The New AFL-CIO’s Five-Year Record

Against the Current, No. 89, November/ December 2000

Jane Slaughter

FIVE YEARS AGO John Sweeney’s New Voice slate won a majority of union presidents’ votes with promises to transform the AFL-CIO.  Today the AFL-CIO leadership continues to demonstrate the ambiguities that are inevitable when leaders want to increase the size and power of the labor movement—by their own definition—yet remain committed to both the methods and the ideology of business unionism.

On the positive side of the ledger, the AFL-CIO’s February 2000 reversal of policy on immigrant workers, to favor amnesty and immigrants’ rights, was an unequivocal advance for a U.S. labor movement with a sad history on the subject of immigrants of color.

This change was apparently brought about by simple recognition of the larger and larger portion of the work force who are immigrants.  This is especially true in the sector that President Sweeney tends to favor as a focus for organizing: low-paid service workers (hotel and hospital workers, janitors) whose employers cannot move to other countries.

Seattle’s Unfulfilled Promise

A few months earlier, the AFL-CIO had encouraged affiliates to turn members out for the November 1999 World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle, actions that many hoped were the beginning of a new coalition of labor, youth, and environmentalists.

The labor rally in Seattle promoted international solidarity, with speakers from Mexico, South Africa, the Caribbean, China, Europe.  If not for the presence of the thousands of union marchers, it would have been easier for the media—and WTO officials—to write off the young protesters as far from the mainstream.

It must be said, however, that the Seattle demonstrations were dwarfed in size by the two Washington, D.C. Solidarity Day marches called by Sweeney’s predecessor Lane Kirkland in 1981 and 1991, each of which accomplished exactly nothing.  Had it not been for the creative and determined tactics of the Direct Action Network, the same would have been the case in Seattle as well.

To quote one local union president, writing in Labor Notes magazine: “The labor movement basically piggy-backed on the courage of the young .  .  .  activists who shut down the WTO. Without the Direct Action, the labor march would have received a two-minute clip on the nightly news, with something like, `A bunch of inefficient union workers from the rustbelt marched for a return of the bad old days.'”

Many observers have referred to Seattle as a “coalition in the streets,” but “coincidence in the streets” might be a more accurate description.  The AFL-CIO was not planning anything radical for Seattle.  Sweeney’s demand was not to abolish the WTO, but that it should form a “labor working group.”

One of the most active locals in those chaotic days in November, in the sense of supporting the young people and marching where they were not supposed to march, was not coincidentally a Seattle Teamsters local led by members of the reform movement Teamsters for a Democratic Union.

As has been well documented elsewhere, top leaders routed the big labor march away from the site of the direct action, in an effort to keep their members safely respectable.

By the time of the April 16, 2000, demonstrations in Washington against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, just four months later, the AFL-CIO seemed to have lost interest in the new coalition.

The Federation got on board the protests quite late and did almost nothing to turn out members.  After all, the AFL-CIO’s position on the IMF has always been to reform, not to abolish it. The federation insisted that no leaflet promoting the permitted march on April 16, which the AFL-CIO was backing, could also mention the Seattle-style direct action planned by young protesters.

Sweeney and top union leaders such as the Steelworkers’ George Becker, the Auto Workers’ Steve Yokich, and the Teamsters’ James Hoffa turned most of their attention to building a labor-only rally and lobby day earlier in the week against Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China (PNTR).

From Beauty to Gore

The beauty of the emerging politics represented by Seattle was that they were thoroughly anti-corporate, even anti-capitalist, and thus opposed to the corporate-sponsored Clinton Administration.  But in the AFL-CIO’s PNTR campaign, these themes were muted, at best. It was difficult to tell, from most of the union literature promoting the rallies, that the most enthusiastic advocate of PNTR was the Clinton Administration (and Al Gore).

Instead the AFL-CIO and the unions spent most of their rhetoric attacking China’s human rights record, even its “Communism,” in a rather transparent attempt to give their defense of U.S. jobs an internationalist flavor.  [The politics of the AFL-CIO’s campaign was discussed in detail by Kim Moody in the two-part essay on “Global Capital and Economic Nationalism,” ATC 87 and 88.] By the time the Republicans and Democrats held their summer conventions, the AFL-CIO’s interest in allying with radical protesters had just about disappeared.  The national AFL-CIO did not endorse the Philadelphia actions, although the Pennsylvania federation did and some locals were active in the demonstrations.

In Los Angeles, the national AFL-CIO was part of the Democratic love-fest for Al Gore, not part of those challenging him from outside.  The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, under pressure from Sweeney, declined to endorse the big coalition march for “human needs, not corporate greed.”

The County Fed did aid the protests in several ways, however, and local unions of the Service Employees, Hotel Employees, teachers, and actors, all seeking contracts, disregarded the national AFL-CIO’s advice and took advantage of the media spotlight to demonstrate for their demands.

Small Cracks

Small cracks in the top layers are worth mentioning, even if they don’t always make themselves felt to the rank and file. The labor officialdom’s right wing, which ran against Sweeney in 1995, remains in the wings, hoping for a comeback in the fall 2001 election.

Sweeney wants Hoffa’s votes against this challenge—which is one reason that James Hoffa’s picture appears often in America@Work, the AFL-CIO magazine, and that the Federation gave half a million dollars to the Teamsters for their sham anti-corruption program, another $600,000 for their floundering strike against Overnite Corp., and $2 million in forgiven loans.

