AFL-CIO is Leaving No Worker Behind

by Steve Stallone on September 23, 2013

In his insightful piece “Will AFL-CIO’s Love Affair With “Alt-Labor” Leave Existing Members Behind?” my friend Steve Early is disturbingly correct when he asserts that any vision to build workplace power, especially a proper steward system, was missing at the AFL-CIO convention. But he conveniently omits a number of facts that would not support his thesis that AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s strategy of “inclusion” lacks vision and has much opposition. In fact, there is much in the program that is progressive and is the cause of its popularity and excitement.

Early pokes at the organizations Trumka wants included in his expanded movement, listing the Sierra Club, MomsRising and other groups not representing workers. But he never mentions the convention’s most highly touted “non-union” organizations, the National Taxi Workers Alliance, which won a seat on the AFL-CIO’s Executive Committee, the National Organization of Women (NOW), which is seeing most of its issues centering around the workplace, and the immigrant-driven day laborer worker centers. One of the main reasons the convention was held in LA was because of the pioneering work of the LA County Federation of Labor and its Executive Secretary-Treasurer Maria Elena Durazo’s work organizing immigrants. The importance of marrying organizing and immigrant rights, of helping workers come out of the shadows of silent exploitation, was a main theme of the convention.

Those are real and progressive groups focusing on worker issues. These non-union workers have the same interests as union workers. So the idea is to aid and embrace this organizing and the proto-union formations to that have actually improved the conditions for workers outside of the collective bargaining process. These are serious, long-term efforts to build workplace organization without employer recognition and bargaining rights. A little history would remind us that labor did just this kind of organizing plenty of times before the NLRA. Yet Early pretends that the successful worker center organizing isn’t ultimately pointed toward worker power – and eventually toward a union contract.

In fact, one of the examples featured at the convention was the Dancer’s Alliance. With the cooperation of the Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the dancers who perform in music videos won a legal collectively bargained agreement giving them rights and minimum pay and conditions without ever going through an NLRB election.

The National Taxi Workers Alliance and worker centers have similarly negotiated pay and conditions with employers without legal recognition as labor organizations engaging in collective bargaining.

Half-hearted opposition

It’s only half true to say that LIUNA President Terrence O’Sullivan, firefighters President Harold Schaitberger and AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department President Sean McGarvey, opposed the “inclusion” plan. Certainly before the convention O’Sullivan railed against partnering with environmental groups like the Sierra Club since they oppose the Keystone Pipeline his members are lined up to get jobs building. Schaitberger said he was against making the AFL-CIO the “American Federation of Progressive and Liberal Organizations.” And McGarvey made a statement on being against giving groups that don’t represent workers a seat at the table. But they never said a word from the floor when the resolutions for that plan were up for debate. Nor did any of their supporters or surrogates. In fact, a total of three floor speakers during the whole convention voiced “concerns” about the plan, but all prefaced their remarks by saying they supported it.

Schaitberger, as chair of the Resolutions Committee, played Trumka’s faithful liege, introducing many of the resolutions that implemented his President’s plan and glad-handing Trumka on stage during the whole convention.

The building trades unions do have a beef with including and legitimizing day labor worker centers. The centers do compete with the union’s hiring hall, and at a much lower rate when benefits are factored in. On the other hand, those smaller, residential jobs the day labor centers mostly do weren’t being taken at the union hall any way. And doing nothing leaves a lot of vulnerable workers doing this work in shady world of corner shape-ups and hyper-exploitation.

There were other, real reasons for the lack of opposition. Trumka’s program is progressive. Unfortunately, Early completely leaves out why Trumka was pushing this “inclusion” strategy. As he said from the podium, it is very difficult to join a legally recognized union through the NLRB election system, which he called a violation of the First Amendment right of free association. You can join the NRA or AARP, or the Democratic or Republican Parties, just by signing a card. But workers can’t associate together without going through a convoluted government-run election process.

The other reason no real opposition to Trumka’s program materialized was the persuasiveness of its presentation. Trumka’s keynote address was a powerful call to arms. Could anyone imagine Sweeney, Kirkland or Meany delivering such a call for working class action and solidarity? Throughout Trumka called up a parade of real working class heroes to the stage, immigrant workers, domestic workers, young DREAMers. And the debate on every resolution implementing the program was preceded by a video so moving that each one brought a tear to my eye even as I knew I was being manipulated. You would have to be a cad on the level of Scrooge to hit the mic in opposition after that.

