous nations who stand to lose so much are the heart of the US working class and labor movement. The ever-shrinking labor unions, down again in 2016 to 10.7% of the workforce, (only 6.4% of the private sector) cannot afford to turn their back on members and allies, thereby surrendering to right-to-work, frozen minimum wages, lost access to health care, all in exchange for pipeline jobs. 
 
The problem with these Trades misleaders is their narrow self-interested philosophy and practice of looking out only for themselves and their willingness to throw other workers under the bus.  Bill Fletcher, Jr, journalist and black labor activist, compared the collaboration of these Trades' leaders with Trump to the Vichy government's collusion with Hitler in France during World War II. A harsh but sadly accurate comparison. 
 
Meanwhile unions worry about winning back part of their base of white workers. Collaboration and appeasement, however, have never worked; education does, but it has to include an exposure and denunciation of divisive and self-serving politics. Do we not have to draw a line between those who support the broad and diverse interests of the working-class as a whole and those who advocate for a minority of workers at the cost of others' rights? How long will our labor unions tolerate the bullying and threats of the Building Trades' leaders? Who is hastening a very real split in labor?
 
Trump's election depended on this growing division among workers. Many union members, unfortunately, voted for Trump for an array of reasons, but many of those who voted for him will not see the kind of treatment afforded to these Trades' misleaders. Trump, of course, did not promise that any of the new infrastructure and construction jobs, including the pipelines, would be protected by Davis Bacon, a law requiring that prevailing wages in the Trades be paid on federally-funded projects. In fact, Trump's job creation agenda is wedded to anti-unionism. We will see new jobs, but most will be low-paid, temporary, often unsafe jobs, without union representation, pensions or health care. 
 
There is nothing new about the Construction Trades' betrayal of working- class interests. Historically, the Trades opposed the unionization of unskilled laborers, and excluded by union constitution immigrants, women and workers of color. At the beginning of the 20th century, the AFL joined together with big capitalists and financiers in the National Civic Organization. AFL leadership sat down with the likes of Andrew Carnegie and J. P. Morgan to halt class struggle through collaboration. Together they opposed unionization outside the crafts. 
 
Then again, in the 1930's, faced with the explosion of unskilled industrial jobs, the AFL opposed unionization. However, many other union leaders understood the need to unite all workers. Led by United Mine Workers' president John L. Lewis, a group of unions walked out of the AFL national convention and declared a new labor organization, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).  
 
Craft unions had always argued that their power came from excluding workers from their ranks, limiting the number of skilled workers. Industrial unions understood that only wall-to-wall unionization could unite a force strong enough to establish the beginnings of industrial democracy.  It took a split to get the job done. 
 
When John L. Lewis, as president of the CIO, explained the reasons for splitting and building a new federation to a New York Time's reporter back in 1937, he said: "Raise the valleys and the peaks will also rise. The wages of skilled labor," he continued, "will be increased proportionately when the unskilled workers-those in the lowest grades of occupation-receive adequate minimum rates of pay." Lewis would be holding signs for the "Fight for $15." 
 
In the same interview, he was asked if what he wanted was "a living wage." The NYT reporter wrote: "He pounded his huge fist upon his desk. `No,' he roared, `not a living wage! We ask more than that. We demand for the unskilled workers a wage that will enable them to maintain themselves and their families in health and modern comfort, to purchase their own homes.' "
 
John L. Lewis' message could not be more relevant. Labor needs to raise up those at the bottom first! Trump has shaped his agenda for those on the peaks, as he attacks every other stratum of the working classes. For decades, the labor movement has struggled to formulate its message, adopting slogans that lower workers' expectations (call for a living wage), that ignore the majority of workers who never made it to the so-called middle class ("bring back the middle class) while pandering to the top leaders of the Construction Trades. 
 
With the decline in union membership, especially in manufacturing, the Trades have been able to wield more power within the AFL-CIO for its exclusive agenda. At a time when we most need unions to stand in solidarity, "an injury to one is an injury to all," the AFL-CIO has fumbled the ball, failing to create the kind of progressive agenda that can unite broad numbers of angry people. Undoubtedly unions face very complicated tensions and differences in their ranks. The maneuvering of Trump and Pence to stop the outsourcing of some jobs by the Carrier Corporation demonstrated this complexity. Trump's deal saved some jobs from outsourcing, but only a minority of jobs, and he stuck the taxpayers of Indiana with the bill. What's a union-in this case the United Steelworkers-to do when your workforce is divided against itself. 
 
Supporting the Dakota access pipeline and the XL pipeline against the will and common good of all people in the United States will in the long run further isolate and damage labor. Unions needs to be on the right side of this issue. The health and welfare of the planet, the repeatedly violated rights of Indigenous nations, are much more important than temporary jobs that threaten rather that strengthen the kind of infrastructure and sustainable development that we need. Unions need to raise those valleys, and promote a just economy. The environment, women's rights, equality and rights for all indigenous nations and all peoples of color, immigrants-documented and undocumented-are union issues, if unions are to represent the workers of this country.
 
Those who fail to think about the interests of all workers cannot build an inclusive movement, and should not be part of the movement for social justice that millions in this country are working to build. We need our unions to be part of this movement, but the decision is up to them.
 
 
* Among participants were Sean McGarvey, president of the Building Trades, Tom Flynn, United Brotherhood of Carpenters, Terry O'Sullivan, general president, Laborers' International Union, Mark McManus, president United Association, Donald Mullins, Steamfitters Local 602, Frank Spencer, Carpenters; Doug McCarron, president United Brotherhood of Carpenters; Mark Coles, Ironworkers Local 5; Joseph Sellers, Jr., president of Sheet Metal Workers Union/SMART Union; Thelma Matta, Heat and Frost Insulators Union Local 24; Mark Urkowski, United Association Local 5; Steven Dodd, Gary Macino, Sheet Metal Workers' Union/SMART. 
 
[Ruth Needleman, professor emerita, Indiana University.]
February 8, 2017