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The AFL-CIO: Choices of Perspective

Continuing the discussion on the role of the AFL-CIO, on the AFL-CIO's recent convention. A response to the ongoing discussion that is needed, started by Steve Early, Bill Fletcher, Jeff Crosby and Peter Olney and published in October by Portside.

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Organized labor's crisis has lasted over three decades; numerous attempts have been made during that time to turn matters around and regain strength, none of which have proved successful.  The recently concluded AFL-CIO Convention's decision to open up union structures to non-union organizations in order to widen the base of support for labor's agenda is another such attempt, more basic than the ones that came before.  If viewed as simply another false path, as a further retreat by labor leadership before the power of capital, then we will return to focus on building counter institutions or agendas which - though essential parts of the movement for progressive/radical social change - have themselves been unable to produce sufficient working-class power to rebuild our labor movement or civil society.  If seen as providing new opportunities to re-engage rank-and-file members and workers outside union ranks, we might be able to use pre-existing networks in concert with labor's institutions to finally re-build working-class strength to counter that power.  A set of choices are thus present akin to those which have faced the left and social movement activists when other such potential turning points have presented themselves in the recent past.

Following eIght-years of neo-liberal Democratic Administration that oversaw the expansion of presidential war-making powers via the bombing of Serbia and a deeply reactionary welfare reform, large numbers of people concluded that it made little difference who was elected to office - and so Ralph Nader's independent campaign for the presidency gained more support in 2000 than any other such effort from the left since Henry Wallace's Progressive Party in 1948.  But evidently the results of the election did matter to those in power - for although Al Gore won the popular vote, and likely won the electoral vote, concerted corporate Republican pressure, abetted by the Supreme Court, made George Bush Jr. President.  Nader and the Green Party were at the height of their influence, and perhaps had they strongly organized and agitated that the victor in the race should sit in the White House, they might have helped build a popular resistance all too lacking at the time.  In fact, the stolen election that year confirmed Nader's analysis of the corruption of the US electoral system.  But because he so narrowly clung to the viewpoint that there was no difference between the parties, Nader and his supporters failed to act.  Inaction at a moment of decision - even a moment that didn't look as imagined --is one of the reasons that no large independent organization emerged from that impressive vote total.

Choices matter.  Bush Administration policies led to an intensification of racism and anti-unionism, of an attack on women's rights and an attack on the environment, further entrenching reactionary ideology and practices throughout society.  And this time, instead of looking for a better third party solution, the need for acting on the choices as they existed led most activists in the communities hardest hit by Bush policies to support Obama.  The fact that the alternative to Bush was not from the left is a reflection of the weakness of the left, a circle which standing outside the world of change will not change. New choices will only appear when we expand the differences within the choices we have.

A reality we see once more in the struggles around the Affordable Care Act.  Indeed, the proposals are less than what we need and don't challenge the existing power of the insurance industry.  But clearly it matters to the Republican right, which has made destroying that legislation the centerpiece of their program.  One reason: it expands the notion of health care as a public right going against the train of attacks on such rights.  Another reason: it can potentially be a link between different sectors of working people, running against the lines of division which the racism and misogyny of the right have used to divide people against themselves.  So it has become an arena of contestation - and as the government shutdown proved, it is a line of division that runs to the heart of our ability to maintain any form of democratic governance at all.  Those people who use valid critiques of the limitations of health reform to sit out the debate actually taking place in society are not only failing to build support for the better alternative of a universal health care system, they are also sitting out the struggle against an unbounded attack on social justice, on social activism, and on public participation in elections.

Alternative ways of viewing choice and change noted above are relevant to the recent Portside discussion initiated by Steve Early's Labor Notes article, "House of Labor Needs Repairs Not Just New Roommates."  Like critiques of Gore (and Clinton's) record in office, of the compromises and vacillations of the Obama Administration, of the limitations of the Affordable Care Act; Early raises valuable and important points in his critique of the AFL-CIO Convention.  Certainly it is true, as he asserts, that no change in organized labor will be lasting and effective if disconnected with current membership, if disconnected with workplace struggles.  One of the weaknesses, for example, of the Teamster reform movement after Ron Carey's election as union president was that the constant emphasis of the "New Teamsters," provided an opening through which opponents of that particular change could appeal to members who felt they were being pushed aside.  Yet the weakness in Early's position is that he fails to see the intrinsically positive nature of many of the measures adopted by the Convention - from the alliance with national progressive/liberal organizations to the commitment to diversity, to giving voice to disenfranchised workers in non-traditional workplaces - changes necessary if the workplace mobilization he prioritizes is to take place.   Highlighting that weakness is the following quote from his article,

