by Bill Onasch
Discussion With An Attitude
In November, 2004 I wrote an article entitled Time For a Grand Discussion At Last? As unions were rapidly losing membership numbers and density, as well as perceived political clout, differences among the top echelon of union officialdom became so sharp they could no longer be contained, much less resolved, behind closed doors. The AFL-CIO–at the time encompassing close to ninety percent of unionized workers in its affiliates–became embroiled in a very public faction fight.
This was certainly unusual behavior but hardly unprecedented in labor history. As recently as 1995, the then Federation president John Sweeney had won office in a first ever contested election, part of a New Voice slate. Sweeney’s challenge to the Old Guard was pitched as more “proactive;” his personae was more avuncular than Action Hero.
However, there had been earlier historic divisions around questions of great principle and substance.
The Industrial Workers of the World, founded in 1905, and still around on the fringes doing some good things today, for a while seriously challenged conservative, and often racist craft unionism. Relying primarily on “direct action” tactics, they sought to organize all workers regardless of craft, color, gender, religion or national origin. Unlike the AFL officials who enthusiastically supported military and war industry mobilization, the IWW opposed American entry in to the First World War.
Thirty years later, the split in the American Federation of Labor that led to the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations signified a sea change in American class struggle that featured sit-down strikes, mass picketing and demonstrations drawing support from other workers–including those without jobs–as they unionized most of basic industry of the day.
Later seeking respectability during the Cold War the CIO tops mostly retreated from the radical strategy that had won so many victories–and purged “Red” unions that couldn’t make the switch. A newly cooled leadership crust became increasingly indistinguishable from the AFL and in 1955 the two rivals merged.
But no such great principles motivated the 2004 fracture that became personified around the president of the biggest AFL-CIO affiliate, Andy Stern of the Service Employees International Union, versus his one time SEIU mentor John Sweeney. The Stern camp’s demands were major changes to be sure but they were efforts to find bureaucratic top-down solutions for a bureaucracy in crisis. They included:
* devoting the lion’s share of union budgets to organizing–broadly defined.
* big changes in union structure creating new regional bodies that replaced traditional local unions.
* mimicking what passes for corporate customer service, the “reformers” proposed establishing Call Centers to deal with member questions and grievances rather than shop stewards and business agents on the scene.
Even the vaunted new organizing was to be largely done at the top. Efforts were made–as it turned out with very limited success–to obtain advance agreement by corporate board room officials to accept modest boiler plate contracts for an allotted share of their workforce where the union could sign up workplace majorities.
Any political spending would be focused on influencing state legislatures that had the power to steer in to unions thousands, in some cases tens of thousands, of state paid low wage child care and home health care workers–even though there was little expectation of substantially improving these workers’ poverty level wages and benefits.
The Sweeney camp tried making some concessions to Stern. Worker education and workplace safety departments were gutted to free up more organizing money. More attention to state legislatures was promised. But the Stern camp was not appeased.
The adversaries fought tooth and nail in the run-up to the Federation’s Golden Anniversary convention in the summer of 2005. Each side set up an Internet discussion where rank-and-file unionists could air their complaints and suggestions. This unprecedented opening for bottom-up communication was hailed by many at the time as a sign of health in an ailing labor movement.
Many cogent observations and proposals from the ranks did confirm the resilience of trade unionism below. But few, if any, were incorporated in to the plans of the raging dinosaurs in labor’s Jurassic Park. Shortly before the show-down, I wrote in another article,
“Sometimes splits around great divisions of principles are necessary and ultimately beneficial. The unprincipled split threatened by today’s dissidents would make a bad situation much worse. The labor movement needs to continue a great debate while maintaining organizational unity at the present.”
But the convention marking the fiftieth anniversary of the marriage of the AFL and CIO turned out to be instead a messy divorce with the Stern camp founding a rival federation–Change to Win–taking about forty percent of the membership and the Amalgamated Bank with them. As predicted, nothing good has come from this division.
In fact, the majority of the CtW defectors have now since returned to the AFL-CIO–including just this past week the United Food & Commercial Workers. In 2010 many were pleased by the early retirement of Andy Stern from union posts. President Obama soon appointed him to the bipartisan deficit reform commission.
