Labor: A Renewal of Solidarity and Struggle — or Continued Decline?

The following report on the 2009 AFL-CIO Convention in Pittsburgh is posted by Jerry Tucker, special correspondent to the Monthly Review and MRZine.  Tucker is a former International Executive Board Member of the UAW and a founder of the New Directions Movement within that union.  He is also a co-founder of the Center for Labor Renewal and Director of the Solidarity Education Center and Healthcare Justice Education Fund.

If you’re looking for the muscular flavor of working-class history, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the location for the 26th Constitutional Convention of the AFL-CIO, is a good choice.  No longer present in the city, though, is the heavy air of round-the-clock steel mills that once produced the spine of American industry, where unionism won wages that lifted a generation out of poverty.  The air is cleaner, the downtown skyline sports world-class architecture, and the region is now called the “Golden Triangle” by the flacks of the employing class.  The once brawny city at the headwaters of the Ohio River is a logical fit to host the main contingent of a once brawny labor movement.

What seems less logical is that Pittsburgh also hosts the G20-Summit, a confab of world leaders who protect global capitalism in the interests of powerful elites and nation-states and help perpetuate the neo-liberal attacks on workers everywhere.  While the people of Pittsburgh seem to like the visiting labor union delegates — at least the transportation workers, restaurant staff, and every day folks on the streets conveyed that feeling — some part of the new Pittsburgh must love the idea of the G20 gathering, at least for the visitor dollars it will generate.  Meanwhile, another part of the former steel-town USA is girding up to call out and expose the global silk suit and limo crowd and their predatory agenda.

I had an early introduction as to how at least one local resident felt about both labor unions and the G20 in a conversation with the cab driver coming in from the airport on the Saturday before the labor Convention’s opening day.  The driver, a mid-fifties man with just the hint of an Eastern European accent, without coaxing swung into a personal look back on how his and other jobs in the steel mill had disappeared and the severe economic impact it had on his family and so many of his friends.

He told of going to work for the taxi company and initially having a decent union contract, only to be forced into a situation where he was reduced to a non-union independent contractor but not the owner of his Yellow Cab.  He said he had liked his union at the steel mill, was less favorable to the IBT local that he had belonged to, and felt that the unions today had an obligation to “support radical actions to get America back on the right track.”

When I asked what type actions he thought working people might need to take, he replied, “A one-day work stoppage.  Everybody stay home!  Send the big shots a signal, put ’em on notice!  If that doesn’t get their attention, extend it!”

“What if the ‘big shots’ won’t pay attention?” I asked.  “Times have changed.”

“Don’t worry, they will.”  He was emphatic.  “Should have done it when they fired them Air Traffic Controllers!  Things keep getting worse and the politicians aren’t going to make it any better for us!”  

Without conceding how much I might agree with him, I asked about the upcoming G20 meeting.  That also set him off.  Both about the Summit decisions having “negative effects” and how Yellow Cab, while no longer his employer, was going to change his status during the G20 meetings temporarily back to an employee-employer relationship because that was the only way they could get a major payday from the Summit sponsors.  “With no negotiated minimum, no health care, and no union representation, nothing!  Just a gimmick to satisfy the conference planners and the company!”  One of the most telling moments of the Convention trip had already occurred and I had yet to check into the hotel.

Pre-AFL-CIO Convention Outlook

You would have to go back well before there was an AFL-CIO (1955) to find a period of greater economic crisis and uncertainty for American workers than we are experiencing today.  Joblessness is well into double-digits.  Bankruptcies, home foreclosures, loss of pensions and health care, and worries about children’s education are among the many elements of the crisis being experienced in both union and non-union households.  Organized labor’s ranks are decimated to the degree not seen since the 1930s.  Union membership in private sector employment has shrunk to approximately 7 % of the workforce.

For some observers of the labor movement, the lead-up to the 2009 AFL-CIO Convention might have looked notably different than the fractious months preceding the 2005 version in Chicago.  Four years ago, Big Labor, as an institution, was coming apart at seams.  Half a dozen national unions were threatening to quit the Federation and ultimately did bolt as the Convention began.  A new labor Federation, called Change-to-Win (CTW), was formally launched several weeks after that Convention.  The six unions who bailed out were SEIU, Teamsters, UNITE-HERE, UFCW, the Laborers, and the United Farm Workers.  All parties to the so-called “debate” leading up to the split in 2005 described the labor movement at that time to be in a crisis.  But their definition of crisis four years ago was virtual navel-gazing compared to now.  It was a time of internecine warfare, filled with charges and counter-charges between the barons of the bureaucracy — primarily about deck chairs on the top deck.  Its impact on the lives of the rank and file was minimal, if felt at all.  It was a club fight with little recognition of the gathering storm’s new intensity.  (More on the state of CTW near the end of this report.)

This year, as the Convention approached, there was virtually no infighting between top leaders of the AFL-CIO.  Also factored into the leadership mood are the results of last year’s national elections and the election of President Barack Obama and a majority of Democrats in both Houses of Congress.  But what is different, and quantitatively worse, is that union members and all workers have been further ravaged by increased joblessness, social insecurity, and a drain on income and earning power to a degree not seen since the Great Depression.  These conditions had produced a grim realization among the delegates arriving for the gathering alongside the Allegheny River that serious matters had to be discussed and important initiatives should be agreed to.  Would they?  Or given the historic conservatism of the national labor Federation, would we once again see the celebration of a leadership transition as the stand-in for a challenge to the basic underpinning of U.S. Labor’s subordinate relationship to the raw aggression of corporate capital and the benign neglect of our so-called “political friends”?

