“Unity within Our Movement Has Never Been More Important”: Statement by AFL-CIO Organizing Director Stewart Acuff at the Illinois State AFL-CIO Central Labor Council Conference in Findlay, Ill. June 14, 2005

[Michael D. Yates’ Note: As readers of the June issue of Monthly Review magazine know, a fierce battle is raging inside organized labor in the United States.  Several unions within the AFL-CIO (the national federation of unions) are threatening to secede from the Federation, their leaders arguing that Federation leaders and many member unions are not committed to rebuilding a badly weakened labor movement.  Things will very likely come to a head at the annual convention of the AFL-CIO, to be held in Chicago beginning July 25.  It is possible that there will be a split, which some in the dissident unions are comparing to the formation of the CIO when it separated from the AFL in 1935 and began aggressively to organize industrial workers.

The following speech is by Stewart Acuff, the AFL-CIO’s Director for Organizing.  Prior to going to work directly for the Federation, he was Executive Director of the Georgia State Employees Union and then head of the Atlanta Central Labor Council (Central Labor Councils are local bodies comprised of locals of AFL-CIO member unions — and sometimes locals of unions that are not members of the AFL-CIO).  The AFL-CIO has tried to rejuvenate these organizations, which historically have been important catalysts for organizing, boycotts, sympathy strikes, and picketing.  Acuff helped build a strong council in Atlanta, interracial and community-centered.  Her ran unsuccessfully to head the Georgia State AFL-CIO before going to work for the Federation.

It is fair to say that Acuff represents the most progressive wing of AFL-CIO officialdom.]

I don’t need to tell this audience that the Bush Administration and Congress have declared war on the middle class, on our seniors, on our nation’s children, and especially on those struggling in poverty, and the American Labor movement.

As a country, we battle a vicious assault on every value that we hold dear and everything we’ve fought for over the last seventy-five years.

Under the Bush economy, eight million Americans are out of work, and another two million have given up trying.

Nearly thirty-six million Americans are living in poverty, and one-third of those in poverty are children.

Since Bush took office, the number of Americans without health insurance has climbed to forty-five million.

The shamefully low minimum wage of $5.15 an hour continues to force millions into poverty, and keeps millions more one paycheck away.

More and more families than ever are working three or four jobs just to make ends meet.

These unfair social and economic burdens are compounded with record deficits that we continue to pass along to our children and their children, attempts to dismantle Social Security and the right to retire with dignity, and a reckless trade policy that is leading us on a global race to the bottom.

Simultaneously, the Bush Administration is doing everything it can to crush workers from having power over their working conditions and any kind of organized voice to thwart its corporate agenda.

We are losing good middle class jobs, as three million middle-class-building manufacturing jobs have been lost since Bush took office — more than in the last twenty-two years combined!

Now white-collar and hi-tech jobs are being sent overseas, too.

And for those still able to find work, Bush’s overtime rule exempted six million working Americans from the right to overtime pay.

The Bush administration is assaulting the very institution of collective bargaining.

They have destroyed collective bargaining for 250,000 Federal employees.

In creating the Department of Homeland Security they denied collective bargaining and a voice at work to 160,000 Federal workers.

When this Administration created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), they explicitly denied airport screeners and others any opportunity to organize and bargain collectively.

Now George Bush is canceling collective bargaining for 750,000 in the Department of Defense, a move that if not stopped, the administration will force on every Federal agency.

The freedom to form unions and bargain collectively is a fundamental human right reflected in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, and part of every international covenant dealing with workers’ rights.  Our government not only fails to protect that human right but is explicitly trying to crush this right for America’s workers.

Make no mistake about it: at every level of government and in the halls of corporate America, the labor movement and the quality of life for working America is under vehement attack.

Here in the United States, over 20,000 workers were fired or discriminated against for union activities in 2004 alone, according to National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) annual reports.

That amounts to a worker in this country being fired or discriminated against every twenty-three minutes for exercising the basic human right to form or join a union.

When faced with an organizing effort, ninety percent of American private-sector employers hire anti-union lawyers and consultants to frustrate and undermine the will of workers.

More than three-quarters of these employers require workers to sit in mandatory one-on-one supervisory sweat sessions.

