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Will Better Convention Staging Produce a New AFL-CIO?

As The Curtain Rises in LA

by STEVE EARLY

Los Angeles

I’ve only been to two national AFL-CIO conventions in forty years of union activity. The one four years ago was pretty dreary—setting a low bar for improvements this year. In 2009, the California Nurses Association  (CNA) and several other unions held a big reception highlighting their support for single payer health insurance—not a bad cause to emphasize when Congress was still concocting the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which is now backfiring on union members of all kinds. (See http://www.labornotes.org/2013/08/obamacare-opens-business-shuts-out-labor)

The CNA side-event was followed by the premiere showing of Capitalism: A Love Story. About 1,000 delegates and guests paraded through the streets of Pittsburgh calling for “Single Payer Now” and health care as a “human right.” When they reached a downtown movie theatre, director Michael Moore held court in his usual humorous fashion and a lively discussion with the audience ensued. The rest of the AFL-CIO convention had far less educational content—and near zero entertainment value.

One keynote speaker in 2009 was Senator Arlen Specter. The soon-to-be-defeated Republican-turned-Democrat from Pennsylvania got a particularly warm welcome from Rich Trumka, then secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO and a native of the Keystone state. Specter was invited to discuss labor law reform just a few months after publicly denouncing “card check”—a central feature of labor’s proposed Employee Free Choice Act. With friends like this, EFCA didn’t need enemies. Less than a year later, both EFCA and Specter were consigned to political oblivion.

This year’s meeting in the Mecca of the global entertainment industry gave AFL headquarters the chance to employ a more uplifting convention script. As a backdrop for their current production, federation officials and staff are wisely showcasing a city much lauded for the revitalization of its local labor movement, headed by Maria Elena Durazo.

On Saturday afternoon, young labor activists left the L.A. convention center and joined a scavenger hunt (dubbed the “Hunt for Justice”), which highlighted organizing among carwash workers and other immigrants.  Yesterday, the first formal session of the convention was preceded by a conference on diversity and inclusion attended by more than 1,000 delegates and guests. After today’s plenary session, convention-goers will be invited to join “Workers Lift Up the City: Cut Out, Stand Out!,” an event orchestrated by Latino street artist and activist Ramiro Gomez. This creative foray into neighborhoods near the convention center will leave them bedecked with cardboard cutouts of workers, illustrating their essential role in local industries.

No Opinions on Syria?

The 2013 convention agenda has been spruced up in other ways, while some AFL-CIO meeting behavior remains sadly the same. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren–who has, so far, proven to be a better Democrat than Specter—addressed the crowd yesterday and won much applause for her defense of “the middle class.” Tuesday morning, the convention will hear from economist Joseph Stiglitz, whose feelings of affection for capitalism have definitely waned since he won the Nobel Prize in 2001.  And then, of course, there will be a televised message from President Obama this very afternoon. The president was originally scheduled to appear in person at the convention. But that trip got cancelled because he was too busy lobbying Congress—and expending valuable political capital–on America’s fourth military intervention in the Middle East since 2001.

At a press briefing yesterday, Trumka confided that “the president felt bad about not being able to come.” When asked whether the AFL-CIO might be taking a stand for or against Obama’s costly bombing run over Syria, Trumka said the federation had “no comprehensive position” on the matter. He didn’t expect that any Syria-related resolution would be introduced—a near impossibility, at this late date, given the AFL-CIO’s notoriously opaque resolution-processing procedures.

In a more promising departure from past practice, the AFL-CIO has allocated time for daily convention “action sessions”—numbering about fifty in all. This smorgasbord of panel discussions tilts heavily toward political topics and seems designed to give the proceedings the trendy buzz of a Netroots Nation conference. A bevy of invited guests, from allied organizations, are joining federation officials and staff, plus other union representatives, in discussions of “alt-labor,” new “digital strategies” for unions, how to put more “Boots Online,” elect progressives to public office, and partner with private philanthropies.

