Viewpoint: AFL-CIO Follows Path of Least Resistance
It is true, as Jeff Crosby and Bill Fletcher point out, that the AFL-CIO Convention’s focus on new alliances with formerly excluded workers is a healthy and positive development.
It is also true that the Convention was unwilling to grapple with fundamentals that are crucial to its long-term growth and viability.
Fletcher and Crosby state that “The federation is forbidden by its bylaws from engaging in collective bargaining without the specific invitation of an affiliated union.” While very true, that statement could be extended to any activity. The federation is not affiliated with the Blue-Green Alliance because of the controversy among its affiliates on the Keystone pipeline. If the Federation were to attempt to adopt a more powerful resolution on local hiring in urban construction markets to redress historical racial inequities, it would face a rebellion from many of the trades.
The operative phrase here is “path of least resistance.”
External Is Easier than Internal
It is far easier to deal with external alliances or affiliations than the core of our crisis. Our federation and our state and local bodies are not equipped to carry out their original charge, which is class-wide solidarity. Are we "swarming" to the defense of workers in major contract fights, strikes, and lockouts? With few exceptions we are not. Therefore we lose those battles, and every loss resonates in the broader working class as a defeat for workers and organization, just as our precious wins resonate in positive fashion.
Ultimately the alliances with external groups and organizations are built on the backs of the resources and members of existing unions, the dues money of our existing affiliates and their members. If the unions can’t show power for their own members, how do those members play a meaningful role on a broader stage? How does the organization of workers appear attractive to the new group we are allied with or new workers we are working with?
Our “national” trade unions exist to exert industry-wide solidarity and power. The whole concept of national unions is built on that outlook and foundation. It is all fine to pursue the largest retailer in the world, Wal-Mart, or car wash workers, but how are we doing with giant national supermarket chains we represent or the steel contracts that we still have? Are we condemning our local unions to bargain on an individual or regional basis without national coordination or action? Often we are.
Further, our federation and its affiliates are not ready to confront the challenges of using our existing base in certain industries to grow in non-union sectors of those industries and linked industries. Those discussions and strategies require challenging the inertia of the status quo. They are difficult discussions that challenge the power and positions of our elected trade union leaders.
The interplay of the old and the new is one of the keys for renaissance, as it was in the 30’s when old AFL unions played a crucial role in birthing the new with their money and members.
There's No Ban on Hard Debates
The ban on bargaining that Crosby and Fletcher cite is not a ban on the hard discussions and debates that need to happen to redirect our resources, empower our existing members, and win some of the key defensive fights in an offensive way. These debates cut to the heart of unions, their leaders, and their strategies.
Do we allow industry contracts with two-tier wage scales as a way to preserve jobs? Does that enable us to organize non-union workers in the same industry? There is no legal or structural bar to these debates. It is all a matter of political will and leadership.
Fighting a defensive battle in an offensive and community-minded way is the lesson of the Chicago Teachers Union. You can be sure there were deep discussions in the Chicago Central body and among other unions on how to win that battle, and they were uncomfortable and difficult discussions because some affiliates had their relationships with the Mayor and the powers-that-be in Chicago. Nevertheless, those obstacles to difficult discussions, subjects, and decisions can be and must be overcome with strong leadership.
It is great to see the convention focus on new and long overdue alliances, particularly with organizations based in communities of color, but that is no replacement for confronting the difficult questions in the family about survival and growth.
Peter Olney has been a labor organizer for 40 years, working with trade unions and community organizations focused on the organization of immigrant workers.