The AFL-CIO is in a Deep, Defensive Rut


Dear Mr. Trumka,

You have come to your leadership position of our country’s labor federation of unions with 13 million members the hard way. Starting by working in the coal mines, then becoming a lawyer, heading the United Mine Workers, then becoming the Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO before assuming your present position in 2009, who can pull rank on you in the formal labor movement?

Yet, the AFL-CIO’s public leadership in three major areas has been far less effective than one would expect. I am referring to your less than assertive response to President Obama: 1) turning his back on raising the federal minimum wage; 2) failing to advance his card check promise to you in 2008; and 3) dropping the ball on backing long-overdue safety and health responsibilities of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

I say this with the awareness of your group’s public stands in favor of these three crucial matters to working families. But as you well know, there is a very marked difference between being on-the-record, as the AFL-CIO is, and being on-the-daily ramparts pushing these issues, as your organization is not.

Even just making a statement, however, took a back seat in your March 13, 2012 endorsement of Barack Obama for a second term as president. In what ways has Mr. Obama “moved aggressively,” as you declared, “to protect workers rights, pay, health and safety on the job?”

He has neither championed nor pressed Congress, when the Democrats were in control in 2009-2010, to give you card check which you have long-said was needed to reverse the serious decline and expand the ranks of organized labor by millions of workers (you told me this in 2004).

Second, Mr. Obama appointed an excellent head of OSHA and then betrayed OSHA – an agency that has estimated 58,000 workplace-related American deaths a year from disease and trauma! That is over 1000 people a week, every week, on the average. 

Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor and the head of OSHA, cannot get White House approval for issuing long-overdue standards or strengthening weak and outdated standards such as the woefully inadequate silica rule, to save American lives not threatened by terrorists, but by corporate negligence or worse. Why have you not exposed this reality in public? Has Mr. Obama, whom you have socialized with at White House viewings of the Super Bowl, ever invited you to come across Lafayette Square to discuss this serious ongoing, preventable tragedy?

Had he taken worker concerns seriously, he might have asked you why the AFL-CIO for many years, has retained at its large national headquarters so few full-time advocates on occupational health and safety? And you in turn might have asked him why his politicos are blocking Dr. Michaels and why he is content in having only $550 million for OSHA’s annual budget while the U.S. spent $675 million in 2011 paying corporate contractors to guard the overbuilt U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq. Are these the Obama “values” you extolled in your endorsement statement?

More dismaying is your touting Mr. Obama for aggressively protecting workers’ pay. By pushing for more NAFTA type “pull-down” trade agreements through Congress, and not moving to revise NAFTA as he promised in his 2008 presidential campaigns, he is undermining both workers’ pay and jobs. By totally abandoning his pledge made to over 30 million workers in 2008 that he would press for a $9.50/hour federal minimum wage by 2011, he left them defenseless with more debt and fewer necessities of life.

The AFL-CIO wants at the least to catch up to 1968 with an inflation-adjusted $10/hour minimum wage law. Where is the visible muscular campaign for such legislation? Keeping up with inflation for the federal minimum wage is historically supported by 70 percent of the people. That includes many Republicans and even Rick Santorum and, until his latest flip-flop, Mitt Romney. A $10 minimum wage, after years of windfall price increases and executive compensation windfalls at labor’s expense, would annually pump tens of billions of dollars into greater consumer demand by low-income families in this recessionary economy.

What is the AFL-CIO waiting for? Hundreds of non-profit organizations will follow your lead. Talk is not enough. Resources and muscular lobbying are required along with far more relevant and tough public advertisements than your members are seeing and paying for on TV these days. Enough, already, of the general feel-good mood spots on TV.

As someone who in earlier days had been a dig-in-your-heels labor negotiator in fights with management, what did you receive for millions of American workers in your early, blanket endorsement of Mr. Obama? No wonder he can get away with giving the trade union movement and unorganized workers the back of his hand. You have unnecessarily allowed him to believe that you have nowhere to go. This is another way of saying that the Republicans, by being worse than the bad Democrats, are holding the American labor movement hostage to the corporatist Democratic Party.

The AFL-CIO is in a deep, defensive rut when in these tough times it should be in an aroused, innovative state of high alert and aggressive action. Workers in the 1930s’ Depression were in worse shape than workers today, yet organized labor was more militant.

People inside and outside the AFL-CIO know the problems. They are: complacent bureaucratic rigidity, fractious relations between member unions over how supine they need to be to Obama and the Democrats (with their costly wars), the lack of union democracy and competitive elections both within member unions and at the AFL-CIO plus, except for a few unions like the California Nurses Association, a distinct lack of sustained fervor and money for organizing drives.

You know all this only too well. Yet, as a 14th Century Chinese philosopher once said, “to know and not to do is not to know.” Unless you shake the AFL-CIO up and reorder its priorities against the corporate state, expect another four years of an Obamabush Administration.


Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press.


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