AFL-CIO Stays the Course

Despite an ample dose of progressive rhetoric, and some genuine outrage at the Bush Administration's anti-worker agenda, the AFL-CIO's December 3-6 convention in Las Vegas lacked inspiration. Whatever genuine discussion may have occurred went on within the Executive Council beforehand; almost all resolutions passed unanimously and without debate ("I rise in support…").

The convention reaffirmed the AFL-CIO's support for amnesty for immigrants and spoke out for civil liberties in the face of the Administration's moves towards a national security state. While the progressive positions and the labor ballads were a welcome change from the Meany/Kirkland years, the scripted, un-self-critical nature of the gathering gave a feeling of déjà vu.


For the most part officials, playing to the media, tried to accentuate the positive, but President John Sweeney appeared to be genuinely shocked by the Administration's hard-line anti-labor policies in the wake of September 11. This includes corporate tax give-aways and the passage of Fast Track.

The AFL-CIO statement supporting the war on terrorism pleaded, "This is a time for shared sacrifice, not for using the crisis to benefit the few while ignoring the workers whose lives and jobs are on the line."

Sweeney's remedy was "more of the same." We will vote them out next time, we will take back the Congress, we will send more emails. There was no mention of Joseph Lieberman or the Democratic Leadership Council, the Republican-look-alikes who now lead the Democratic Party. Six hundred of the 1,000 delegates in the hall heeded Sweeney's call to get on the phone and call their Representatives about Fast Track.

The scripted speeches and the convention's sleepy routinism contrasted with the frustration of many delegates and guests who were concerned about the recession and skeptical about an open-ended war. But feeling the weight of precedent, few voiced their concerns on the convention floor.

The convention endorsed, without dispute, an Executive Council resolution to "support the government's military campaign to defend our nation, and all civilized society." By far the bulk of the resolution, however, opposed the administration's actions that "threaten civil liberties [and] breach constitutional rights."


Resolution #1 called on unions to commit at least 30 percent of their resources to organizing. "Let's be clear, we are calling for massive change in the way we do business," said SEIU President Andy Stern.

Sweeney admitted that the AFL-CIO had not come close to its target of one million new members set at the 1999 convention, and accepted responsibility on behalf of the "collective leadership of the labor movement." Only seven or eight unions out of 66 had met the 30 percent target.

There was no examination, however, of why most unions have failed to develop the capacity to organize. It seems that Sweeney is pushing on a string. With some exceptions, like that of HERE, exhortations to "organize or die" fall on ears that show little will to "change to organize."


The political program is, in Sweeney's words, to do "more of what works," i.e., lobbying, television ads, faxes, emails, and calls to Congress. A worksite political education program is credited with boosting union households' participation to 26 percent of the vote in the 2000 presidential election, up from 19 percent in 1992.

The AFL-CIO appeared confident that Fast Track would be stopped by "pro-working family" Representatives, but the House passed Fast Track even as the convention was adjourning. Among the 21 Democrats casting critical votes in favor were several members elected with strong labor support.

The leadership announced a program called "Target 5000: When Workers Run, Workers Win"-a PAC to raise money used only for union candidates, and a National Political Leadership Institute to train labor activists as campaign managers and candidates. Gerald McEntee, co-chair of the Executive Council's Political Committee, described this as "sort of our labor party." The "2000 in 2000" program succeeded in putting 2,542 union members in office. The goal is now 5,000 in 2002.

Sweeney admitted that the AFL-CIO had not come close to its target of one million new members set at the 1999 convention. There was no examination, however, of why most unions have failed to develop the capacity to organize.

The AFL-CIO is also trying to more closely link its political work to organizing. Affiliates are to ask politicians to sign pledges supporting the right to organize, by such measures as walking picket lines and supporting card check recognition and project labor agreements.




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The convention recognized the valuable work of central labor councils that have embraced the Union Cities program. Some of the most hopeful signs of change in the labor movement are the work of councils in places like Seattle, Duluth, and Santa Cruz, which support organizing and bargaining campaigns and build links with political, church, community and immigrant groups.

A common thread in the more vital CLC's seems to be involvement in living wage movements or with Jobs with Justice.

At the same time, a real tension is growing over the Federation's priorities. A reallocation of field staff to organizing and political mobilization is under way. This is likely to reduce the resources going to CLC programs like Street Heat. Some of us fear that, combined with the revenue shortfall, this change may undermine the work of small labor councils without paid staff.


A workshop on the global justice movement after September 11, held at the Union Cities conference prior to the convention, saw a discussion of how to preserve labor's alliance with our social movement partners in this period. The consensus was to build alliances on issues where we still have unity (not around the war)-for example, against corporate war profiteering.

The idea is to shift the focus to corporations themselves-which could make it easier to involve union members-and shift away from mobilizing for ever bigger, and more violent, confrontations at meetings of the world financial institutions.


The Teamsters were conspicuous by their absence at both the Union Cities conference and on the floor of the convention, except for two matters: The IBT introduced a last-minute resolution to end the government 's oversight of the Teamsters. It was supported by John Wilhelm, president of HERE, and passed without debate.

The IBT, together with the two longshore unions, the east coast ILA and the west coast ILWU, announced a pact that resolves jurisdictional disputes and pledges to make all U.S. ports wall-to-wall union. With the help of the ILA and ILWU, the Teamsters want to organize the 50,000 super-exploited owner-drivers working the ports.

In response to this alliance, 500 port drivers turned out at a December 8 Los Angeles organizing meeting. Organizing will require an innovative strategy, as the drivers are currently misclassified as independent contractors and barred from unionizing.

There was no mention at the convention of the IBT's two-thirds cutback in its organizing budget, nor of the disastrous campaign at Overnite Transportation, to which the AFL-CIO contributed $500,000. Again, self-examination was not the convention's theme.


The issues not discussed were perhaps as notable as those allowed on the convention floor. One elephant on the table was the departure of the Carpenters union (and their refusal to pay $5 million in back dues), leaving observers to guess that the Federation still hopes for their return.

Apparently the AFL-CIO's building trades affiliates want the Carpenters back in, and have not begun to carve up their jurisdiction. If the Carpenters are allowed to return, it will likely be with their debt wiped clean and without the Federation having dealt with the issues they brought up.


The Federation is projecting a revenue shortfall of $5 million for 2002, growing to $7 million by 2003. This may be one reason why the constitution was amended to provide for conventions every four years, not two, and to reduce mandated meetings of the Executive Council to two a year, not three.

Jesse Jackson gave the only major rousing speech of the convention, calling on labor to stop relying on lobbying via email, fax, and phone calls. Instead he repeatedly urged the AFL-CIO to mobilize in the streets against the combined government and employer offensive and in defense of civil liberties. Drowsy delegates woke up, giving Jackson's repeated calls for action standing ovations.

But there was no echo of such calls for action from the Executive Council. Apparently they had already decided that "now is not the time."

The convention showed that the AFL-CIO has learned the rhetoric of social movement unionism.

But a glance at the balance sheet of its progress toward revitalizing labor and building political power demonstrates the limitations of reform from above.