John Sweeney’s New-Old AFL-CIO

Against the Current, No. 67, March/April 1997

Jane Slaughter

PERHAPS THE BEST thing about the 1995 election campaign of the New Voice team in the AFL-CIO was that it made the labor movement suddenly visible.  For years the pundits had counted organized labor out. Most newspapers no longer saw a need for a labor reporter; perhaps some junior staffer took “work and family” as part of a beat in the Lifestyle section.

Then, unexpectedly, the labor movement became almost popular.  Was the (now emaciated) sleeping giant capable of resuscitation after all?

Unaccustomed to positive media attention, many rank-and-file activists and local officers began to feel more hopeful as well. Although the seemingly permanent majority of uninvolved members remained cynical or uninterested, the more active dared to hope that the victory of the John Sweeney team might trickle down some results.

There is indeed some positive fallout in the first year and a quarter of the Sweeney administration.  And some on the left have thrown in their lot with the AFL-CIO by taking staff jobs, hoping that with the new resources available to them they’ll be able to mobilize real numbers.  Best of luck to them. The hope is always, “Better a person with good politics like mine should be the organizer, rather than some hack.”

But most union militants and reformers have not let the excitement of October 1995 run away with them. The fact remains that the New Voice team remains committed to the same outlook and methods of functioning that helped labor fall to its current pitiful proportion of the workforce, and to its pathetic level of strength both in the political arena and versus the employers.  In most important respects the politics of the union bureaucracy have not changed at all.

It must be said that Sweeney deserved praise for the way he ran his election campaign.  He and running mates Rich Trumka and Linda Chavez-Thompson actually went out to the rank and file, particularly to strikers and other workers in struggle.

These workers had no say in the election at the AFL-CIO convention, where international union presidents cast their votes in blocks.  The members had no influence on how their presidents would vote, yet Sweeney took the opportunity to campaign widely, to let members-and the media-know that a change was coming.

Q. How many AFL-CIO staffers does it take to change a light bulb?

A. Two. One to spin the bulb and one to spin it to the media.

Sweeney has also been complimented for giving up his dual salary, a step he took during the election campaign.  He had been paid both as Service Employees (SEIU) International President and by a New York SEIU local.  But the fact that Sweeney had been comfortable for so many years with this arrangement-which gave him an average $34,600 per year on top of his $200,000-plus SEIU presidential salary-is a reminder of just where in the complacent labor hierarchy this gentleman/brother comes from.

After the election, Sweeney called a slew of meetings: with women’s organizations; of activists doing “living wage” political campaigns around the country; of local central labor councils (CLCs), to try to develop a new mission for these moribund bodies (in most areas CLCs do little besides endorse candidates).

Although startling results are not apparent, it is positive that at least someone was “thinking” at the top levels.  The old regime would not have noticed that living wage campaigns were sprouting everywhere; it would have been content with the CLCs as they were.

Measures of Progress

It can also be said that Sweeney kept his campaign promise to focus the federation’s energies on just two tasks, organizing and politics.  But his approach to these two priorities is either off or dead wrong.  (Throughout I’ll use “Sweeney” as shorthand for the AFL-CIO apparatus; the analysis here is not meant to imply that Sweeney as an individual is either the problem or the issue.)

What’s more, there are large, large areas of labor’s business that the “new AFL-CIO” tries to ignore altogether.  When Sweeney does address these concerns-the relationship of workers to employers, for instance-he reveals how committed he is to a continuation of labor’s old politics.

Let’s look at half a dozen issues that define a labor movement.

1. Organizing the unorganized.

Sweeney is indeed actively encouraging locals and internationals to organize.  The AFL-CIO promotes multi- union organizing campaigns by providing money.

Some CLCs have used the AFL-CIO’s “MEMO” training-Membership Education and Mobilization for Organizing.  This approach says that rather than unions simply assigning staffers to organize, members should be involved.  And the federation is using moral suasion to get locals and internationals to commit thirty percent of their budgets to recruitment.

