Labor Wars, from Top to Bottom

Against the Current, No. 59, November/December 1995

The Editors

AMERICA’S NEW LABOR WARS, from Staley and Caterpillar in Decatur to the Detroit newspapers, have become more frequent and visible—on the streets of Los Angeles and the construction sites of southern California; in the mining hills of rural western Virginia, on the streets of New York and in southern Illinois; and now in Detroit, industrial unionism’s hometown, and at Boeing in Seattle, all struggles of workers who thought a piece of the “American Dream” was theirs.

The frightening sense that capital, as a class, is destroying the future of all working people, both individually and as a class, is almost universal among union activists and many other working class people today.  Even though many workers are afraid to fight back, the underlying fury in the working class is what may prove most important in the long run. The consciousness and politics of labor in the United States are changing, both at the bottom and the top.

We don’t mean to imply that these developments immediately signal a new labor upheaval on the scale of the 1930s.  They do, however, represent an important expression of deep- seated anger throughout the working class.  And while anger alone can express itself in destructive ways, as the growth of right-wing politics of all sorts shows, much of the new activity within the working class is taking a progressive turn.

There are a growing number of struggles, including the Decatur “war zone” and now the Detroit newspapers, in which members of “unaffected” unions and community supporters join strikers, locked-out workers, or those seeking union recognition to take on Corporate America.  At the same time, unions are seeking a new line of defense in today’s raging global economic wars. Hence there will be a highly significant redrawing of the lines of industrial unionism, as the projected merger of the auto, steel and machinists’ union merger indicates.

Above and Below

A generational changing of the guard at the top of many unions and a more profound rank and file-driven change in a few unions, most significantly the Teamsters, brings to office those who rose to elected leadership during a period of crisis.  A modest increase in new organizing hold open the hope of union growth.

A widespread questioning of labor’s traditional political strategy makes independent working-class politics a real question for debate once again.  And the unprecedented spectacle of a contested election for the leadership of the AFL-CIO, with “rebels” expected to be the victors as this “ATC” goes to press, opens the door for more leadership transition throughout labor.

It’s easy enough to locate the limits and flaws in all of this. The heroic street battles against scabs and cops that punctuate protracted struggles, described (for example) in our coverage of the Detroit newspaper strike elsewhere in this issue, often have no clear victory in sight.  The posture of labor as a whole remains defensive.

In the merger negotiations among the big three metal workers unions, and in the leadership contest at the AFL-CIO, the organizational framework remains sluggish and bureaucratic.  Furthermore, for all the talk about new strategies, no overall sense of direction such as guided the early CIO prevails so far.

To be sure, there are voices of vision from the edges of the leadership, such as the Oil, Chemical and Atomic workers, from the depth of the rank and file in a number of unions, and among the activists in those mass confrontations that shake loose the imagination.  But these stirrings still await the arrival of the big forces of the industrial unions, the battalions who have yet to be drawn into what a growing number of union t-shirts proclaim as America’s Labor Wars.

At the Top of the House of Labor

Nowhere are these limits more obvious than in the best publicized event in labor’s growing flux, the AFL-CIO election contest.  Possibly the most significant single event in all of this was the forced retirement of Lane Kirkland, the Federation’s chief since the late 1970s when he succeeded George Meany in the orderly fashion high-level labor officials prefer.

Kirkland’s removal was a palace coup: a bold one, but respectful of the rigid protocol that reigns in such bureaucratic palaces.  Its major motivation was undoubtedly Kirkland’s failure to develop any kind of new response to the drastically altered political atmosphere labor has faced for some time. Kirkland’s lackluster leadership in the fight against NAFTA infuriated too many leaders at all levels.

At the June Executive Council meeting, Kirkland’s long time sidekick Tom Donahue was elevated from secretary-treasurer to president until the October election.  Let the historical record show that for the three months between the Executive Council meeting and the convention, the AFL-CIO had its only female secretary-treasurer in history: Donahue made his bid for diversity by anointing CWA vice-president Barbara Easterling, one of the few women union leaders who do not advocate reproductive choice, as his secretary-treasurer and running mate.

The insurgent “New Voice for American Workers” slate, headed by John Sweeney, president of the Service Employees International Union), campaigned like baby-kissing politicians, showing up at strike rallies and labor events around the country.  Sweeney and Donahue debated on TV, while buttons, stickers and t-shirts spread throughout the unions to support both slates.

The oddest thing about this vigorous campaigning was that none of the rank and filers whom they appeared to court could vote in the election.  The election at the Federation’s biennial convention, scheduled for October 25, is one in which a few dozen men (and a few women) cast all the votes on behalf of labor’s millions.  The AFL-CIO convention, after all, is it not so much the democratic congress of organized labor as the stockholders’ meeting of American business unionism.

Once the unions took sides, it seemed foretold that Sweeney’s “New Voice” would defeat Donahue and Easterling by about 60%.  Assuming a “New Voice” victory, Linda Chavez- Thompson of AFSCME will become the AFL-CIO’s first Executive Vice-President, an office created by the convention.  Rich Trumka of the United Mine Workers will be the new secretary- treasurer.