What would we all be saying if this convention had refused to engage reality and had not decided to reach for a broader movement? CWA President Larry Cohen said the goal is to create a movement of 80 million workers. We can laugh and say “You guys can’t pull it off,” but it’s hard to disagree with the sentiment and that the idea requires room for more than just workers with collective bargaining.

The labor movement has long been and continues to be the largest and most organized opposition in the US. Many American progressives realize they need to ally with it, and more and more see the population identifying themselves as workers – that is, when they can get a job.

This is how a movement is going to be built, not the kind of old romantic notion of building power workplace by workplace, as Early appears to favor. Almost any troublesome shop can be packed up and shipped overseas.

Invisible Syria

If there was something to criticize about this convention, it was something Early never mentioned—the way they dealt, or didn’t, with the threat of an attack on Syria hanging over it.

At a press briefing at the opening of the convention, Trumka responded to a reporter’s question, by saying the matter had arisen too late for the federation’s Executive Council to consider and make a recommendation to the delegates. As a result, they would not be taking a position on it. They could have if there was anti-war unanimity, but Trumka didn’t need to give the conservative unions another reason to start objecting.

So when Trumka announced that President Obama had to cancel his scheduled appearance at the convention, he barely made a fleeting reference to “Syria” as the complication. And in the brief recorded video Obama sent instead, it was as if Syria did not exist.

The same when Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s speech was rescheduled. Although she red-eyed it from Washington, DC to LA and back, between a national security briefing Saturday on Syria and a bombing vote set for Monday, she didn’t say a word in her speech about Syria or the momentous decision she was hurrying back to make.

US Labor Against the War had already invited and paid for an international delegation to the convention consisting of union representatives from Morocco, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq. Suddenly it looked like the country they were visiting was about to bomb a neighbor and fellow Islamic country, causing unforeseeable chaos in the region, especially for the bordering countries of Jordan and Iraq, already reeling from the fallout of Syria’s civil war. These international reps felt they needed to say something, especially as the affected parties, but they were guests here and didn’t want to offend.

So they carefully drafted a letter telling delegates what they saw were the dangerous consequences of a US attack and asking them to consider taking a stand against it. When a resolution on International solidarity was to hit the floor, OPEIU Secretary-Emeritus Nancy Wohlford, still a member of the AFL-CIO’s General Executive Council and a leader in USLAW, was to speak and read the letter. But the night before, as the letter was being translated into English, Obama called off the strike and agreed to give the Russian initiative on taking Syria’s chemical weapons a chance. That took the wind out. The plan changed to simply passing out the letter to delegates from the back of the hall. But that didn’t happen either.

Organize the ground hogs

Again Early is right when he says that the Sweeney “New Voice” effort in 1995 to organize more workers ran out of steam soon. The plan was to grow by pouring resources into organizing. All affiliates were supposed to put 30% of their dues money into the effort. The problem was the program was voluntary and too many unions defaulted to a service model of using funds to take care of their current members rather than on getting new ones. Also, trying to outspend corporate America in a bid for power in the workplace isn’t a financially sound strategy. Mostly the movement succeeded in expanding the union prevention industry.

Early doesn’t mention that since the anti-union consultants had figured out how to gimmick the NLRB election system and were willing to pay the fines for legal violations to win, the union movement decided to change the rules. It drafted the Employee Free Choice Act, with its triple fines for violations and with card check recognition, an end run around the rigged elections. So they worked and paid for Congressional elections and lined up the support.

But a funny thing happened on the bill’s way to the floor—the Chamber of Commerce got involved. Cold cash makes for cold feet and the votes evaporated.

So doing an end run around the NLRB, which Republicans had managed to keep ineffective for nearly a decade, was much of the thinking behind the new inclusionary approach embraced by this convention.

Surely the depth and breadth of this new plan for growth, its moral righteousness, its justice-for-all, its democratic grassroots, and the way it was presented at the convention aided Trumka in dragging his federation, with little public kicking and screaming, into a bold future. Early is right that it seemed like déjà vu.

Actually, it felt a bit more like Ground Hog day—we’re gonna keep doing this till we get it right. And that better be soon.

Steve Stallone is Secretary of the Pacific Media Workers Guild TNG-CWA 39521.

Filed under: Archive