Will Trumka or the Steelworkers Push Labor Into Battle?

I was wrong. In my dispatch previewing the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh, on this site last week, I predicted that the grassroots initiative for a resolution to commit the labor federation to a single-payer health care policy would present the convention with one real debate. I should have known better. Except in rare instances and rare unions, conventions are not fora for debate. They are elaborately choreographed events, with any disputation occurring offstage, in the late hours or early morning or, most likely, preceding weeks, and everything compromised out by the time issues reach the convention floor. Success is measured by vote after vote going exactly as the leadership planned. It is the live manifestation of the organizer’s credo: a good meeting is one with no surprises.

So it was in Pittsburgh. You might call it repressive tolerance. The single payer resolution went forward. Vigorous advocates took to the microphones to speak for it. No one challenged them, and the convention voted unanimously to adopt the resolution. Then it took up the AFL leadership’s health care resolution, which no one challenged and also sailed through without opposition. It supports employer-based coverage and a public option, opposes any tax on benefits or on high-cost plans, endorses an insurance market exchange, regulation of the insurance industry, improvements in Medicare and an additional income tax on the top 1 per cent. Gerry MacEntee, president of AFSCME, introduced that resolution with a broadside on Senator Max Baucus’s plan, presenting the most humorous moment in the convention, trying to rouse outrage in the half-filled hall like a borscht belt comedian working for laughs. “C’mon, this is bullshit!” he shouted, his jaw mashing gum, his face livid. He repeated the word several times before the crowd finally joined him in a chorus of “Bullshit,” promising to call their senators because, as MacEntee put it, “we elected Democrats in the Senate, the House and the White House, and they must do better.”
It was a bit of theatrics from one of an old breed of union leaders, vulgar and angry, a performance, however, that would never be repeated in Washington in an open rally of massed workers, in front of real Democrats, or rolling cameras, in back rooms or for broadcast to the wider world where it might actually embarrass those who have benefited so much from organized labor’s money and electoral organization.

Some of my left journalist colleagues at the convention were grousing that the delegates warmly welcomed Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Spector, who said he thought single payer should be on the table even if he didn’t back it (a little political calculation that support for this might grow as Congressional reform efforts become ever-more degraded?) and who called labor law reform legislation “the Employee Choice Act”, somehow omitting the “Free” and telling reporters that all were agreed that card check was dead. But the test isn’t in who gets to be an invited guest or how polite or even enthusiastic delegates might be in greeting them within the confines of a convention. President Obama had only to mention the Employee Free Choice Act and the public option for the delegates, already electrified, to whoop their approval. No, the test is in whether labor would ever upset the President’s polite politics of accommodation and use the club of its money and its troops to threaten Democrats when it counted.

A few days after the convention I was having lunch with Mike Stout, a rank-and-file leader of the first order, a man who back in the 1980s was at the front of the Steel Workers fight against US Steel’s mass shutdowns in Pennsylvania. We were in Homestead, at a place called Mitchell’s Fish Market, which occupies the exact spot where all those years ago once sat the management office of the gargantuan Homestead steel works. In that place where Mike used to file grievances we were now enjoying blackened salmon (him) and a toothsome Asian-style steelhead (me). The restaurant is about midway in a four and a half mile stretch of monuments to the consumer economy, four and a half miles that once held one of the greatest steel-producing operations in the country, the place that made the structural steel for the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center, the Verazanno Narrows Bridge and the Golden Gate, and that was seized by FDR in 1942 to produce armor plating for World War II. Mike now runs Steel Valley Printing a few blocks away, a union shop that was busy turning out fliers and leaflets for the upcoming G-20 protests in Pittsburgh.

He was recalling the phone banking and other political apparatus that labor set up in Allegheny County for last year’s election. It was very elaborate, very well funded and organized. It is what labor does extremely well, hence, as one union official told me, why the political program was front and center in almost every discussion at the convention. “You’re always going to highlight what you do well at a convention,” the official said. “We don’t do a lot of other things nearly so well.” Obama probably won Pennsylvania and Ohio because of that apparatus. There are a lot of old white union people in both states, and as the now-president of the AFL-CIO Rich Trumka said from the podium, old white labor people supported Obama by more than 70 per cent, as opposed to old white non-labor people who supported McCain by almost the same margin. You would think, Mike Stout said, that all that organization and proven expertise could be leveraged for favorable policy on key issues, yet today even progressive Democrats have complained to him and other local supporters of single payer that they wished labor would organize something besides letter-writing campaigns and phone-ins to counteract the army of industry lobbyists who pound the halls of Congress every single day.

At the convention there were long hushed moments when all the delegates were busy phoning their representatives, calling or texting Congress to push for labor law reform, to push for health care reform. There were no appeals from the stage to take to the street or even to clog Congressional halls with bodies of workers. There were no demands or even apparent inclination to mobilize workers to march. While the front page of the local papers carried pictures of tens of thousands of right-wingers massing in Washington, the proceedings in the hall were abstracted from any version of what the AFL used to call Street Heat.

“I wish they’d at least threaten to get militant”, Mike Stout said. “At least they could say, if you don’t do a, b and c you don’t get this political operation, you don’t get one cent; you get opposition. Organized labor still has a club, but if they don’t use it soon they’re going to be like the old-timers reminiscing about the old times in the back of a bar.”

