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Harry Kelber Challenges the AFL-CIO

“Why should I listen to anything Harry Kelber says?” exclaimed a visibly indignant Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO.

Maybe because Kelber, 98 years young, has been honestly fighting for labor rights as a worker, union organizer, pamphleteer, author, professor and overall hairshirt of the moribund organized labor movement for 78 years–or 15 years before Trumka, the former coal miner and United Mine Workers’ president, was born.

Kelber writes and speaks about what is on the minds of millions of union workers and non-union workers. Why aren’t organized labor’s leaders more aggressive in addressing the plight of American labor by challenging big companies and their political allies? Why didn’t the AFL-CIO leadership hold Barack Obama in 2009, 2010, and 2011 to his specific 2008 promises to press Congress for a $9.50 federal minimum wage by 2011 and, when under control of the Democrats, get Congress to pass the “card check” that would give millions of workers a chance to organize in Walmart, McDonalds and other companies that employ low-wage labor and provide few benefits?

How can the AFL-CIO’s “policy of silence and secrecy… serve the interest of union members?” Kelber criticizes the Federation for its top-down control, its aversion to any democratic process for its elections, and for not taking full advantage of the Wall Street crash, the taxpayer bailouts, and U.S. corporations sending jobs to repressive dictatorships abroad.

Kelber wants the AFL-CIO and its member unions to fight against this strip-mining of the American economy and work closely with labor unions from other countries with the same corporate employers.

In truth, to outsiders, Trumka’s labor federation appears a defeated giant in its great white headquarters on Washington, D.C.’s 16th Street, across from the White House. To be sure, it confronts formidable external trends which include a
declining union membership, right wing Governors attacking its pensions, faster automation, corporate globalization, huge corporate slush funds to buy or rent politicians and anti-worker laws such as the notorious union-blocking Taft-Hartley Law of 1947 now in its 65th year of damage.

The old saying, however, is that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. That is not happening. Trumka delivers “give ‘em hell” speeches against corporate abuses, but gives the cowardly Democratic Party and its elected officials a pass. Consequently the Democrats take campaign money from unions and, led by a President who would not have been elected president without them, take the AFL-CIO support for granted.

Recently, Cong. Jesse Jackson, Jr. and other Representatives introduced HR. 5901 (The Catching Up With 1968 Act of 2012) to enact a $10 minimum wage to benefit 30 million workers languishing between the present $7.25 minimum wage and $10. So far the AFL-CIO hasn’t put any muscle or part of its multi-million dollar television ad buys behind it.

Inside an AFL-CIO’s executive council meeting one day, Trumka criticized President Obama and incurred the displeasure of one labor baron who said there should be no criticism even in their private meeting. Trumka objected to that request for self-censorship.

Meanwhile, the corporate barons in the nearby U.S. Chamber of Commerce building go after Obama with hammer and tongs, even though the President has gone out of his way to coddle them, to walk over and speak to them last year – something he has not done to his AFL-CIO neighbors.

Worse, Obama appointed Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of the net job-exporting, no federal-tax-paying, anti-union, very profitable General Electric, head of the White House’s Jobs Council. Mr. Trumka sits with him and never urges the repeal of Taft-Hartley while he listens to the corporatists demand more and more deregulation, tax breaks, subsidies and other forms of corporate welfare.

Kelber has pointed out the financial distress enveloping the AFL-CIO itself. So strapped is the AFL-CIO budget that it is selling its affiliates visionary 47 acre labor campus in suburban Maryland where it is reportedly losing about $5 million a year. Why? The Federation is not about to explain its budgetary priorities to its rank and file.

There are good people inside the labor headquarters. They are muzzled. Trumka will say he has his hands full with the heads of member unions who, he has implied, are not exactly progressive or aggressive for change. Here he has a point. While Trumka and John Hiatt control the staff, he has to deal with a fractious group of member unions, most of which want to stay beneath the radar and avoid notice.

Unless they have nothing to hide, union leaders generally avoid the spotlight. They remember too many prosecutions of their forbears. Don’t rock the boat. Even on Labor Day, they do not come forward prominently to dominate the news with major events and announcements. The Labor Day parades are either extinct or a diluted shadow of their earlier years.

Yet, this upcoming Labor Day, as I wrote President Obama, there is a great opportunity for collaboration between him, union leaders, workers and social justice organizations to take a stand for the $10 minimum wage that is favored by 70 percent of the people. It would be a leading media event that is the long overdue right thing to do, both morally and economically.

Even Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, until the latter waffled earlier this year, have long favored a minimum wage keeping up with inflation. Isn’t it time for 30 million hard-pressed American workers to receive what workers got in 1968?

Obama has not replied to my suggestion. Nor has the AFL-CIO. Kelber is right. It is time for a new labor federation of, by and for the workers. See Kelber’s www.laboreducator.org and participate. He vigorously welcomes you and your views.

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, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition.

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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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