Having gone through this experience, my attitude toward the current appeal from the AFL-CIO top for our ideas down here below is neither hostile nor enthusiastic. Talking about ideas–what old socialists call propaganda work–can help educate individuals and better prepare them for the future–even when there is no immediate opportunity to act on these ideas. I would never denigrate the value, indeed necessity, of such effort. It is a vital way to both learn and teach from which I’ve never shied away.
But when you shift from individual to mass organizations that have a mission and inherent power we count on, discussion should play a different role. Unstructured talk about everything under the sun can divert attention from needed tasks. Those tasks are many and urgent in the class war that’s not going our way.
In my view, within the labor movement we need not only discussion and debate about good ideas in general but more importantly around concrete proposals–ultimately decided by democratic vote and implemented in action.
The Internet and “social media” can facilitate information exchange but is no substitute for live audience participation in both decision making meetings and decided upon actions.
In 1947, the most repressive labor law in the “Free World”–the Taft-Hartley Act–was enacted over a Presidential veto. It outlawed all of labor’s most effective tactics and enabled states to ban union shop agreements–so-called Right to Work laws.
At the time there was a call enjoying wide support for convening an Emergency Congress of Labor. The idea was to assemble delegates from every unit of organized labor to hammer out an action strategy to resist and defeat this debilitating attack on unions.
While this approach was popular with many worker activists who had recently been part of victories made possible by struggles that had now become illegal, the new labor statespersons of both AFL and CIO rejected such disobedience. They complied with the new repressive law while assuring the ranks they would soon elect enough good Democrats to repeal it.
That was sixty-six years ago. In the ensuing time the Democrats have several times simultaneously controlled the Presidency and both houses of Congress. But not once has there been a serious effort to repeal what John L Lewis branded the Slave Labor Law. Today’s bureaucracy in both federations couldn’t even get card check recognition–that had been promised by their current “friend” in the White House–even when his party controlled Senate and House prior to the 2010 midterms.
The idea of a Congress of Labor is more relevant than ever today. We not only have the unfinished business of Taft-Hartley repeal but also ominous new threats to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as already legislated attacks on union negotiated health care plans–and a whole lot more.
But we lack that cadre of seasoned union militants who know how to fight and win who were so abundant in 1947. Solid union victories have been few and far between since then, outside the experience of most present active workers. The last clear cut win in a major national strike was in 1997, at UPS.
And we pay dearly because even during labor’s greatest achievements we failed to build a party of our own to fight for our class interests.
Most American workers now need a crash course in Class Struggle 101. Intelligent discussion and action will falter without a passing grade in that prerequisite.
All of the above started out as a way of introducing some comments on a recent Labor Notes article I found very useful–AFL-CIO: Let’s Talk About Building a Movement by Traven Leyshon. Brother Leyshon, who I have known for years through his dedicated work in labor solidarity, US Labor Against the War, and bringing environmental issues in to the labor movement, is Secretary-Treasurer of the Vermont AFL-CIO. He has done a good job in explaining the potential and limitations of the Federation’s latest outreach. He also raises some points that, in my opinion, need to be expanded and clarified.
Since I have already approached my self-imposed space limit for these columns, rather than short-change the attention this article deserves I will continue next time.
* The Kansas City Premier of Harvest of Empire by Juan Gonzalez will be Tuesday August 13th at 7:00pm at the Tivoli in Westport. The film takes an unflinching look at the role that U.S. economic and military interests played in triggering an unprecedented wave of migration that is transforming our nation’s cultural and economic landscape. $25 regular admission/$12 students, retired, unemployed. Proceeds will send human rights and election observers to Honduras for November Presidential Elections. For more information visit the Cross Border Network For Justice and Solidarity site.
* There’s now a website with basic information about a unique labor conference in suburban St Louis October 11-13. The event will honor Jerry Tucker on the first anniversary of his death. Jerry rose to national prominence through his efforts to revive democracy and militancy in the United Auto Workers but he could always be counted on for support of all worker battles. He also found ways to help labor connect with civil rights and antiwar struggles as well. Continuing Jerry’s legacy, the weekend gathering will also feature talks and workshops on a wide range of labor and social topics. The gathering is sponsored by the University of Missouri–St. Louis Labor Studies Certificate Program; Center for Labor Renewal; and Missouri Jobs with Justice.
That’s all for this week.