Distilling the 2005 AFL-CIO Convention: Disaster Ahoy!

The Convention is over, delegates have returned home, and it’s time to make sense of the mess.

First of all, the “Change to Win” Coalition’s boycott of the convention and split from the AFL-CIO was stupid. Workers are going to suffer for this stupidity for a while, at least. And they are going to suffer even longer if the stupidity-in-response by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and the AFL-CIO Executive Council prevails.

I am not arguing that the issues raised by CTW were bad or irrelevant: to the contrary, I think Andy Stern, President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), gets a lot of credit for raising them. His one clear success is that by raising these issues, and raising them in the sharp manner that he did, he got all the somnolent leaders of the AFL-CIO to wake up and recognize that the labor movement is in crisis. A clear win there.

Yet SEIU’s analysis, and the SEIU’s “10 Point Program” that emerged from it, was only a beginning point for discussion, not all that needed to change as Stern and his allies suggested ad nauseum. In reality, the “10 Point Program” was extremely limited (see Herman Benson’s “Focusing the AFL-CIO Debate: Bureaucracy versus Democracy,” Bill Fletcher’s “Debate Over the Future of the AFL-CIO: More Heat Than Light,” and Lee Sustar’s “The Failure of Partnership” for analyses of its limitations). It is an indication of just how completely obtuse the AFL-CIO leadership has become that anyone could suggest this was a major initiative for change.

Despite the limited scope of the document and the thinking behind it, however, it stimulated considerable discussion and response within the labor movement. A lot of good ideas got generated as to the way forward.

To take a few examples, Jeff Crosby, President of the North Shore Labor Council in Massachusetts, wrote an excellent “response” to the Program, arguing that the Program’s call for “industrial consolidation” was just a first step that fit only certain circumstances and that we needed to have a much broader understanding of how the real world worked. Crosby was also one of the 12 Central Labor Council leaders who proposed the creation of 75 Regional Labor Federations in major metropolitan centers (which “contain over 65% of the population and over 70% of current union members”) and the unification of the Central Labor Councils in such metropolitan centers to “mobilize political power and community allies to win for working people.” Jerry Tucker wrote an excellent paper on the need to extend democracy in the labor movement. Harry Kelber — I hope I have half the energy this brother has when I hit 91! — has written a string of critiques and made serious suggestions as to how he thinks the labor movement should be reformed. And if I may be permitted, I, as well as others, have written several articles on the need to transform the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy program from its current version of “labor imperialism,” with links to the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), to become a force for genuine international labor solidarity.

So, Stern and the SIEU get credit for issuing a wake-up call. His allies in CTW also get credit for backing his play. And both groups get credit for stimulating some good thinking about how to deal with the “misfortunes” of labor.

But rather than coming to the Convention, and forcing the Convention to address their concerns squarely, Stern and CTW pouted like little children and boycotted the convention. Granted, they had some serious complaints. For one thing, the Resolutions Committee of the Convention (a very key committee which determines what input from the ranks actually reaches the floor, and then the manner in which the concerns will be addressed on the floor), appointed by the Executive Council under Sweeney’s leadership, consciously failed to include a single member of SEIU or the Teamsters. Yet, instead of going to the Convention, confronting Sweeney on his disemboweling of the little real democracy that exists on the national level of the labor movement, and building support among the delegations to force issues of democracy to the fore, Stern and CTW put their marbles in their pockets and went home. (Stern would have been on much stronger ground to fight for democracy within the AFL-CIO if he had not been so busy undercutting it in the SEIU, but that’s another issue.)

The immediate consequence of CTW’s boycott was that issues at the Convention that would have had the support of many of the CTW delegates, particularly from SEIU — which has at least begun to think about issues larger than those generally considered by traditional business unionists — lost this support. The resolution proposed by US Labor Against War (USLAW) for an immediate withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq would have probably emerged stronger from the Convention than the “rapid” withdrawal that was overwhelmingly adopted (although “rapid” was itself a direct rejection of the tepid and Bush-like “as-soon-as-possible” proposal that emerged from the Sweeney-dominated Resolutions Committee). And certainly, the California AFL-CIO’s “Build Unity and Trust Among Workers Worldwide” resolution — a serious development in the effort to transform the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy program — would have gotten a wider (and hopefully more serious) hearing by Convention delegates than allowed by Gerald McEntee (President of AFSCME), Chair of the Resolutions Committee and Sweeney’s ally.

The Convention boycott was followed by a withdrawal of SEIU, the Teamsters, and UFCW from the AFL-CIO itself. This hurt the AFL-CIO immediately, costing its members a lot of money (approximately 20% of its annual budget) and a lot of serious energy and resources that had been used to advance the Federation’s electoral politics program.

But Sweeney’s reaction to the withdrawal — why does the metaphor of a “disillusioned lover” come to mind? — may have a much greater detrimental impact on the well-being of working people and their families than the withdrawal itself.

To understand this, we must recognize that, despite all the huffing and puffing that goes on in Washington, the place where the labor movement really makes a difference is at the state and local levels. What labor does or does not do, either by itself or with its allies, at the local level IS especially important. (If you doubt this, look at the impact that the rejuvenation of the labor movement in Los Angeles during the past five-seven years, under the inspired leadership of the late Miguel Contreras, has had on city politics, which will have an effect on statewide politics in the coming years.)

Yet Sweeney and the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO have ordered that all non-affiliated unions be thrown out of AFL-CIO State Federations and Central Labor Councils. This means that new leadership will have to be installed immediately in a considerable number of these organizations. Relationships that have taken many years to develop will be challenged, if not broken. And budgets will get cut — in some places, quite deeply. Any way you cut it, this is a great threat to the work of local labor movements across the country, the one arena in which labor has had any real successes over the past 10-15 or more years!

Now, Sweeney has formal backing for this retaliatory campaign from the AFL-CIO’s Constitution. His actions are covered. His stupidity is not.

What the tit for tat does is to take something that started as a belated beginning of a long overdue discussion of the crisis of labor and turn it into a real cat fight, with the losers being working people and our allies. When Stern shifted from addressing issues — despite the arrogant manner in how he presented them to the labor movement — to attacking Sweeney personally, this did not bode well for the labor movement. The boycott of the Convention betrayed those long active on a range of issues, and the withdrawal — especially because of Sweeney’s incompetent response to it — threatens to inflict long-term damage on working people.