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AFL-CIO at the Crossroads

Where Is Sweeney Taking Labor?

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

Delegates mustering in Los Angeles for the AFL-CIO convention this week will be set, first and foremost, on having a good time — the sacred duty of all conventioneers with any sense of responsibility and tradition. Then, amid the parties, they’ll consider labor’s agenda, a prime item on which is a proposed reorganization, which aims at giving the national AFL-CIO greater control over the state federations and central labor council.

Proponents of the shake-up, the first in nearly half a century, argue that the task of revitalizing organized labor requires this sort of shift in power towards Washington hq, now ruled by John Sweeney, a man pledged to get labor on the move again. Adversaries fear that the plan would make it easier for Washington to crush any independent local initiatives that lay outside or threatened the strategies decreed in Washington.

It’s necessary to have a certain realism here. Years ago an experienced labor reformer suggested to us that the best way to think of the movement was in terms of feudalism. At the center, he said, is the king — the president of the AFL-CIO — and his kingly apparat. And then there are the dukes — the presidents of unions and state federations, all jealous of their powers and resentful of any interference or usurpation of the ancient rights. In return for respect for their own turf, they render fealty and dues to the king.

Of course any king, particularly one intent on eroding the power of feudal barons resistant to change, seeks to build alternative centers of power, and thus in his early days, Sweeney looked hopefully to the central labor councils — of which there are some 600 — as places where energetic souls could build useful coalitions and try to combat institutional inertia.

There’s general agreement now that one can count the number of vigorous central labor councils on the fingers of one hand. Four fingers are really all that are required, designating Seattle, San Jose, Milwaukee and Atlanta. So if most central labor councils are mere shells, or just a phone in someone’s house; if the presidents of state labor federations are mostly dinosaurs fearful of change and dedicated mostly to preservation of their power, why not those delegates in Los Angeles shout Hurrah to Sweeney’s plan to restructure? In truth, a shake-up is needed. The key players here are the presidents of the international unions. Sweeney would like to see them throw more of their resources and clout into the state federations, which do very little and which have not responded to Sweeney’s call to action.

The proposed reorganization is in part a confession of impotence on Sweeney’s part. There’s no doubt that when Sweeney took over four years ago the new regime put heart into people forlorn after years of inertia and defeat in the Kirkland years, and this optimism was certainly fortified by the role played by organized labor in throwing the Republicans back on their heels in the l998 election cycle.

But in terms of the organizing efforts that have been Washington’s priority the record has been patchy at best, and there have been some serious defeats, as for example in the much publicized effort by the United Farm Workers — backed by Sweeney’s AFL-CIO which threw $l2 million into the fray — to organize the strawberry workers in Watsonville, on California’s central coast.
If the fundamental task of any labor movement is to improve the lot of workers, how much of an upswing has there been in the real wages of workers here, in years of supposed boom and newfound prosperity? Real wages have gone up, because of tight labor markets and two increases in the minimum wage. But consider some numbers. The overall weekly wage for non-supervisory workers went up by 4 per cent between l997 and l998. For non-union workers the rise was 4.4 per cent; for union members, only 3 per cent. At the level of the cash nexus ?Fed chairman Alan Greenspan’s indulgence of a low unemployment rate has done more for workers’ wages than John Sweeney’s “new labor”.

In the feudal world depicted above, the eternal spirit of resistance, of militancy, will always come from the peasants, from the locals, from local organizing efforts, such as those that fired the campaign that gave 5,000 workers their great victory this summer at Fieldcrest Cannon in Kannapolis, in North Carolina.

But there’s often a contradiction between local uprisings and the rebellious inclinations of the peasants and what the lords or the king may decree as labor’s offical agenda. At the end of November the eyes of every labor militant in the country will be on Seattle, where the central labor council has been organizing demonstrations against a meeting of the World Trade Organization.It promises to be a tremendous week, but the AFL-CIO has recently been distancing itself from any strident protest.Next year Sweeney’s AFL-CIO will be throwing its efforts behind the Democratic nominee, the two prime contenders presently being Al Gore and Bill Bradley, both proclaimed friends of labor and both passionate believers in the beneficial properties of the World Trade Organization.

With this contradiction in mind, the only thing that matters at the end of the day with such shake-ups as are now being contemplated is whether they afford greater opportunity for the grass roots militancy which is the lifeblood of any effective labor movement. CP