At the Washington State Labor Council convention in September 1996, for example, stickers reading “30% by the year 2000” were distributed.  Delegates signed a petition endorsing Sweeney’s call for thirty percent across the board.  In Sweeney’s old union, SEIU, if locals commit certain percentages of their budgets to organizing they receive a dues rebate.

And of course the AFL-CIO’s organizer recruitment and mobilization program, bringing pro-labor together in the project called Union Summer-though it may not have made a difference on the ground in actual campaigns-gave a boost to labor’s image and probably attracted some young people who will return to the labor movement as organizers and other staffers.

All this has not resulted in a noticeable uptick in organizing victories yet. For one thing, 1996 was an election year, and much of official labor’s energy was focused there.

More important, Sweeney’s $20 million pledge is a drop in the bucket compared to the tens of millions of non-union workers; the actual work in the field must come from the unions themselves, not from the AFL-CIO.

This is not Sweeney’s fault.  But there is another problem with his organizing “strategy:” though ambitious, it’s scatter-shot.  In practice it boils down to this: Whichever union wants to organize whatever group of workers, it’s great.  This continues the current situation in which the United Steelworkers organize hospital workers instead of the mini-mills; the UAW organizes Michigan public employees instead of auto parts workers; the International Chemical Workers Union mergers with the Steelworkers instead of with the more radical Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers.

More and more unions are becoming “general unions” rather than following the old slogan of the South African federation, COSATU: “One industry, one union.”  Under this policy, all hospital workers, for example, would be in one union rather than split up among SEIU, 1199, AFSCME, and every industrial union.  Sweeney’s brand of encouragement to organize and merge does nothing to help sort out this mess.

The SEIU has been strategic in the sense that it has targeted specific kinds of workers: janitors and nursing home workers.  The good thing about this choice is that it means going after low-paid workers whom many unions have not cared about, and in particular immigrants, women and people of color.

SEIU staffers argue that it makes sense to aim for industries where a union can gain control over the local labor market, rather than those that are in international competition.  Nursing home owners cannot move the shop to Mexico.

This focus may be easier, but it does not challenge the nerve centers of capital.  Although Sweeney does not have the power to tell affiliates whom to organize, it’s interesting to think what could happen if AFL-CIO leaders thought strategically about what, over all, could give the labor movement the most power.

One strong contender would have to be the auto parts industry.  Imagine if Sweeney declared, “The auto industry is still the premier industry in this country, with the greatest economic reach.  But a smaller and smaller proportion of auto workers are unionized.  Today only a fifth of non-Big Three parts workers are union members, down from two-thirds in the mid-’70s.  This dissipation has hurt union clout tremendously.

“On the other hand, we know that the companies’ just-in-time systems give unionized parts plants enormous power -as was demonstrated by the strike of two UAW brake plants against GM in March 1996, which shut the company down throughout the continent and cost it nearly $1 billion.

“So I’m swinging my weight to convince the UAW to use its enormous stash of cash to do a massive organizing campaign among auto parts workers.  If the UAW won’t do it, I’ll charter a new union to do so. Or I’ll invite the UE [United Electrical Workers] back into the fold and give them the money to go for it.”

Such a commitment would truly put the commanding heights of capital on notice that the labor movement meant business.  But it won’t happen-and not just because it would be an unthinkable breach of protocol.

Indeed, the United Auto Workers’ failure to organize the parts plants is not an oversight.  The union’s acquiescence during the 1980s and 1990s as the Big Three jobbed out more and more work to non-union shops appears to be part of a strategy to help the companies lower overall production costs in the United States.

Under this thinking, if parts production is relatively cheap, the Big Three will not feel the need to move their final assembly plants abroad.  The UAW can remain a union of high-paid, though many fewer, members.  (And perhaps the strategy has “worked:” the last assembly plant to be opened in Mexico was Ford’s Hermosillo plant, in 1986.)

