They Came, They Met, They Went Home…
AFL-CIO Execs Stand Pat at Las Vegas

by David Jones


A version of this article will appear in the April issue of Socialist Action newspaper. For a year’s subscription to Socialist Action, send $8 to 298 Valencia St., San Francisco, California 94103.

The much-anticipated meeting of the AFL-CIO executive committee in Las Vegas, Nevada, in early March declined by a nearly 2-to-1 margin (a vote of 14 to 8) to adopt changes in structure and financing urgently pressed by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Andrew Stern.

As is well known, SEIU, in concert with UNITE/HERE (a recent merger of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union with the major clothing and textile workers union), had proposed revamping AFL-CIO financing by rebating half of the per capita dues payments made to the AFL-CIO for unions which were certified as committing the preponderance of their resources to organizing. This, it was projected, would cut the present AFL-CIO budget in half, from $170 million to $88 million, and presumptively make an equivalent amount available for new organizing.

The reform coalition also included the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW), and the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA), all big unions that have experienced recent growth. Nonetheless, the coalition failed to prevail at the executive committee meeting, outvoted by other affiliates in a setback for the reformers.

Even among the coalition of five there were differences. A proposal advanced by Teamsters President James Hoffa would have encouraged, but not forced union mergers, while Stern stuck to his demand for mandatory mergers that would cut the number of national unions from 58 to about 20.

What actually passed was a recommendation, initiated by President John Sweeney, to commit half the per capita payments to “politics and legislation,” rather than organizing. These matters will be considered again at upcoming executive meetings of the federation in May and June, and then at the annual federation convention this fall. Although at first glance, the controversy might be taken as simply a sordid squabble over money, the emerging institutional failure of organized labor, under which lies a steady reduction in members and influence—both political and economic—is not going to go away, and it appears that the critics are not going to shut up. Depending on how the various components of the union bureaucracy are situated, this can be taken either as a continuing and urgent necessity to address an ultimately unpostponable crisis, or, perhaps, just an annoying and unnecessary diversion from, as Stern characterizes it, “what is safe, familiar and failing.”

Stern relates that, “At the recent AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in Las Vegas, one of the other union leaders complained to me in exasperation: “You keep running around bringing up this ‘worker’ sh-t.”

This off-the-cuff interjection conveys an unmistakable note of sincerity on the part of Stern’s interlocutor, for whom, like many of his (presumably but not necessarily “his”) colleagues, the union business is a very good business indeed, if not disturbed by foolish notions of change. This perception, which has probably been around since the first walking delegate transformed himself into a full-time paid “business agent,” does, as Stern no doubt intended, neatly capture the insufferable arrogance and complacency of the stand-pat union bureaucracy.

Stern and his colleagues, while undeniably part of the union bureaucracy, are nonetheless motivated by an abiding sense of urgency about the future of the movement to which they have committed all of their adult lives. Their actions and continuing agitation, mild as they are, should not be dismissed out of hand as mere self-serving office-seeking and organizational aggrandizement, although it is not hard to detect elements of both in their general approach and mostly administrative proposals for change.

As socialist leader James P. Cannon wrote in 1929, “[The] progressives are weathercocks, who reflect certain winds blowing in the labor movement…These events are not accidental. They reflect in the first place the unmistakable growth of discontent of wide sections of the workers and their impulse to struggle against the present state of affairs.”

It is clear that the leaders of the AFL-CIO opposition have been emboldened to see some possibility of growth in the future by the success of their respective organizations in recruiting new members in significant numbers. It is also significant that these unions, including less prominent coalition members like the Laborers, are finding a large part of their successes at organizing among immigrant workers.   

The SEIU-sponsored web site “unitetowin.org,” initiated earlier in the year as an interactive forum for discussion of the reform proposals, continues to carry on the discussion on change, encouraged by Stern, who urges: “Bring up the subject at local meetings and propose a resolution supporting the key principles of change to unify workers’ strength in each industry. Ask your AFL-CIO central labor council to schedule a discussion and invite leaders of unions that have led the debate.”

This kind of direct appeal for action on the part of the rank and file by a major union leader, limited as it is, would certainly have been considered for most of the history of the federation (and no doubt in many quarters still) to be unwarranted interference and subversion, not to say lèse majesté. Regardless of the narrowness of the challenges to the AFL-CIO’s status quo which are formulated at present by the dissident elements of the bureaucracy, they give greater credibility to the prospect of change, and even of wider participation by the members of the unions in formulating new programmatic demands.

Shortly after the incumbent AFL-CIO president, John Sweeney, was elected in 1995 as a candidate for change, he was given five minutes to address the August 1996 Democratic Party convention.

“What do working families want?” Sweeney asked. They don’t want to run the Congress or the White House or the political parties (emphasis added—DJ). This was an explicit pledge of subordination to the bipartisan political system run by the employers. (Sweeney didn’t even complain about getting only five minutes to address the convention of a political party that receives a major portion of its money and votes from the unions in the AFL-CIO.) Such subordination is at the root of inability of the all wings of the labor leadership, including Stern and his allies, to effectively retard, to say nothing of rolling back, the tide of capitalist change driving down the wages, entitlements, level of organization, and conditions of life for the great mass of the working class in this country.

While at this point, neither of the two leadership factions in the AFL-CIO mention, not to say advocate, the possibility of a perspective of independent labor political action—in fact, a co-equal part of the proposal by the SEIU and others for change is to pour even more money into support of the Democrats—it is always just beneath the surface, as Sweeney’s reassurances in 1996 attest.

The first question reporters put to the leaders of the newly merged AFL-CIO federation fifty years ago was whether they intended to utilize their new combination to organize a labor party. Needless to say, both Meany and Reuther vehemently denied any such intention and the past half-century testifies to their sincerity.

Stern’s reiteration of the possibility of disaffiliating with the AFL-CIO if his reforms are rejected is still a pregnant possibility. While a disaffiliation at the federation’s convention this fall, if it occurs, will more likely resemble the fleeting alliance of the Reuther-led United Autoworkers Union and the Teamsters outside the AFL-CIO in the late 1960s, rather than the dramatic and historic split led by John L Lewis in the 1930s, the pressing need for change will continue to register and find its expression in new initiatives from the top.

Whether the process of continuing pressure for change at the top can intersect reciprocally with dissatisfied elements of the organized or unorganized working class to produce some real movement is of course ultimately the question of questions. Those who sincerely want fundamental change in the direction and program of organized labor ought to seek to introduce new, or better, ideas into the debate, notwithstanding its limits. And surely the present and future participants deserve a larger and more democratic arena of discussion than an interactive website. One hundred years ago uncompromising and militant advocates of labor and working class action called a “Continental Congress” of labor and created the Industrial Workers of the World, whose achievements and struggles echo down to the present day. In the new world of globalization, the idea seems even more relevant and compelling.