After years of embarrassing denial, the AFL-CIO recently took its first baby step in addressing the crisis that has engulfed organized labor: it recognized there was a problem. In the run up to its national convention in early September in Los Angles, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka recently admitted that “what we’ve been doing isn’t working,” and consequently announced a new strategy that was, supposedly, a revolutionary break from the previously-failed strategy of organized labor.
Unfortunately, Trumka hasn’t mentioned exactly what failed, or how the new strategy plans to fix it. The threadbare details released thus far seem more hype than substance, such as working closer with community partners like the NAACP and the Sierra Club, with the possibility that these and other groups may become official “solidarity” members of the AFL-CIO or affiliated groups. More information — and a more detailed plan — will hopefully be unveiled at the AFL-CIO national convention.
However, the details released so far are hardly inspirational. It’s of course good to work with community partners, but to think that this initiative alone has the potential to save organized labor is to stay submerged in deep denial. Working with the broader community on a truly powerful basis requires fundamentally altering the AFL-CIO’s political strategy, which, at this time remains tragically stagnant.
Proof of this political stagnation will be on full display at the AFL-CIO national convention, where the invited keynote speaker — President Obama — is someone who bears direct responsibility for organized labor’s current floundering.
Not only has President Obama done absolutely nothing to help organized labor, he has made it his personal mission to directly attack the strongest unions in the United States — the teachers’ unions. Obama is to the teachers as Reagan was to air traffic controllers — a flagrant union buster.
Under Obama’s Republican-inspired “Race to the Top” education plan, the basis of the teachers’ unions is being undermined via fundamental attacks on seniority, while public education is being privatized into non-union charter schools.
Although Obama is pursuing the same anti-teacher anti-union ideas as the Republicans before him, the teachers’ unions — with the proud exception of the Chicago teachers — have remained politically paralyzed by the assault, seemingly puzzled that a “pro worker” President is leading the assault against them. The leadership of both national teachers’ unions treacherously endorsed Obama in 2012, even after he had taken major steps — via his Education Secretary — to destroy their unions.
Obama is also overseeing the coordinated assault against all public employees — on a state-by-state basis — by Democratic governors. The public sector is the last bastion of real strength of the labor movement, which is why it is being undermined by a bi-partisan attack on the wages, health care, and pensions of public employees. These Democrat-demanded concessions weaken the unions to the point they are vulnerable to the Republican deathblow of “Right to Work” legislation or legal limitations on the union’s bargaining rights.
Furthermore, the United States is in the worst job crisis since the Great Depression, and nothing Obama is doing — aside from making empty speeches — has remotely addressed the problem. As Obama brags about all the jobs being created, he fails to mention that the current rate of job creation will permanently leave millions of people unemployed, while ignoring the fact that, in 2013, 97 percent of new jobs were part-time (!) and mostly low paying.
Obama’s policy to NOT address unemployment is a deliberate one, in accordance with his often-stated goal to increase U.S.exports. A policy of maintaining high unemployment automatically skews the labor market against all workers — by keeping the supply of labor high — thus pushing down wages in general.
This low-wage policy of Obama is a fundamental precondition to achieve his goal of increasing exports, which first requires that the U.S. be able to compete with poorer nations on the international market, where “competitive” workers are paid slave wages.
These economic goals of Obama cannot be achieved without undermining organized labor, since unions skew the labor market in the opposite direction that Obama is taking it. This explains why Obama is attacking the teachers’ unions and public employees, i.e. organized labor in general. Sadly, the bi-partisan goal to lower wages is already half achieved.
When Trumka says that Obama is “pro working families,” he must be — by necessity — either completely ignorant, lying, or delusional. Trumka’s vouching for Obama provides the president with immense political cover to pursue these anti-worker policies, and also prevents organized labor from implementing any campaign that has a remote chance of being truly successful.
For example, what political/organizing campaigns might the AFL-CIO and its new allies plan to tackle together? Any joint campaign that has the potential to fightback against the massive corporate and government assault on unions and working people requires that demands be made upon the Obama administration and the Democrats who are overseeing the attack on working people. There’s no way around it.
But you don’t make demands on your “friends.” You either ask nicely or, to avoid upsetting them, simply change the subject and talk about the weather. This, in a nutshell, is what’s preventing unions from staying politically relevant in a quickly changing political landscape. The Democrats are madly scrambling to the Republican right in regards to unions, while labor appears oblivious of this fact, desperately trying to maintain an already-severed relationship by giving — and receiving nothing in return.
Any “new idea” that organized labor comes up with to stay relevant must inevitably come up against the two-party political barriers, which is politically and legally re-enforcing the corporate attack on workers. These barriers cannot be overcome by shortcuts or less-than-significant alliances. The hurdle requires a powerful social movement, which labor can help lead if it puts forward inspiring leadership and shows that unions are serious about waging an all-out, protracted struggle for a federal jobs program, Medicare for all, student debt reduction, affordable education, retirement security (pensions and Social Security), and other pressing demands of the broader working class.
Instead of politely asking Democrats to achieve these demands — which obviously hasn’t worked — labor needs to fight for them by mobilizing tens and hundreds of thousands of working people in the streets.
Which brings us back to the AFL-CIO’s new alliances. There is immense potential in partnering with community groups, but that potential is easily squandered. If the AFL-CIO’s new alliance evolves into a pro-Democrat voting bloc, then no union or community member will be inspired, and the energy will be immediately channeled into a dead end. This is again why the AFL-CIO needs a new political strategy to complement any new ideas it plans to implement; the labor movement needs inspiration and action, but “mobilizing” for Democrats has an immediately demoralizing effect.
For instance, if the AFL-CIO puts forth an inspiring campaign for a federal jobs program that builds real enthusiasm, but then pauses the campaign for months to put all its resources into campaigning for Democrats, then the jobs campaign will be exposed as a farce.
Furthermore, campaigning for Democrats also means that labor can’t expose their horrific ideas regarding job creation, since convincing union members to vote Democrat involves not exposing these Democrat’s pro-corporate anti-union agendas. This is how the demands of labor become watered down, uninspirational, and eventually forgotten…until the next “big idea” comes around that eventually follows the previous stages of declining relevance.
The Wisconsin Uprising and the Chicago Teachers have proved, without any doubt, that organized labor is — when mobilized and inspired — a very powerful force. This force can either be unleashed and funneled into a powerful national movement of the vast majority, or it can remain bottled up and made powerless in the face of the ongoing corporate assault.
If the AFL-CIO’s new partners agree to unite over inspiring demands that address the nation’s ongoing economic/jobs crisis, then the potential inherent in the partnership could be realized. But there is also the potential that this partnership will be built on a foundation of fluff, and be yet another scheme to show that the AFL-CIO leadership is “doing something” about the labor movement’s terminal decline, while maintaining the fundamental political strategy that has been undermining the decline of the labor movement for decades.
Shamus Cooke is a social service worker and an elected officer of SEIU 503. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org