But because Sweeney himself sees big profits for corporations as the only way that workers will get anything, the logic of the UAW’s inaction in the auto parts sector (or its acceptance of miserable substandard wages where it does organize parts plants) is actually compatible with his approach.

Thus it would be a mistake to see the choices made about organizing either by the AFL-CIO or by particular unions as simply the result of incompetence or inertia.  The larger question is the union leaderships’ friendly relation to capital (see point 5 below).

2. Politics.

Again, Sweeney did what he said he would do, pouring at least $35 million into electing Democrats.  The day after the election, unable to point to an impressive number of seats won, the AFL-CIO spin doctors declared instead that their effort had forced the Republicans to take up labor’s issues: “The 105th Congress will legislate under the spotlight of a working families agenda, not a business- driven Contract with America.”

It’s probably not necessary to convince most Against the Current readers that for labor to devote itself to the Democrats is wrong-headed.  Always a corporate-owned coalition in which labor was the most junior of partners, under Clinton’s New Democrats the party has given up even lip service to the goals of organized labor.

The AFL-CIO pretends hard not to notice.  But the supineness of the federation’s endorsement of Clinton deserves some comment.  Despite NAFTA, the failure of anti-scab legislation, Clinton’s pro-business stab at health care reform, the Dunlop Commission, and welfare reform/workfare, the federation endorsed Clinton without reservation and with no conditions or even requests.

Sweeney even described this move as bold and brave; he wrote in “Labor Research Review” that “we defied convention and made an early endorsement.”

One positive effect of the Sweeney victory has been to create somewhat more space for the new Labor Party.  Party organizer Tony Mazzocchi believes that Sweeney’s predecessor Lane Kirkland would have tried to hinder the Labor Party by forbidding CLCs from endorsing.  Sweeney has remained neutral, although making it clear that he’ll be sticking with the Democrats himself.

(Actually, Sweeney even wrote before the election, again in Labor Research Review: Our new approach to politics has already split the conservative and moderate wings of the Republican party and we look forward to a day when we can once again support politicians like Nelson Rockefeller, Mark Hatfield, and Jacob Javits.”)

3. Militancy and member mobilization.

The New Voice campaign promised that the “new AFL-CIO” would be militant about organizing.  Sweeney’s record at SEIU was impressive on this score.  In the Justice for Janitors campaign, immigrant janitors in many cities marched, did civil disobedience; SEIU organizers encouraged real mobilization of potential members.

The case of the janitors of SEIU Local 399 in Los Angeles has been often cited.  These Salvadoran cleaners used civil disobedience to disrupt business as usual in Century City’s luxury office buildings.  They took beatings by the police.  They won a contract.

The aftermath is less well known.  The victorious janitors were dumped into a 25,000-member citywide SEIU local run very much in the old style.  In 1995 they and others organized a dissident slate called the Multiracial Alliance to run in the local’s first contested election ever. When they won every seat except the presidency, which they did not contest, there was some chaos when the old president refused to cooperate.

Sweeney’s response: throw the local into trusteeship.  As Martha Gruelle wrote in “Labor Notes”, “The rank and filers had violated the understanding that their organizing was to stop when they became members.”

Aside from such issues of internal democracy-to be further discussed below-the question also arises how to win struggles once the union is in place.  A major barrier to Sweeney’s promoting militancy, should he want to do so, is protocol, which has always been the ruling energy in dealings within the AFL-CIO. (Sweeney, to be sure, broke decades of encrusted protocol by challenging an incumbent for the top job.)

The rule is that the AFL-CIO leadership doesn’t try to tell an affiliate union what to do. Here’s an early case in point: The word is that Sweeney was willing to keep his promise, made at the AFL-CIO convention where he was elected, to do something for the locked-out Staley workers-probably by forming another task force.  But their international president, Wayne Glenn of the Paperworkers, said no, thanks.  Glenn wanted the Staley struggle over with, pulled the plug, and Sweeney refrained from riding in on a white charger.

