Why Labor Doesn’t Need a “House of Lords”

“Also being debated [at the AFL-CIO executive council meeting] is whether to create a mechanism to nudge past-their-prime union presidents to retire so unions are not stuck with tired, uninspired leaders.  One negotiator [of AFL-CIO/ Change-to-Win/NEA unity] talked of creating an advisory ‘Labor House of Lords’ to encourage older union presidents to step aside.” — New York Times, March 9, 2009

In a story datelined “Miami Beach,” which appeared the day before the one quoted above, the Times reported that some members of the AFL-CIO executive council, not to mention its once reform-minded president, John Sweeney, were experiencing “embarrassment” about holding their high-profile mid-winter meeting amidst the ostentatious luxury of the “Fontainebleau hotel resort.”

After all, blue-collar unemployment is “soaring and the stock market tanking,”  Not exactly the best time to look like you’re back down the road at Bal Harbour, where Sweeney’s predecessor, George Meany, preferred to sun himself, uncaringly, in the days before the AFL-CIO was transformed.

As Fox News gloated, the Fontainebleau has “10 pools and a 40,000-square-foot-spa,” plus rooms that “often run $400 or more a night.”  To be fair and balanced one should note, as the Times did, that “the Fountainebleau cut room rates to $199 a night” for the AFL-CIO meeting.  According to federation PR director Denise Mitchell, “that’s less than it would cost for a hotel room in Washington.”  What Mitchell failed to mention, of course, is that if she, Sweeney, and everyone else in Florida had simply stayed home in D.C. — commuting to an executive council session held in the federation’s roomy headquarters on 16th St. instead — the savings to our financially troubled U.S. labor movement would have been in the $400,000 range (according to one AFL insider).

But, just for a moment, let’s forget the bad press and wasted dues money that always results from allowing labor’s leadership to convene poolside in Miami in March, in such awkward last century fashion.  Clearly, no one involved in planning this year’s council meeting anticipated the danger of sunstroke — and how it might publicly spawn an idea as barmy (and British) as creating a “Labor House of Lords.”

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor of encouraging early, rather than later, retirement by the many “tired, uninspired leaders” who linger long past “their prime” in the labor movement.  One who comes to mind immediately is Sweeney himself, now nearly 75 (and hanging on until September), a good five years beyond the age he once promised to step down as a “New Voice” in Washington

Although recently “redeployed” myself (I hate that other “R” word) from the Communications Workers of America, I remain part of the generation of Sixties’ radicals who went into labor to overthrow union establishments that were too “pale, male, and stale.”  While some progress has been made, diversity-wise, on the first two fronts, I’m sad to report that organized labor today is still an appallingly geriatric institution.  Four decades after 1968, “We have met the enemy . . . and it is us,” (as Pogo once said, in a different context).

Not only is ¾ of the union membership over the age of 35, but what passes for “new blood” at the top includes balding, gray-haired, and/or pot-bellied ’68ers like the three “young turks” who turned on Sweeney four years ago — Andy Stern, Bruce Raynor, and John Wilhelm, the creators of “Change To Win.”  These founding fathers have now fallen out among themselves, so angling to succeed Sweeney today is another guy pushing sixty, my one-time colleague at the United Mine Workers back in the 1970s, Rich Trumka.

Does America’s already senescent “House of Labor” need an additional “House of Lords” where it can put people like this out to pasture in an “advisory” capacity, rather than keep them on “active duty” in top positions for the next ten to fifteen years, by which time, they — like Sweeney today — will be long past normal retirement age (and possibly in need of a cane?).  I think not.  There has to be a better way to deal with this problem (and one big union, the National Education Association, has already come up with it: term limits).  Anyone who puts their glasses on and looks at the AFL-CIO Executive Council closely knows that we already have a “Labor House of Lords.”  Many of our existing “labor peers” hold cushy high-paid, sometimes chauffer-driven jobs at national union affiliates of the AFL-CIO or CTW, which they are understandably reluctant to relinquish to their juniors (even when the “junior” in question is a blood relative!).

Let’s consider, for example, the problem of gerontocracy in AFSCME — the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, one of labor’s more “progressive” unions.  AFSCME District Council-37 in New York City is one of it’s largest and most important local affiliates, with 125,000 members of all ages.  Yet it is headed by a woman nearly 81-years old.  Executive Director Lillian Roberts was in her “prime” back in the 1960s and ’70s, when she served as Victor Gotbaum’s deputy at DC-37.  When disgruntled members of her executive board tried to cut her pay from $250,000 to a mere $175,000 four years ago, she was able to respond with a lawsuit accusing 17 board members — five of them African-American — of race, sex, and age discrimination, a legal trifecta only possible in the U.S. labor movement (since, as screwed up as publicly traded companies can be, few keep 81-year olds around as the CEO).