Another source of internal friction is that manufacturing unions hurt by neoliberal “free trade” policies are more inclined to pressure the government on that issue than are the service sector unions.  So they push Sweeney, who comes out of the Service Employees (SEIU), to be more aggressive in fighting Clinton’s trade deals.

Thus Yokich and Hoffa did not want to endorse Al Gore early in the Democratic race, an endorsement that essentially surrendered on the trade issue.  When Sweeney fought passionately for an early endorsement, he gave the lie to the New Voice slate’s 1995 promises that labor’s politics would focus on issues rather than on candidates.

Mixed Record on Organizing

Most mainstream coverage of the labor movement stresses its focus on organizing the unorganized and the real achievements (though small net gains) on that front.  The truth is that the affiliate unions have not gotten off the dime on organizing nearly as much as Sweeney has urged.

The AFL-CIO president’s answer to this inertia is the “New Alliance,” which apparently means an alliance of bureaucrats at one level with bureaucrats at another level.  The New Alliance is a reshuffling of structures that will give the national AFL-CIO more power over state and city central labor councils, combine some local bodies, and enable local bodies to hire more staff.

Sweeney as AFL-CIO president does not have the power to force member unions to take the steps that he wants, but he can, and usually does, throw a committee and some staff at the problem.

Sweeney would also like to see some rationalization of organizing, that is, for unions to organize in their existing jurisdictions, rather than using a scattershot approach that leads toward every union becoming a hodge-podge of workers from different industries.

If the UAW organized the hundreds of thousands of auto parts workers, for example, that union would wield far more power than it gains by recruiting graduate student employees.  But the manufacturing unions, especially the Steelworkers, argue that such a restriction would doom them to shrink.

They may also see public employers and white-collar or service employers as less resistant to unionization than companies in their traditional jurisdictions.  In any case, they are determined —to the extent that organizing is a priority—to go after whatever dues payers they can get. Any potential for united power against employers is apparently a secondary consideration.

High Road to Ruin

At the same time that Sweeney talks tough about organizing, he and other leaders, including Becker, Sandra Feldman of the Teachers, and Morty Bahr of the Communications Workers, are engaged in once-secret talks, initiated by Sweeney, with “Neutron Jack” Welch, CEO of General Electric, “in a search for common purpose” (in the words of a letter from Sweeney).

Welch is revered among CEOs for his record-busting profits, achieved partly by closing U.S. plants, opening factories in Mexico and elsewhere, and fiercely resisting union drives.  Also engaged in these talks, first brought to light in Labor Notes and more recently in Business Week, are the heads of GM, AT&T, USX, Bechtel, Boeing and J.P. Morgan.

This desperate search for “our legacy to the next generation,” as Sweeney pitched the partnership to fellow union leaders, is consistent with many of his big-picture statements on his view of the labor movement.  He harks back fondly to the days when management cared about workers, presumably the 1950s and 1960s, and pleads with management to take the “high road,” to accept unions so we can all “bake a bigger pie” for all to share.

A union activist once said that Sweeney is like the “right-to-life” movement, filled with compassion for the fetus until it is born. Sweeney, likewise, is sometimes in favor of worker militancy if it will help win union recognition; but once the union is certified, he wants workers to settle down and look for a common purpose with the boss.

An organizing strategy document from SEIU, titled “The High Road,” sums up this perspective: Hospital worker organizers are told to promise skittish workers that all conflict will end once the union is voted in.

Sweeney’s Priorities and Ours

Looked at more closely, it is not so difficult to understand the apparent contradiction between labor officials’ desire for a bigger labor movement and their reluctance to confront employers.  The AFL-CIO is quite explicit about its two priorities—organizing and electoral politics—and those two focuses sum up clearly Sweeney’s perspective on how unions are to increase their social weight.

First, the labor movement must increase its numbers, through organizing.  But big unions do not translate automatically into power against the boss—particularly if their members in each industry are fragmented among rival unions and especially if their perspective is cooperation and “common purpose.”

Larger unions may, however, be more effective at one thing—getting out the vote. Surveys show that union members are more likely to vote, and to vote Democratic, than are their nonunion counterparts.  Workers then, in Sweeney’s vision, are to become union members so that their officers can convince them to vote Democratic, or even better, to work actively for Democratic candidates.

Stepped-up union member activism (and heftier union campaign contributions) in turn are expected to influence Democratic politicians to pay more attention to labor’s priorities.

The problem is that the vast majority of those politicians are too beholden to corporate money to make this strategy realistic.  But even if that were not the case, Sweeney’s plan is still dubious.  Union members who feel weak and are weak on the job and at the bargaining table are not likely to heed their officials’ exhortations to stump for candidates.

The overall plan—to dodge big challenges to employers and to seek power (or influence) electorally instead—has an even more fatal flaw. To avoid confronting employers is to avoid confronting where power lies. This is its attraction to those, like Sweeney, who have seen capital’s ruthlessness and prefer not to go there again.

But there are no shortcuts.  Activists will continue to work with whatever openings the New Voice leadership creates, such as organizing drives or endorsements of marches.  Their goal, though, will be to sharpen rather than blur the class-consciousness that arises in conflicts with employers and politicians, and to encourage the self-organization that will be necessary if our unions are to be transformed.

Jane Slaughter is a labor journalist and the author of several books published by Labor Notes.  This article is adapted fro a report she presented at teh August 2000 convetion of Solidarity.

ATC 89, November-December 2000