The Battle of Detroit

In Detroit, the newspaper unions have been on strike since July 1995.  The AFL-CIO has sent in support staff, some of whom have helped out in some creative and militant actions.  But Sweeney has made no move to bring about a change in the most important decision made in the strike.  That was the decision early on by the six local presidents of the striking unions: to obey an injunction that keeps strikers and supporters away from the gates of the newspapers’ main printing plant.

Six weeks into the strike, hundreds, even thousands, of strikers and supporters (auto workers in particular) were coming to the picket lines, staying up all night to block the gates, physically stopping or slowing distribution of the newspaper.

With the decision to obey the injunction, the course of the strike was settled, and all the brave efforts since by a remarkable band of rank and filers have yet to re-create the sense of crisis-and unity-that existed in September 1995.  The troops were there; they were sent home.

True leadership would mean breaking protocol to stand with the embattled workers, not the local officials.  If Sweeney took the Detroit strike seriously-and the possibility of a crushed major strike in labor’s heartland should be taken very seriously-he would tell the local officers to organize to stop distribution of the scab papers, as was done in the “New York Daily News” strike in 1990-91.

He would step on some toes to get a strike won, instructing them that the only way to win this strike is to create a political crisis in the city that forces the powers that be to call a halt to the owners’ intransigence.  He should pledge his complete support, including convincing other unions to send in troops to fill the jails, if necessary.  He should say that if they don’t do it, he’ll step in and do it for them.

But Sweeney declined to honor even a request for help that met all the requirements of protocol.  Both the Detroit CLC and the six unions’ leadership had asked him to call a Solidarity Day III, a massive march on Detroit.  As a consolation prize, Sweeney and Trumka came to Detroit the Friday before Labor Day 1996 and were arrested sitting down in front of the “Detroit News.”

Both men assured the workers they were certain to win, because they were in the right.  But neither had a single word to say, after thirteen and a half months, about a strategy for that righteous victory.

Of course, protocol is not the only reason that Sweeney and Trumka hold back. As always, top leaders shun militancy because aroused members can get out of control.  How would it look for a labor statesman to have his constituents breaking laws, windows, or legs?  Especially during election season, labor leaders are careful not to besmirch their candidates’ reputations with actions that might look disreputable to non-union voters.

Further, as local leaders have made explicit in the Detroit strike, there is always the argument that “we can’t risk heavy fines for breaking injunctions; that would risk the very existence of the union itself” (i.e. the bricks and mortar that make up the headquarters building).

Sweeney does sincerely want to see a more powerful labor movement, in his own definition of that term. It would seem, then, that he would see the long-term dangers of a defeat in Detroit, following on the defeat at Staley.

In both cases, the workers fought hard and received much support from local unions, even internationals, around the country.  But in each case, the higher levels of labor drew back, demonstrating to corporate strategists that they were not willing to do what was necessary to win.

As Kim Moody of “Labor Notes” has written, today’s union leaders know how to sell out. But the corporations want more than a sell-out; they want complete surrender.  And our leaders are left without a clue.

4. Democracy.

Democracy in a union context means rank-and-file control.  It is difficult to imagine what a democratic AFL-CIO would look like, and probably more useful to look at where Sweeney is likely to stand on democracy and the right to dissent in CLCs and in the affiliates.

Kirkland used his power to crush dissent on foreign policy, his obsession.  He prevented local CLCs from hearing unapproved speakers from El Salvador, for example.  Will Sweeney encourage freedom of discussion and democratic practices such as rank and file voting for top officers?

One indication comes from looking at SEIU. We’ve already noted the experience of the Los Angeles janitors, and it’s not unique.  Of all unions, SEIU is one of the most staff- run and staff-dominated, including at the local level.

