Looking at the AFL-CIO, New Year’s 2002
A Labor Movement for the Likes of Lucy Parsons and Joe
by Charles Walker
[This article is from the web site “Labor Tuesday”
for New Year’s Day, January 1, 2002. It has been edited slightly for
consistency with the style and practices of Labor Standard.]
On this the first day of the New Year, it’s beyond
argument that the AFL-CIO needs more members. But that’s always been true,
even back in the 1950s and ’60s, when then-AFL-CIO President George Meany said
that the size of the labor movement wasn’t all that important — at least not
But size is important, because it’s virtually
impossible to imagine a labor movement too strong. It’s impossible because
there is so much that needs to be done to get humankind finally on the road to a
world free of want, injustice, and war. And it’s impossible to imagine that
the job can get done, or perhaps even begun, without the support and leadership
of American workers.
So it follows that the size, the vitality, and the
power of the U.S. union movement should be a concern to all workers, unionized
or not. And given the unacceptable state of the U.S. labor movement, good sense
requires that we ask ourselves what must we do to turn things around.
The answer to that all-important question was suggested
by two popular actions that labor undertook in recent years, actions that
seemingly were all but forgotten by the nearly 1,000 leaders and delegates at
December’s AFL-CIO convention. Both actions mobilized thousands of union
members in the streets of this nation, and each implicitly relied on the ability
of labor to act successfully while independent of employers and their
Most importantly, the actions showed that unions still
have the capacity to win important gains, despite harsh anti-labor laws and
organized labor’s massive concessionary retreat of the past two decades.
Moreover, the pair of actions clearly demonstrated the readiness of most
Americans to support labor’s battles on fundamental issues.
Of course those actions were the 1997 Teamsters strike
against United Parcel Service (UPS), the nation’s largest international
trucking corporation, and the 1999 World Trade Organization demonstrations in
Both events were partly rooted in the anxiety resulting
from corporate America’s inability to provide decent, well-paying, secure jobs
for the nation’s highly productive workforce. Both events implicitly
challenged the priority of the pursuit of profits over the humanitarian need of
providing for the general welfare, social and environmental. And both events
seemed to promise hope for a better life to an emerging generation of workers
and idealistic youth.
But part of that hope was thrown away when the AFL-CIO
leadership turned its back on then-Teamsters President Ron Carey. In the wake of
the electrifying UPS strike the government conducted a kangaroo court hearing
and acting as prosecutor, judge, and jury ousted Carey from the union.
As welcome as is Carey’s recent vindication by a jury
(in October 2001), it doesn’t change the consequences of Sweeney’s cold
unresponsiveness. Indeed, thinking about what Sweeney did can’t help but bring
to mind the fate of the air traffic controllers when Sweeney’s predecessor,
Lane Kirkland, passively stood by as the Reagan administration crushed their
The president of a central labor council has written
that prior to the AFL-CIO convention, there was a “consensus” at a Union
Cities conference to shift away from mobilizing for bigger demonstrations at
meetings of the WTO and other financial institutions. This proposed shift
obviously means a wider fracturing of the coalition of forces formed in the
streets of Seattle that inspired countless social justice activists, idealistic
self-sacrificing youth, and union members.
The coalition earlier seemed in trouble when following
the September 11 events the top AFL-CIO officials pulled out of Washington,
D.C., demonstrations scheduled later that month. Nor was the coalition helped
when several major unions signed on to Big Oil’s plans to expand oil drilling
in Alaska. Perhaps, the longevity of the coalition was foretold when President
James Hoffa draped a Teamsters jacket over Pat Buchanan‘s shoulders.
The abandonment of Carey and the fracturing of the
Seattle coalition can’t be blamed on anti-labor laws or the decline in union
membership to 13.5 percent of the workforce (9 percent in the private sector).
For under far worse conditions
— the Great Depression (1929–39) — organized
labor rebuilt itself despite anti-labor laws and smaller resources at hand.
The folks in Minneapolis, Toledo, and San Francisco who
in 1934 battled for workers’ very right to organize didn’t have huge
treasuries, well-paid appointed staffs, and 13 million members to call on. But
they did have leaderships with the will to fight. And with those leaderships the
labor movement had victories. And those victories and others inspired millions
of workers to flock to organized labor and radically change the relationship of
forces, forcing bosses to retreat and politicians to seek labor’s backing.
Sweeney often says that U.S. workers need a raise. But
more fundamentally, U.S. workers need a victory and a leadership committed to
fighting for one. The UPS strike and the Seattle demonstrations could have been
followed by still more popular actions designed to inspire people’s confidence
and thereby mobilize the nation’s majority to counter corporate America’s
anti-labor agenda. As evidenced by the popular response to the UPS and Seattle
successes, similar actions would have received widespread support.
As in the 1930s the labor movement could have been
rebuilt into a vehicle for realizing people’s hopes for a better life, a
secure life. That’s the kind of labor movement that people sacrifice for and
defend. That’s the kind of labor movement that creates self-sacrificing
activists, militants, and leaders such as Lucy Parsons and Joe Hill, who left a
precious legacy to all workers. That’s the kind of labor movement that has
made a difference.
[Lucy Parsons (1853–1942), a Black woman, was a
leader in the struggle for the eight-hour workday. On May 1, 1886, she headed a
march of 80,000 thousand workers and fighters up Chicago’s main thoroughfare
to demonstrate for the shorter workday. Her husband, Albert Parsons, a labor
militant, was unjustly executed the next year and is revered as a Haymarket
martyr. Joe Hill (1879–1915), a union militant (IWW) was framed up, and was
murdered by a Utah firing squad. His battle cry — “Don’t mourn,
organize!” — is as relevant today as it was the day he died.]