Robert’s latest term isn’t up until next January, but, rumor has it, she’ll be announcing for another 3-year term this fall!

Roberts has, unfortunately, raised the age bar for AFSCME’s two equally reluctant-to-retire national officers, Jerry McEntee and Bill Lucy, aged 74 and 75 respectively.  Their problem is that neither will quit unless the other one does.  So, as part of this open-ended “Odd Couple” stand-off at the top, both decided last year that they were still so invaluable to AFSCME that they should run for new four-year terms.  When those end in 2012, they’ll be almost as old as Roberts is now but, as just noted, she may still be holding the fort in NYC.  Meanwhile, McEntee spends a good deal of time in Florida (even when the AFL-CIO executive council is not in session) and has long been propped up by his top assistant, Paul Booth.  A one-time leader of Students for a Democratic Society, Booth has served AFSCME and his boss for so many years that he’s now rumored to be considering retirement himself (except that, at age 66, he’s really not old enough yet — at least by DC-37 or AFSCME headquarters’ standards).

In my own alma mater, another uncomfortably tethered duo — longtime CWA president Morty Bahr and secretary-treasurer Barbara Easterling — also clung to their jobs into their mid-to-late 70s, before finally departing for their own private versions of the proposed “Labor House of Lords.”  As in AFSCME, where the problem is clearly far worse, this phenomena delayed the emergence of newer and “younger” national leadership for a good decade, while their eventual successors waited in the wings and grew old too.  The problem obviously feeds on itself in the environment of the AFL-CIO executive council.  For many of the years when Bahr was a member of that august body, he could look across the table at  meetings and see fellow New Yorker Moe Biller, from the American Postal Workers Union.  Biller didn’t retire until he was 85, in 2001, dying just two years later.  But, as long as Moe was still around, it wasn’t hard for other senior citizens in labor to feel they had lots of “good years” ahead of them too.

Whether this is good for anyone else is another question.

One academic expert consulted on the matter (who wished to remain anonymous) notes that this “geriatric culture” contributes to organizational stagnation because it “doesn’t train successors or build secondary leadership.”  On the contrary, she says, it leads to “pushing people down behind you and always having a ‘Wait Your Turn’ turn attitude” toward ambitious underlings.  She points out that mandatory retirement ages in Canadian, Australian, and Western European unions (an internal rule that would violate age discrimination statutes here) means that 60-something laborites there are forced to move on and find something else to do with their lives.

In the U.K, for example, this does sometimes mean they become “labor peers,” a form of Labor Party co-optation that’s long been controversial on the left, which favors abolition of the House of Lords.  In Canada, where labor also has more social weight and political clout than here, ex-union officials have joined NGOs, been named Canadian ambassadors, become academics, or remained public figures of other types; they don’t lose status and quickly disappear when they’re no longer on a union payroll.

Asks this observer: “For senior American trade unionists, when they step down, where can they go?  What can they do?”  Furthermore, it’s far too lucrative for top officials to remain on the headquarters payroll (particularly when they control it).  Those in their 70s continue to collect hefty six-figure salaries, plus benefits from one or more generous private pension plans, plus their social security, all of which add up to a big pile of cash that would be substantially reduced, post-retirement.  (With total AFL-CIO compensation of nearly $300,000, plus multiple pensions from the federation and SEIU, and that monthly social security check too, John Sweeney is one of the wealthiest grandfathers in the labor movement!)

So, if anyone in labor really wants “to encourage older union presidents to step aside,” they could start by eliminating the myriad financial incentives that keep them at their posts “long past their prime” (if they ever had one).  One of the first perks to cut should be costly mid-winter, union-paid trips to the Fontainebleau in Florida.  If forced to stay home for more AFL-CIO executive council meetings, maybe more council members would decide, sooner rather than later, to just stay home entirely.

Steve Early finished up his 27-year tour of active duty for CWA in 2007.  He’s now the author of Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home, due out from Monthly Review Press in mid-May.  He can be reached at <Lsupport@aol.com> and the book ordered at <www.monthlyreview.org/books/index.php>.