"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."  The unfortunate use of the word "unfortunately" invalidates what would otherwise be a valid statement.  Being more inclusive, strengthening relationships outside of labor's ranks, adopting progressive resolutions (which is indeed pleasing) are only steps, much more needs to be done.  But they are steps in the right direction, moving toward the goal he states next, of "defending and re-energizing labor's existing members."  The initiatives Trumka and the AFL-CIO took at this convention are a positive continuation of changes first introduced by John Sweeney when his New Voice slate successfully challenged the Kirkland leadership in 1995.  Early appears to believe that this made little difference, but in fact it was an enormous advance over the Meany and Kirkland leaderships presiding over a labor federation which was not inclusive, preferred formal ties with Cold War business groups over non-labor liberal allies, and passed many a resolution which was unpleasingly conservative.  Of course, Sweeney was not Eugene Debs, just as Obama isn't Martin Luther King - but those weren't the alternatives on the table and wishing otherwise wouldn't make them so.

Only organizing that attacks the roots of labor and working-class weakness can create better and more radical choices.  Underlying Early's position is the clear assessment that labor is weak today because its leadership has been unwilling and unable to lead the fight against management's unrelenting attack against all things union, has blocked the ability of rank & file unionists to take initiative in their own hands. What follows from that it is the clear implication that every bad contract, every stalled organizing drive, every lost strike could have been won with a more radical, militant, intelligent leadership, mobilizing and fully engaging the membership.  Again a partial truth, the lacks of many in labor's top ranks is legion.  Yet it is an outlook that ignores the social context in which union battles take place and ignore the plain fact that - notwithstanding isolated important victories --organized labor, whether measured by membership decline or growing inequality, has been suffering defeats and losses throughout the developed capitalist world.  Losses suffered irrespective of the outlook or structure of particular national movements. Thus the need for political strategies and alliances that go deeper and further than those that existed heretofore, thus the need to move toward structures through which particular union issues are seen through a wider lens and reconnect in practical terms the battle for union workplace rights with the battle for democratic rights.  That is a perspective that can create a framework toward a greater class consciousness, reconnecting labor activism with a socialism that has moved from an abstraction to a goal based on concrete possibility.

In turn, only by the embrace of the kind of broadening made possible at the AFL-CIO convention will it be possible to better root union activism amongst current members.  Again, Early (and some of the other Portside commentators) have been correct in raising concerns about the drift in many Federation unions to distance leadership and staff from their membership in an unhealthy way.  The shameful attempt of the IUOE to raid ILWU contracts, the failure of the Federation to address that issue, serves as a prime example of the danger of separating support for democratic rights in society with that for a more democratic labor movement. But such undemocratic and bureaucratic problems inside the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions has been going on long before the current AFL-CIO Convention and will not be overcome by a return to a focus on building union workplace strength in isolation from all other issues - a legacy from Gompers era that was wrong then, and is inapplicable today.  That, of course, is not Early's position, but it is the perspective from the building trades and other unionists most disturbed by the Convention proceedings.  What is critical to recognize is that greater membership involvement on a sustained basis is only possible when that membership sees labor organization as addressing both workplace and non-workplace issues, sees job fights as related to struggles for environmental justice, for social equality and peace.  Any thought that there could be a resurgent labor movement that failed to put those matters front and center is a notion that ignores the basis of the rise of the IWW, the rise of the CIO, and the wave of public sector, farm worker and rank & file unionism in the 1960s-70s.  The alliances with the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, NOW and the Sierra Club;  the support for and full engagement with non-union workers centers, provide the strongest framework in which such unity can develop - and allow victories such as that won by the Chicago Teachers union be replicated rather than isolated.  Jeff Crosby and Bill Fletcher Jr. ("Viewpoint:  AFL-CIO Convention Repositions Unions to Speak for All Workers") cite in their response to Early the AFL-CIO resolution denouncing mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline.  That position is a direct assault on the racism from which labor has suffered too much in the past, it also lays out a politics that, in the specific case of teacher unionism, is absolutely essential if the school closings, charter school openings, and slow attrition as well as direct assault on public education as a right are to be stopped - teacher jobs protected, teacher unions defending those jobs strengthened.

Like much else, words on paper.  But words on paper can be used by those organizing in the trenches - and if so used can create the basis for a re-engagement of current members and the unorganized.  There is nothing automatic about that process, but working to radicalize positive change in motion - "to reposition unions toward speaking for all working people in the United States," ... to correct "the narrow focus on its dues-paying members and traditional electoral work that has cursed the movement for most of its history," as Crosby and Fletcher put it, seems a better way to get there than dismissing out of hand such changes for being insufficient.   Militant democratic rank-and-file unionism is a necessity for labor, but it cannot be willed into being and it cannot be created in isolation from other struggles in society.  It has to be organized using every tool available.  The AFL-CIO Convention has handed us new tools, we now have to use them.

[Kurt Stand was active in the labor movement for over 20 years, eventually serving as an elected regional secretary of the International Union of Food and Allied Workers. Recently released after serving 15 years in federal prison, he has added a view of labor from without to his former view from within.]