Sweeney, Without Illusions

Sweeney and Donahue are cut from the same cloth.  Both came out of the SEIU’s highly corrupt Local 32B/32J in New York City. Donahue entered the labor movement as a staffer for the Retail Clerks in 1948 and switched to SEIU in 1949.  He was never a worker.  Sweeney, who dug graves for a living before becoming a staffer, would make up for this low-income episode by taking two salaries from the SEIU: $79,000 from Local 32B/32J and $210,000 from the International (he became president in 1980).  In 1994, he finally reduced his 32B/32J income to $10,000, perhaps in preparation for becoming a rebel.

There were, to be sure, issues in the Sweeney-Donahue contest: new organizing, diversity in leadership, “new” approaches to politics.  The problem was that both sides laid claim to the same agenda; yet there were differences that made support to the “New Voice” slate preferable.  In his version of expanded organizing, for example, Sweeney emphasized low-wage workers like those in the SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaigns, while Donahue emphasized reaching white-collar professionals with associational halfway- houses.

Just beneath the surface was the unspoken, but crucial issue of AFL-CIO foreign policy.  When Sweeney promised to devote one-third of the federation’s budget to organizing he was talking about a drastic reshuffling of the AFL-CIO’s nearly $70 million annual budget.  Some of that money would come from the sacrosanct budget of the Department of International Affairs (DIA).

Long the unaccountable and largely secret property of Kirkland, Donahue and their friends in the Social Democrats- USA (America’s most subterranean political sect), the DIA operated a string of CIA-linked agents and right-wing union leaders throughout the Third World and more recently in Eastern Europe and Russia.  (A recent example is covered in “The AFL-CIO’s Mission to Moscow,” by Renfrey Clarke, “ATC” 50).

We’re talking here about the Federation’s own money; it doesn’t even count the subsidy for international machinations that the AFL- CIO has received from the State Department’s Agency for International Development or the National Endowment for Death Squads (oops, make that Democracy).  While the real costs of the DIA’s operations are hidden in the AFL-CIO’s published budgets, its basic salary and office expenses come to about eight percent of the Federation’s headquarters costs.

It is hard to imagine a shift toward organizing that wouldn’t jeopardize the status and secrecy of the DIA. Donahue’s response to Sweeney—that expanded organizing would require new funding sources—was a sub rosa defense of this disgraceful labor espionage operation.

The most important aspect of the first contested leadership transition in the federation’s 40-year history, however, is that it has helped to legitimize issue-oriented debate, contested elections and dissent.  While many issues went unaddressed, such as labor-management cooperation or union democracy, others have been thrown into the arena of debate.  Not just organizing, but how to organize; not just “diversity,” but a real break for workers of color and women; not just “new” political tactics, but a new labor politics, are all up for discussion.

The “New Voice” campaigners have even rendered high- visibility organized opposition more respectable.  Unintentionally they have given heart to dissidents and reformers throughout the unions.  Sweeney himself faces opposition in the SEIU, both from a network of reformers calling themselves Service Employees for Democratic Reform and from insurgents in the union’s most famous local, the Los Angeles Justice for Janitors’ Local 399.

Earlier this year the predominantly Latino janitors linked up with largely African-American health care workers in Local 399 to form the Multicultural Slate.  The slate swept all the offices it contested, including the entire executive board.  Sweeney the reformer reverted to Sweeney the bureaucrat and slapped a trusteeship on Local 399.  The fight is far from over.

Reformers in the Auto Workers, Machinists, and Steelworkers will get a new lease on life as the constitutions of those unions are rewritten in the merger process that is to be completed by the year 2000.  Years of concessions, lost battles, and failed cooperation programs will come up for review as the metal workers discuss directions for their new union.

In next year’s high-visibility Teamster elections, reformer Ron Carey faces a challenge from an old guard united in their greed behind James Hoffa, Jr., a cipher with big name recognition.  Carey, however, stands on a solid record of accomplishment and resistance to concessions.  A strong campaign and a Carey victory over this heavily-financed old guard would encourage others who want to make organized labor a more powerful force for change.

The Choices and the Stakes

That the American Dream was always false for many, and fleeting for most, is true enough.  What matters most today, however, is that more and more working people of every race and background see the country becoming a battle ground where arrogant corporations and employers routinely grind up people, families and communities for greater profit.

In the rank and file base, far more than in top-level maneuvers, lies the potential for the socialist left. The turmoil at the top surely reflects the crises facing an increasingly disgruntled class, but it is in the ranks in the midst of battle that a message of militancy, solidarity, independent politics and social transformation makes the most sense.

There are many ways for activists to be present: in the union reform movements, in our own unions and struggles, in city-wide support campaigns, student-labor action committees, local Jobs with Justice groups, Labor Party Advocates or local class-based third party movements, or through community-based workers’ organizations.  The real point is that the growth of working-class action can begin to forge an effective challenge to the right wing and the corporate offensive—and a new vision of society.