Debate Over the Future of the AFL-CIO: More Heat than Light

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a long-time labor and international activist. He is currently president of TransAfrica Forum in Washington, DC. This column does not necessarily reflect the views of TransAfrica Forum or any other group with which Mr. Fletcher is associated.

A debate over the future of the AFL-CIO, the federation of most unions in the USA, has been underway for some months and, for the life of me, while the debate becomes more intense, the differences seem to blur. Yet, the feeling that one gets is that we are headed for a train wreck.

The debate commenced over a year ago with the floating of a think-piece by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) focusing on how to reverse the downward slide of unions. Its main suggestions were (1) the mergers of national/international unions so that there was less competition and a better use of resources, and (2) the focus of unions on organizing workers in their core areas, i.e., unions organizing workers that they have traditionally organized rather than taking a scattered approach to organizing.

The issues SEIU raised were important, but largely secondary to the greater challenge facing organized labor. Missing from the SEIU analysis (and virtually anything else that has subsequently appeared from either SEIU, its allies or its opponents) have been issues including a clear understanding of the forces of capitalism that workers are up against including, but not limited to, globalization; the manner in which the US government has shifted more and more to the Right and become increasingly hostile to workers and their unions; how unions should organize critical regions like the US South and Southwest, and particularly how to ally with African Americans and Latinos in these regions in order to be successful; how to engage in political action in such a way that working people can advance an agenda and candidates that represent their interests and not simply the institutional interests of unions or established political parties; the continued relevance of fighting racism, sexism and other forms of oppression and intolerance if workers are to ever unite; how to work with and build mutual support with workers in other countries; and the critical importance of joining with others to fight for democracy.

I have not seen any of these issues addressed. Instead, the fight focuses on arcane issues such as whether the AFL-CIO should give larger or smaller rebates to unions that are allegedly organizing, and whether the AFL-CIO Executive Council should be larger or smaller. These contentious debates make a dangerous assumption: that the decline of unions is largely the fault of the structure of the AFL-CIO and/or how the AFL-CIO has operated. It ignores something around which most union leaders are in denial: the problems facing the union movement are with the way that unions in the USA see themselves; their lack of a mission and strategy; and their blindness to the real features of the barbaric society that is unfolding before our eyes.

In the absence of a discussion of vision and strategy, personal attacks and innuendo have been substituted. It is amazing to watch union leaders impute the character of one another, while some of them play patty-cake with the likes of President Bush—someone not especially noted for his pro-worker attitude or actions.

The situation sadly reminds me of an event during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. At a point when German and Italian-supported fascist armies were marching on the cities of Madrid and Barcelona, Communists, Trotskyists and Anarchists—collectively the staunchest defenders of the newly formed Spanish Republic—began shooting each other. Instead of figuring out how best to defeat the fascists, these three forces fought to define which of them was the superior or true anti-fascist. Needless to say, the fascists ended up capturing the whole of Spain in March 1939, a prelude to the European component of World War II.

The US trade union movement has badly needed a debate about its own future, but the culture of the US union movement generally precludes honest debates. When individuals or groups of individuals raise allegedly unpopular positions—or positions critical of the leadership—they can often find themselves isolated or undermined. Rather than a free flow of constructive ideas, most union leaders surround themselves with a protective bubble to keep out any “bad news” and/or provocative suggestions. Thus, it should not surprise anyone that the union movement has, over time, become pickled in its own juices. With leaders who stay in office for what to many feels to be an eternity, and with the suppression of dissent, too many of those who wish to see change introduced are forced out, or, as a friend of mine says, are “beached.”

It is, therefore, amazing to witness the spectacle of some unions threatening to leave the AFL-CIO and others threatening to drive others out after so little and so pitiful a discussion. All this is taking place while rank and file union activists find themselves increasingly alienated by the debate or outright fearful of the outcome. No attempt has been made by either side in this debate to bring the debate to the members. The members have not been asked their opinions, nor has there been much effort toward constructive and principled debates. Instead members find themselves feeling that they are at the base of Mount Olympus while the gods fight out the final battle thousands of feet above their heads.

Ironically, a debate needs to take place, but it needs to be reframed in its entirety, a thought that probably scares the leaders rather than the members. It needs to be a debate about a compelling vision for the future of workers in the USA, not to mention the rest of the world. It needs to be a debate about what sorts of strategies work in the face of dramatic changes in the economy, including the way that work is done, and the fact that growing numbers of people are not working in the formal economy at all. It needs to be a debate that asks the question of how we stop the use of working people as cannon fodder in unjust, dominationist wars. It needs to be a debate about whether the financial burden of society gets placed on the bottom of the economic pyramid vs. on those who possess wealth and privilege.

I keep wondering whether it is too much to ask of our leaders to think about the needs of working people rather than focusing on the alleged profundity of their rhetoric and the seductiveness of their own publicity.