Half of these employers threaten to shut down the facility, and fully one-quarter of them illegally fire workers, according to Cornell University scholar Kate Bronfenbrenner.

The worst part is that our government is complicit with the denial of our basic freedom to form unions and bargain collective.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) process forces workers through a meat grinder.  It is a process riddled with excessive delays, insignificant penalties to deter unscrupulous employers from violating the law, and an unfair election process that put workers through hell and back simply for trying exercise a basic human right.

Worse yet, the NLRB does little but offer a token slap on the wrist to protect workers who, even after they jump through all the hoops under current law and succeed in forming a union, are denied any initial collective bargaining contracts within two years.  This happens in almost half of all instances where workers vote to form a union, according to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services.

It is so bad that Human Rights Watch says that our nation is in violation of fundamental and internationally recognized human rights’ standards for failing to protect the rights of workers in this country to freely form unions.

Further Attacking Workers’ Freedom

The National Labor Relations Board election process is so unfairly skewed to benefit employers that a vast majority of workers decided to opt out of the process and use a majority-sign up agreement card check instead.

Yet, the Bush Board is also attacking the right of employees and employers to mutually agree to this fair process, undermining the very method that workers used most often when the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935.

Furthermore, the Bush Board has removed from the Act coverage to many of the most vulnerable members of our workforce, especially temporary workers and disabled workers.

The Bush Board also reversed precedent to remove coverage for University graduate workers, the group that has been one of the fastest growing segments of our labor movement.

Fighting Back

Under such an organized and cynical attack on workers and their unions at every level, unity within our movement has never been more important.

While debating the direction of our institutions is critical to a true democratic discourse, all the structural adjustments in the works won’t achieve success without real struggle — and real unity.

The moral obligation of this generation of organizers, activists, and labor leaders is to rebuild and reinvigorate the labor movement and to restore the freedom to organize unions and bargain collectively in America.

Our struggle must meet the level of urgency and threat posed upon us at this critical juncture in history.  But it is important to step back and look at areas of progress: including how twenty unions are changing to organize, how we are building public outrage over the denial of workers’ freedom to form unions and bargain collectively, and the role played by the AFL-CIO in several of the most important union organizing victories in decades.

Moving to Organizing

While we must help at least one million workers every single year form unions merely to maintain our overall density within the workforce, AFL-CIO unions now organize on average three times as many workers each year than they did ten years ago.

All in all, about four million workers organized into AFL-CIO unions since the election of President John Sweeney, Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka, and Executive Vice-President Linda Chavez-Thompson ten years ago.

We are reliably organizing about 450,000 new members every year, in spite of a political and economic environment increasingly hostile to workers and their unions.

Within this period of time, there are almost twenty national unions that have either changed dramatically to organize or are in some state of a change process involving both moving money to organizing and/or developing other elements of organizing capacity, including recruiting, training and developing lead organizers.

We are proud of the efforts we have made in partnership with national unions on a variety of large, industry campaigns that include industry-leading employers and multiple employers within a single industry.

Because it is necessary for the AFL-CIO to continue to assist affiliates in their change process and offer leverage on strategic campaigns, this is part of the reason President Sweeney opposes a fifty percent per cap rebate which would be limited to certain national unions already committed to organizing.

As a labor movement, we simply can’t win if only a few of our unions are running aggressive organizing programs, and we must work with all national unions to assist this change process.

Strategic Partnerships with Unions

Graphic Communications International Union

In partnership with the Graphic Communications International Union, now part of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, we just won a huge victory at Quebecor World, the world’s largest printing company.  After a two-year campaign, the company just agreed to neutrality and an expedited non-NLRB election procedure.

International Brotherhood of Teamsters

We have been working with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters on other successful organizing campaigns as they are building their organizing capacity — such as waste and DHL.

The successful effort to organize 3,200 America West customer service representatives last year was led in part by an AFL-CIO team of organizers and was the largest victory in a federal government-run union election in close to a decade.

America West was an important campaign to make another airline 100 percent union and to increase our density in that critical industry.

Ironworkers Union

Though a small union, the change to organizing efforts at the Ironworkers has been exciting.

Working with us, they just organized the largest employer in their craft west of the Mississippi, J. D. Steel, bringing in over 1,000 new members — almost all of them Latino immigrants.