Not only does SEIU hire most staff from outside-people who’ve never worked as a janitor or in a nursing home-those staffers may then run for local office and become elected officials.  Many “locals” are huge statewide amalgamations where members don’t have a prayer of influencing the professional officials’ priorities.  The culture of SEIU is such that staffers see no problem with being the ones to run the union; they’re proud of it.

So the question arises: If Sweeney does succeed in organizing tens of thousands of new union members, what is he organizing them into?  No union official will speak publicly against democracy or rank and file power.  But neither has the New Voice group said that democracy is part and parcel of their program.

A long article in the “Boston Review” by Stephen Lerner, architect of the Justice for Janitors campaign under Sweeney, is a good example of a militancy-without-democracy point of view. Lerner presents a thorough action program for labor.  He calls for civil disobedience, for mobilizing the most active one percent of union members into “an army ready to risk arrest…to bring whole cities to a standstill.”

But rank and filers’ taking control of their unions is nowhere mentioned.  Lerner says not a word about rank-and- file initiative or control of the militant actions he espouses.  Quite the contrary; he writes, “It is difficult to activate members when we are asking them to do something with little impact.”

Instead, Lerner writes, we should ask them to do something important; but these exciting actions are clearly to be designed from above, and workers “activated” or “asked” to participate-the cannon fodder version of organizing.

This notion of union power is the opposite of that held by the most successful movement for union democracy, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU).  TDU has always maintained, and acted on the belief, that democracy increases workers’ power against the boss. Throughout the movement’s twenty- year history, members and leaders have treated the two goals of democracy and power against the company as inextricably intertwined.

Thus TDU for years organized for rank and file election of top officers, an effort which ultimately made it possible to convince the government to impose democratic reforms on the Teamsters instead of a government takeover of the union.  In 1991 TDU campaigned-and made the difference-for Ron Carey and his entire slate of reformers.

In 1994 Carey called a national strike against the major freight companies over the issue of part-timing-and won. The old, far less democratic union would have handed the employers part-timers on a silver platter-and then if the members didn’t like it, imposed the “two-thirds rule” (it took two-thirds voting no for a contract to be rejected).

This victory on part-timing, a victory against the employers, would not have been possible without a dissident movement calling for democratic reforms.  But again, given protocol, one thing we can count on is that Sweeney will not be encouraging opposition movements within unions.

Although Sweeney’s apologists would have it otherwise, the questions of democracy and willingness to take on the employers also affect organizing.  Optimists make much of the fact that the AFL-CIO’s new line is that rank and file members should be involved in recruiting new members, not just professional staff organizers.

SEIU, for example, says locals will qualify for organizing money on condition that they set up a member organizing committee.  But why should a rank and filer devote her weekends to housecalling prospects if she has no say in her own union?  If that union’s done little or nothing to confront the changing conditions of work, how is she to describe its advantages to potential converts?  Which brings us to the question of .  .  .

5. Relations between workers and owners.

On this rather fundamental point, Sweeney’s record thus far is mixed at best. He is willing to wage a fight against the boss to win recognition and a contract, but once the union is established, his notion of the proper labor-management relationship slides into the new orthodoxy of the 1990s.

Sweeney’s perspective, clearly stated, for how unions are to increase their power in society is that they must increase their numbers, through organizing, and that they must elect friendly politicians.  But how are larger numbers to translate into power “vis a vis” the corporations (besides getting out the vote)?

The answer, apparently, is labor-management partnership.  Follow the German co-determination model (never mind that German employers have decided they’re not playing any more).

When newly elected, Sweeney appeared before many conclaves of concerned business executives.  In these speeches, he called for a “social compact.”  The argument-the same as his predecessors’-goes: If only corporate leaders would wake up and realize that recognizing unions is really in their interests!

Enlightened employer self-interest should lead companies to take the “high road.”  Partnership with a union, along with a high-wage, high-performance workplace (read: lean production), will yield greater productivity, quality, and therefore profits-a win-win situation.  In short, to twist the words of “Solidarity Forever”, “There’s a lot we have in common with the greedy parasite.  .  .”