Many of these workshops showcase the federation’s new or old ties with community-based labor support groups, immigrant workers centers, and policy wonks from the Economic Policy Institute, the Democracy Initiative, and the Ford Foundation. Not a single “action session” deals with issues of war and peace—or last century labor concerns like wasteful military spending and the need for “economic conversion.” The most used official “talking point” on opening day related to the AFL-CIO’s need to make its past “transactional” relationships with non-labor groups more “transformational” in the future.

Left Coast Labor Rumbles

Unfortunately, several anti-war unions that tried to make the AFL-CIO’s approach to health care reform more “transformational” four years ago are missing from this convention. That does not bode well for any unscripted floor discussion of labor’s much-publicized problems with Obamacare.  In 2009, delegates from CNA, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), and others pushed for more AFL-CIO support for Medicare-for-all. But, as Labor Notes reported last week, the ILWU has taken its 45,000 U.S.-based members out of the AFL-CIO because of unresolved jurisdictional disputes and other political reasons. (See http://www.labornotes.org/2013/08/longshore-union-quits-afl-cio)

In an angry letter to Trumka on August 29, ILWU president Bob McEllrath complained that, after the last convention, “the federation lobbied affiliates to support a bill [the Affordable Care Act] that taxed our health care plans.”  McEllrath accused the federation of doing “a great disservice to the labor movement and all working people by going along to get along” in its own relationship with the Obama Administration,

Adding insult to left coast injury, AFL-CIO staff planning this year’s convention rejected an “action session” proposed by the CNA-supported Labor Campaign for Single Payer Healthcare, which was allowed to have a literature table instead. Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO scheduled two convention presentations featuring Kaiser Permanente (KP), the California hospital chain and health maintenance organization (HMO) whose continuing drive for contract concessions triggered statewide strikes by 20,000 of its own workers in 2011 and 2012. Understandably miffed by both political affronts, the CNA and its allied RN organizations in National Nurses United (NNU) decided to stay home.

In a letter sent to Trumka on Oct. 6, five Kaiser technical and professional employees who belong to the CNA-affiliated National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) questioned why the AFL was showcasing Kaiser as a “model employer.” They noted that “multiple affiliates of the AFL-CIO are currently in the middle of an epic struggle at Kaiser to defend standards that workers have fought decades to establish.” They asked Trumka “and the rest of the AFL-CIO to stand with us and not with this multi-billion dollar HMO.”  NUHW supporters at Kaiser in L.A. also prepared a leaflet detailing their employer’s recent mistreatment of workers and patients in California. They planned to distribute the flyer to the 1,600 delegates and guests attending the convention’s opening session that began at 3 p.m. yesterday.

When asked about the status of the federation’s partnership with Kaiser at his press briefing three hours before that deadline, Trumka declared that “Kaiser will not be at the convention.”  Time slots for marketing of Kaiser Labor-Management Partnership products had previously been advertised on the AFL-CIO’s own website and convention schedule. But sure enough, there was no sign yesterday afternoon of anyone from Kaiser taking the “Solidarity Stage” outside the convention hall to promote “Instant Recess,” a trade-marked component of KP’s corporate wellness program. (“Instant Recess” promotes “short bursts of physical activity throughout the workday”—as long as it doesn’t involve union picketing!)

A booth reserved for Kaiser, among the other labor vendors peddling their wares outside the convention hall, remained vacant as well. It was soon occupied by U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW), the brave network of local unions and central labor bodies opposed to America’s past meddling in the Middle East.

One CNA official hailed this small reversal of fortune for Kaiser as “quite a blow to the HMO given its partnership with the AFL and Service Employees International Union,” which left the federation in 2005. Given the latest clamor for war from the White House, having USLAW on the scene, to remind convention delegates about past disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq, will be far more salutary than any workplace exercise tips from Kaiser, a “labor HMO” no longer notable for its friendliness to workers or consumers.

Steve Early is a labor journalist, lawyer, and retired national staff member of the Communications Workers of America. He was involved, for many years, in bargaining with manufacturing and telecom firms in New England. He is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions: Dispatches From A Movement in Distress, forthcoming from Monthly Review Press in November. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com