We are with them now as they continue their efforts on their second largest employer, Great Western.

Almost all these new members are immigrant workers.

United Auto Workers

We teamed with the United Auto Workers as they’ve done great work to increase their capacity and organize the auto and auto parts industry.

AFL-CIO lead researchers and organizers have played key roles in their victories at auto parts giants J.C.I. and Dana and at Freightliner truck and bus assembly plants in North Carolina.

Two of our senior organizers are with them now at a very large transplant assembly plant in the south.

American Federation of Teachers

The only union to have demonstrated consistent growth year after year in the last 10 years is the American Federation of Teachers.

Our lead organizers played key roles as they organized 3,600 graduate workers at the University of Illinois on both the Champaign-Urbana and Chicago campuses.

Service Employees International Union

We’ve worked a lot with SEIU over the last several years.  In the last four years, our organizers helped organize 5,000 home health workers in Wisconsin to establish Local 150 in that market.

Winning Multi-Union Campaigns

The AFL-CIO coordinated successful multi-union campaigns to organize airport workers at LAX and SFO.

Public Employees in Puerto Rico

In an effort led by the AFL-CIO, the labor movement and six affiliates changed the law and organized 100,000 public employees in Puerto Rico in the late 1990’s.  We are presently engaged in an effort to secure that base for current and future organizing.

Helping to Build Organizing Capacity

Our staff continues to help affiliates build their organizing capacity and win key industry campaigns at Comcast cable, Peabody Coal, New York City multi-union higher education and Phoenix multi-union residential construction.

We Are Strategically Utilizing Resources

The Organizing Fund has been spent strategically to help unions finance and run industry campaigns and/or significant campaigns that they couldn’t finance alone, such as California and North Carolina farm workers and the successful effort by AFSCME, CWA, and AFT to organize 12,000 New Mexico state workers.  Additionally, we have worked with the Illinois State Federation and affiliates to pass a state card check law in Illinois; with UNITE/HERE and the IBT on the CINTAS campaign; with CWA on innovative non-majority campaigns in high tech; with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) to assist them in their successful six-year campaign and national boycott of Mt. Olive Pickle Co., which enabled 6,000 migrant farm workers to win a union; and with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) around its campaign for airport screeners.

Most of these campaigns have been part of a union’s effort to change to organize and build organizational capacity.

In the last 10 years, the union that has organized the most workers is the SEIU.  But the two unions that have followed most closely are AFSCME and the American Federation of Teachers.


We have made tremendous progress in the last several years on our Voice @ Work Campaign, which is the National AFL-CIO’s campaign to restore the freedom to form unions and bargain collectively.

Employee Free Choice Act

No one predicted the groundswell of support that the Employee Free Choice Act would receive.  In the 108th Congress, 210 members of the House of Representatives (8 shy of a majority) and almost a majority in the Senate supported this legislation, initiated by the AFL-CIO.

The Employee Free Choice Act would go a long way to protect workers trying to form unions.  When enacted, it will allow workers to form unions through a simple majority sign-up (also known as “card-check”), mandate first contract arbitration if necessary to reach an agreement, and provide real penalties for employers who violate the law.

On April 19, 2005, the Employee Free Choice Act was reintroduced as bipartisan legislation by U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and U.S. Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Peter King (R-N.Y.) in the House.

Already, we have well over 200 co-sponsors in both chambers of Congress.  Our goal is to increase bipartisan co-sponsorship in the Senate and achieve outright majority support in the House.

In Congressional Districts all over this country, politicians are hearing firsthand from area workers about the grueling obstacles they face in trying to form a union.

In addition to building long-term support to pass this legislation, this bill has allowed us to go back to these elected leaders asking them to take specific actions in support of worker organizing.  For example, more than 115 elected leaders signed onto a letter urging Verizon to pursue a majority verification process in allowing workers to form a union.

While George Bush will not sign this legislation even if it comes to this desk in the next three years, the truth is nothing we do will be sufficient to rebuild our labor movement and worker power unless we also firmly establish the basic fundamental human right to organize and bargain collectively without intimidation or fear.


