Will It Improve the Plight of America’s Workers?
Whether this week's AFL-CIO Conventioneers, celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the merger of the American Federation of Labor (founded in 1886) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (founded in 1935), could produce a united front to combat the long ignored "one-sided class war being waged [relentlessly] on workers in this country" was never really in question. They can't! Labor's leadership is organized in a "circular firing squad."
It's not in question whether this convention of the self-described "House of Labor" will provide an unusual measure of drama, with major players pushing competing proposals for the revitalization of our beleaguered labor movement. That, in a surreal sense, is assured. Five of the most influential and numerically potent affiliated unions, under the banner of Change To Win Coalition (CTW), have issued a challenge to the existing direction of the Federation and seem equally passionate about replacing its top officers, particularly AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. This conflict has been brewing for over a year. There have been open skirmishes and rancorous internal debates. A threat by the CTW unions to disaffiliate from the AFL-CIO is also in play. Some observers have described the situation as "a train wreck in the making."
What's it all about? Each side cites the precipitous decline in the percentage of union members in the total U.S. work force as the driving imperative behind the need to change course. However, the bulk of the debate, as initiated by CTW, has been focused on "restructuring" and resource reallocation (how much Federation dues dollars to rebate to affiliates that meet new organizing criteria goals). The argument is underpinned by buzz phrases like "achieving density" and strong initiatives to merge a number of existing unions into industrial sector blocks with Industrial Coordinating Committees (ICCs) to assist in strategic targeting and police the bargaining standards of each sector's member unions.
The positions of each side have changed over the course of the debate. And, in the days just before the Convention, additional discussions were underway between representatives of the each faction. The detailed positions of the current competing proposals are available online. For the Change to Win Coalition, check their web sites: unitetowin.org and changetowin.org, titled "Change To Win Amendments & Resolutions." The counter-positions of the current AFL-CIO Officers can be found at
A larger question being raised by a number of unionists and labor-friendly observers, myself included, is what is not included in the current top-down debate. Neither side offers an overall vision of how a just society should be organized. Nothing in this fractious exchange provides or encourages greater internal democracy. And, despite the 30-year long corporate war on workers' wages, conditions of employment, and the quality of life in working class communities, little in the dueling proposals suggests how to wage a concerted counterattack. There is also a very limited appreciation in this debate of the depth of the collusion of government with the corporate aggressors. In the positions of either side, there is only an oblique nod to the need for international solidarity among unions and labor movements within the global economy.
In a very recent analysis of the current debate, RoseAnn DeMoro, Executive Director of the independent California Nurses Association, published a piece posted on Counterpunch (21 July 2005), entitled “Top 10 Problems with the Current Debate in the Labor Movement.” One of the ten, for example, suggests that:
No issues affecting the majority of working Americans are being debated -- declining real wages, the health care crisis, the continued erosion of democracy in the workplace, outsourcing of jobs across the skill and pay spectrum, a deteriorating social safety net, declining support for public education, environmental degradation, social justice and ongoing racial and gender inequality, alienation and disaffection from the political process.
Bill Fletcher, a former labor organizer and one time top staffer in the AFL-CIO, and currently President of TransAfrica, in a recent TruthOut interview (David Bacon, "Labor Needs a Hard Left Turn," 21 July 2005), noted how conservative U.S. unions are compared to the labor movements of many other countries. He further argued that "if we are going to have a renewed labor movement . . . we need radical solutions!"
That would be a historical new direction. For this now third generation of merged Federation leaders, however, despite the depth of the current crisis, "radical solutions" have never on the table. To be sure, there's a lot of sound, and even a little fury, in the air as the leadership of our decimated union ranks gather, but very little of it is focused on those who are concertedly widening the gulf of inequality.
As a historical aside: this gathering can not, in any way, be compared to the collection of intrepid radicals and activists who in this same Chicago 100 years ago gathered under the unifying banner of the Continental Congress of the Working Class and gave birth to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).