The hope of using a club, defined as making labor’s case to the wider public, activating the membership and punishing Democrats for betrayal, is what delegate after delegate to the convention, from union presidents to rank-and-file leaders of small labor councils, told me they saw in the coronation of Trumka. It became almost a prayer: his very presence and style will animate the unions; his eagerness to be seen and heard might change the way Americans think about unions; “he may just be the shock therapy needed to shock the employers,” as Teachers union president Randi Weingarten put it to the convention. The pageant before Trumka’s formal pronouncement as president was full of sentimentality and tears. The great Pittston strike of 1989-90 was given a passing mention, but overall, as Jon Flanders, an alternate delegate from Troy said, the message was of “the worker as iconic victim, and the great leader who will raise them up.”

For all the expressed hope, and Trumka’s occasional sabre rattling, there is no sign yet that a Trumka-led AFL will be different from its predecessors, and without a heightened political energy and organization coming from the ranks—the club that Mike Stout was referring to more than the will or bluster of a single individual at the top—it can’t be different. For all the money poured into elections—possibly as much as $350 million counting all of organized labor—unions don’t have the stroke in Congress and the White House that money is supposed to buy. For labor, the calculus of power is not the same as it is for business: organization, numbers, the ability to gum up the works, should pay off more. People wonder why unions don’t hold the Democrats’ feet to the fire, but the belief that money must necessarily buy influence misses the harder point.

As CWA president Larry Cohen put it, “We have expectations that come from an earlier time. I inherited a political culture based on a strong labor movement. We don’t have that. What it means to win an election in Brazil, even with the huge problems they have there, is different for unions than it is for us here. Brazil is 30 per cent organized [the US is 12 per cent, including the public sector]. They have a different kind of alliance building. So they get different results [from a favorable election result] than we’re going to get here.” Cohen was at the convention focusing on labor law reform and labor unity. Reform is vital, he stressed, to combat the most antiworker environment in the Western world and even much of the Third World. But even with dwindling percentages, unions (whether in the AFL or not) represent 16 million people. That many people, if educated, animated, organized at the shop level, and unified in strategic alliances, have at least the possibility of presenting a formidable force.

Will they? The convention offered no sign that labor as a whole was interested in its membership’s potential power outside elections. Here amid the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression it was almost as if that wider crisis didn’t exist. The Machinists were handing out T-shirts saying “Jobs Now” and had a room upstairs from the hall with close-up photographs of some of its 30,000 members who have lost their jobs in the past eight months. It also had a forbidding map showing the spread of joblessness across the country. A resolution approved by the convention reminded everyone that real unemployment, affecting some 31 million people, was the worst in US history and a second stimulus of job creation, modeled on the WPA, is necessary. Otherwise, you would not have known there is disaster spreading in the working class.

The Steel Workers handed out a flier urging people to “March for Jobs” in Pittsburgh on September 20. “If you don’t have a job, fight to get one”, it proclaimed. “If you have one – fight to keep it.” Among all of organized labor only the United Steel Workers are supporting a march calling for jobs for all; a moratorium on layoffs, foreclosures and eviction; health care for all; no cuts in social services, and funds “for peoples needs, not war and greed.” It was easy to miss, and I didn’t hear any call at the convention for workers to rally, just as I didn’t hear any evocation of labor’s fighting history to inspire a renewed fight today. Mike Stout and a comrade Charles McCollester had suggested that the convention might want to do a cultural program for delegates built around McCollester’s terrific new book, The Point of Pittsburgh, about the way in which the working classes of Pittsburgh paved what became the future not just with their sweat but their intelligence and militancy. That never happened. At least Michael Moore was asked to premier his fierce new documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, some delegates said. At least that one attack on capitalism as a system, as opposed to the usual railing against corporate greed, got through.

People said there was no sign at the convention of what Trumka’s program might be (other than belt-tightening at the financially strapped federation) because John Sweeney was in the hall. It would have been unseemly, as if a criticism of the outgoing leadership. So there was rhetoric and a promise of unity and the capper of UNITE HERE marching into the hall on the last day to announce their reaffiliation. Four years ago, it had been the right thing to walk out of the federation, UNITE HERE president John Wilhelm told the press; “no regrets”. What prompted his return now was not his union’s need for money, support, a home in its ongoing war with SEIU, he added, but rather President Obama’s election, and the new opportunities that presents for a unified labor movement. MacEntee and the rest could have risen in another chorus of “Bullshit” had Wilhelm said that in front of them, but the excitement of the hotel workers who had accompanied their union chief into the hall and onto the stage appeared genuine. And so did the expressed hopes of other low-tier unionists that a change is going to come.

One of Trumka’s first acts as president was to tour Ohio drumming up the support for jobs, health care and financial reform, then travel to Atlanta to condemn predatory financial practices at a rally outside Wachovia Bank, and from there head to New York to hold a press conference at Wall Street calling on Congress to reregulate the financial system and reign in executive pay. The AFL’s press release said, “This tour is just the beginning of a long campaign to rebuild the American labor movement and lead a broad progressive social movement to Turn America Around and restore hope to America’s working families and future generations.” Maybe. Meanwhile, the Steel Workers will be the only union marching before the G-20, demanding jobs and proclaiming that “The unemployed, the homeless, the hungry and the poor must no longer be invisible & silent.”

JOANN WYPIJEWSKI writes for CounterPunch, The Nation and other publications. She can be reached at jwyp@earthlink.net


JoAnn Wypijewski is the author of What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority & the Mess of Life.