On International Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, 2003, more than 37,000 workers gathered at more than ninety-seven events in seventy-two cities in thirty-two states to express their outrage over the fact that workers have fundamentally lost their freedom to form unions and bargain collectively in this country.

This year on December 10, 2005, tens of thousands workers, local labor and allied movements will hold events nationwide to highlight this human-rights and economic crisis.

More than 30,000 union members and allies have been through comprehensive education and mobilization trainings and workshops to educate themselves about the campaign to restore the freedom to form unions and bargain collectively in America.

Additionally, working with allies such as Jobs with Justice and American Rights at Work, we must continue to break through on this issue with growing partnerships among religious groups, and civil, human and women’s rights organizations.

Moral Obligation

Workers are winning, including 400,000 who successfully formed unions last year.  The fact that we know this fight will take some time does not relieve us of our moral obligation to engage in the fight right now to restore the freedom to form unions.

Every single one of the fifty-seven million workers who say in independent polling that they would form a union tomorrow if given the chance deserves the right to have that decision through a free and fair process.

And when we win this, we will change this country.  How do we get national healthcare?  Restore the right to organize.  How do we defeat poverty?  Restore the right to organize.  How do we help moms and dads get their kids a better life?  Restore the right to organize.

Workers united and in motion is our fundamental source of power

In order to win this fight, the labor movement needs to provide leadership that allows and encourages the mass movement of workers in this fight.

Because the fact is that ultimately rank and file workers and their willingness or unwillingness to move and fight around this issue will determine what happens to our labor movement.

That is why it is critical that anything we do to reform the AFL-CIO has to include the role of workers in motion as a central component.

Workers united and in motion are the fundamental source of power for our labor movement.

That is why workers must feel ownership of their organizations and national unions.

Therefore, it is simply impossible to really discuss reforming, revitalizing, and reinvigorating the labor movement without strong input and leadership from the ground up.

I can’t stress enough the fact that unity is an absolute necessity.  Unity and solidarity define the labor movement.

Everything that we do is based on a collective unity, that is the source of our power, and anything that disrupts that unity is a devastating obstacle in our ability to carry out our number one priority: to improve people’s lives.

Also, progressives outside the labor movement have to own this fight as well.

Frankly, I can’t think of a single more important thing we can do together in this climate, than to help workers organize unions, and close the gaps between the haves and the have-nots — making it possible for American workers to win a raise through their unity and movement.

Therefore, we must stand with workers trying to exercise the right to freely form unions and bargain collectively.

This means unprecedented mobilizations to support workers organizing — where no one fights alone — where every campaign is brought into the public consciousness — where all workers feel the community and the larger progressive movement behind their efforts.

This means that every effort to frustrate workers trying to exercise their fundamental human right to have a union is addressed and treated as the moral catastrophe that it is.

This means that every single time a worker is fired for trying to organize that we — all of us — take that personal crisis in her life and turn it into a public crisis for her employer.

Workers need more than a raise but the right to join together and bargain for a better life for themselves and their families.

And we in the labor movement must honor our history, our tradition and our responsibility to be the engine for the broader movement for social and economic justice.

Our mission is not just to accumulate numbers — but to build power — and to use that power to make life less mean and work more noble, to push down wealth and power, to challenge discrimination of any sort, to call this country back to freedom and justice.

Then we all gotta take our own private rage that’s been eating at our stomachs since they stole the election in 2000 and turn it into a public fight for the future of our people and the soul of our nation.

Lasting Change

While we cannot wait for change before we organize, it makes no sense to organize without demanding change.

That is just one reason that an effective and well-funded legislative and political operation is so important, in conjunction with a vibrant organizing agenda.

Deep and significant social change in this country usually takes years of struggle, organizing, constituency-building, and mass mobilization.

I watched the civil rights movement change my native South and the rest of the nation after decades of struggle.

We are watching now the freedom movement for LGBT people and the fight for immigrant rights change this country.  How long did the abolition movement take?  Women’s suffrage?

We must therefore build a long-term strategy using every available resource leading us to lasting change.

My brothers and sisters, it is easy to get down, easy to lose hope, but Dr. King said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

This is a fight that goes on until we win.  The future of our kids, of our country is worth fighting about.

Because it is the right thing to do.

Because history will judge our action at this incredibly decisive moment.

We will win!