In October 1996, Sweeney told members of Business for Social Responsibility, “We want to help American business compete in the world and create new wealth for your shareholders and your employees.  We want to work with you to bake a larger pie which all Americans can share, and not just argue with you about how to divide the existing pie.”

Under this plan, it’s not necessary to take anything from the shareholders in order to increase the proportion that workers take home. The problem is that employers don’t take the low road-cutting jobs, using low-wage labor, busting unions-because they’re short-sighted or because they’re stupid mismanagers.  They do so because the market rewards low-road companies.

The corporations know that a decent union will cut into profits, not enhance them; it takes from the bosses to give to the workers.

Surely Sweeney too knows, on some level, that the project to convince employers to become partners with unions—no matter how cooperative the union—is bound to fail. But lacking any other perspective to gain power to get what workers need, the only course left is to make nice.

To be fair, Sweeney has taken both sides on the question of making nice. He has told the employers he’s going to organize their workers whether they like it or not. But again the question arises: What is he organizing them into?  What will those unions do on the job?

6. Life on the job.

In the last decade almost every American workplace of any size has undergone sweeping changes in the way work is organized: reengineering, speedup, deskilling (known as multiskilling), quality circles to filch workers’ job knowledge, rigid standardization, increased contracting out and use of temporaries, long and non-standard hours, the internal customer, computer monitoring, teams, just-in-time schedules-what many call lean production.

Yet the workplace is not high on Sweeney’s list. This lack of interest is not startling.  For most top labor leaders, working conditions are never much of an issue.  They’re concerned with matters that can be more easily measured-number of cents per hour raise, number of jobs, number of members.

What their members actually do eight-or ten or twelve-hours per day, and how those conditions are being transformed, does not usually percolate up very well.

Sweeney does have, however, a new office at AFL-CIO headquarters called the Center for Workplace Democracy, with a staff of two, as part of the Center for Corporate Affairs.  One of the Center’s first projects is a study, by academics, of how “workplace democracy” (that is, labor-management cooperation programs) has affected unions and members.  But according to the center director, the results of the study may not be made public!

It would be difficult to argue that union leaders ignore their members’ workplace concerns at their peril.  They’ve been ignoring life on the shop floor successfully since the 1940’s.  But the workplace is seeing more change today than at any time since mass production began, and it is a major weakness of the new AFL-CIO’s outlook that it ignores or misunderstands this transformation.

The profound reorganization of work could and should make the workplace once again a locus of struggle.  I’m reminded of the anonymous factory worker of the 1930s: “I ain’t got no kick on wages; I just don’t like to be drove.”

Today the majority of unionized workers are not bucking the new ways of working; they are taking all the overtime they can get and hoping their plants won’t close-and their bodies won’t give out-before they retire.

Given union officials’ lack of interest in workplace issues, it’s not surprising that almost everyone seeks individual solutions to the grind.  (The Staley workers, resisting the twelve-hour day, were a notable exception.) At the same time, even the daily papers chronicle the toll that the lean workplace is taking on workers’ health and family lives.

Anger at insecure and stressful jobs is waiting to be tapped.  But challenging the dictates of lean production would mean challenging the methods that are wringing more profits out of workers.  And higher profits are the only means Sweeney can see to getting more pie for workers and fulfilling his slogan, “America Needs a Raise.”

To avoid forgetting the obvious: The Sweeney slate’s victory was positive for the labor movement.  It has created openings for unionists who want more militancy and more power, because it has made the idea that something can be done-not an option under the Kirkland regime-seem more viable.

Labor activists at all levels-though not the majority of uninvolved members-now feel that they can talk about what the labor movement needs.  But the need for union reform-one, two, many TDUs-and strong class politics is as great as before.  As ever, salvation for the working stiff will not be handed down from on high.

Jane Slaughter is the author of several books published by Labor Notes, most recently Working Smart, co-authored with Mike Parker.

ATC 67, March-April 1997