Debate over Future of Fed Produces More Heat than Light

A debate over the future of the AFL-CIO has been under way for some months and, for the life of me, while the debate becomes more intense, the differences seem to blur. Yet the feeling that one gets is that we are headed for a train wreck.

The debate began when the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) released their “Unite to Win” plan for labor’s revitalization. Its main suggestions were: (1) the mergers of national/international unions to reduce inter-union competition and improve unions’ use of resources and (2) the focus of unions on organizing workers in their core areas, i.e., unions organizing workers that they have traditionally organized, rather than taking a scattered approach to organizing.


The issues SEIU raised were important, but largely secondary to the greater challenge facing labor. Missing from the SEIU analysis (and virtually anything else that has subsequently appeared from either SEIU, its allies, or its opponents) have been both a clear understanding of the political and economic forces that workers are up against and strategies for tackling critical issues, including, but not limited to:

Globalization; the U.S. government’s increased shift to the right and increasing hostility towards workers and their unions; a strategy for organizing critical regions like the U.S. South and Southwest, and particularly how to ally with African Americans and Latinos in these regions; a political action strategy that would allow working people to advance an agenda and promote candidates that represent their interests; the continued relevance of fighting racism, sexism and other forms of oppression and intolerance if workers are ever to unite; how to work with and build mutual support with workers in other countries; and the critical importance of joining with others to fight for democracy.

Instead of grappling with these challenges, the fight focuses on arcane issues such as whether the AFL-CIO should give larger or smaller dues rebates to unions that are allegedly organizing, and whether the AFL-CIO Executive Council should be larger or smaller.


These contentious debates make a dangerous assumption: that the decline of unions is largely the fault of the structure of the AFL-CIO and/or how the AFL-CIO has operated. It ignores something around which most union leaders are in denial: the problems facing the union movement are with the way that unions see themselves; their lack of a mission and strategy; and their blindness to the real features of the barbaric society that is unfolding before our eyes.

In the absence of a discussion of vision and strategy, personal attacks have been substituted. It is amazing to watch union leaders impugn each others’ characters, while some of them play patty-cake with the likes of President Bush—someone not noted for pro-worker attitudes or actions.

The U.S. labor movement has badly needed a debate about its future, but the culture of U.S. unions generally precludes honest debates. Rather than a free flow of constructive ideas, most leaders surround themselves with a protective bubble to keep out any “bad news” and/or provocative suggestions. If dissenting views are raised, the dissenters are often isolated or undermined.



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Thus, it should not surprise anyone that the union movement has, over time, become pickled in its own juices. With leaders who stay in office for what to many feels to be an eternity, and with the suppression of dissent, too many of those who wish to see change introduced are forced out, or, as a friend of mine says, are “beached.”

It is, therefore, amazing to witness the spectacle of some unions threatening to leave the AFL-CIO and others threatening to drive others out after so little and so pitiful a discussion.

All this is taking place while rank-and-file union activists find themselves increasingly alienated by the debate or outright fearful of the outcome. Only limited efforts have been made by either side to bring the debate to the members.

Workers have not been asked their opinions, nor has there been much effort toward constructive and principled debates. Instead, they find themselves feeling that they are at the base of Mount Olympus while the gods fight out the final battle thousands of feet above their heads.


Ironically, a debate needs to take place, but it needs to be completely reframed, a thought that probably scares the leaders much more than the members. It needs to be a debate about a vision for the future of workers in the U.S., not to mention the rest of the world. It needs to be a debate about what sorts of strategies work in the face of dramatic changes in the economy, including the way that work is done, and the fact that growing numbers of people are not working in the formal economy at all.

It needs to be a debate that asks the question of how we stop the use of working people as cannon fodder in unjust wars. It needs to be a debate about whether the financial burden of society gets placed on the bottom of the economic pyramid or on those who possess wealth and privilege.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a long-time labor and international activist. He is president of TransAfrica Forum in Washington, D.C., and was formerly Assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO. This column does not necessarily reflect the views of TransAfrica Forum or any other group with which Fletcher is associated.

A version of this article originally appeared June 2005 in Monthly Review. For more information, go to