That transition would occur was certain.  John Sweeney, the “New Voice” President of the Federation since the contested 1995 election, was retiring.  The reins of leadership were being ceremoniously passed to the Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka, the former President of the United Mine Workers prior to the ’95 election.  The Trumka “team” was going to feature current Vice-President Arlene Holt-Baker, and youthful newcomer to the ticket, candidate for Secretary-Treasurer, Liz Shuler, from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union.  Clearly the transition team did not want a contentious Convention, and that spirit of comity will be played out over the five-day event.

Contentious Conventions, not to mention raucous ones, have never been the AFL-CIO style, but given the memory of the 2005 club fight, the transition in elected leadership, and the fact that President Barack Obama was scheduled to address the Convention on Tuesday, special care was being taken to have the pacific hand of steady-as-you-go on the tiller throughout the proceedings.  As in all national labor Conventions, choreography is the art form of choice.  This may have played a role in determining in advance the disposition of a high-profile, intensely lobbied resolution to place the AFL-CIO squarely on the side of a Single-Payer, Medicare-for-All health care system in America.

Single-Payer Supporters Demand a Place on the Convention Agenda

For months the debate on health care reform had been raging in the country.  Early on, the Obama Administration had begun rounding up a cohort of diverse players, in many instances representing opposing interests, ranging from the greed merchants of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, health provider representatives, to an array of all-too-eager health care consumer organizations, including representatives of the now two Houses of Labor.

The siren call of access — or “being at the table” — is very powerful in Washington, even when the precondition is that concessions have to be offered to even join the game.  The labor movement has a long history of engagement under terms in which politicians require us to bargain against ourselves first and modify our position before we encounter the resistance of our adversaries at the bargaining table.  The list of public policy battles where labor has agreed to significantly trim its demands in advance only to be sucker-punched later in the process is long.  The Labor Law Reform Act of 1977 comes quickly to mind, just to name one.

The discussion of a Single-Payer system, like the Canadian Medicare System, was ruled off limits . . . or “not on the table.”  This was an arbitrary precondition that some national labor leaders accepted despite the rising level of support by State Federations, Central Labor Councils, and hundreds of other labor bodies for Single-Payer legislation — particularly HR 676, the Medicare-for-All bill introduced by Congressman John Conyers, with many of labor’s Congressional allies as co-sponsors.  But Single-Payer advocates, both within labor and in communities, would not stand down.

State and Local Labor Councils and local unions in support of Single-Payer health care met in January of 2009 in St. Louis to form the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer.  They were lining up with the already prominent labor proponents of HR 676 like the California Nurses, the California School Employees Association, ILWU, IFPTE, IAM, UWUA, the longstanding Unions for Single Payer movement coordinated by Kay Tillow, and others.  This increased labor involvement and coordination blended with the efforts of the National Healthcare Now coalition, the Progressive Democrats of America, the Physicians for a National Health Program, and the newly formed Leadership Conference for Guaranteed Health Care.

In the several months preceding the Convention, increasing numbers of labor organizations passed resolutions to be forwarded to the AFL-CIO headquarters supporting the passage of a Convention resolution making Single-Payer health care the formal position of the AFL-CIO and all of its affiliates.  There were over 70 such resolutions submitted.  In addition, a persistent group of national Federation Executive Council members spoke out for a Single-Payer commitment, having formed an internal HR 676 Caucus in Washington which made its policy position known both on Capitol Hill and in the AFL-CIO headquarters.  This coordinated combination of internal forces and grassroots labor bodies was determined to force a principled debate on the adoption of a Single-Payer resolution at the Convention.

At this point we need to step back and look at the history of the AFL-CIO resolution-making process: how resolutions not favored by the top leadership, or in conflict with ongoing activities or objectives of the administration on 16th St. in DC, fared at previous Conventions.  No one can recall any resolution of significance that would fit that description getting adopted at a Convention.  In this sense, what the internal union forces for Single-Payer were trying to do might just be called unprecedented.  How would it fare at this Convention?  On Saturday, September 12, before the Convention even convened on Sunday afternoon, that question was on its way to being answered.  The Convention Legislation & Policy Committee approved and circulated to Convention delegates Resolution 34 entitled “The Social Insurance Model for Health Care Reform” which embodied all the key elements and provisions of majority of the Single-Payer resolutions sent in several months earlier.

This put the Single-Payer Resolution (now Res. 34) on the agenda for a vote.  But would it pass?  There was still an administration-sponsored resolution (Res. 4) that called for continued support of the leadership’s current backing of the Obama Administration efforts to “reform” health care with the toxic role of the for-profit insurance industry locked in the legislation.

President Obama would be speaking to the Convention the very morning the two contradictory resolutions would be debated.  His position on the Federation’s sacred cow, the Public Option, the so-called “last line of defense” against the insurance industry’s all-out victory over the citizenry, was reportedly getting shaky.  It looked like it could become a “which-side-are-you-on” moment.

Representatives of the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer and the California Nurses Association, however, described two health care resolutions as “basically not inconsistent with one another,” in that the administration-sponsored resolution offered continued support for the version of health care reform currently being advocated by the Obama Administration and Resolution 34, the newly minted Single-Payer resolution, was the labor federation pledge for the long-term struggle for universal, Single-Payer health care for all in America.  “We would attempt to finish the business at hand, with a Public Option” and, when this legislative battle was over, “turn our energies to the promotion of Single-Payer legislation and HR 676 for the future” . . . was how one advocate described it.

A deal, it appeared, negotiated out of the aforementioned determination to avoid a contentious Convention was in the works.  Something unimaginable nine months ago could be about to happen.  Single-Payer-advocating delegates stepped up the outreach to other delegates with news of the process to turn the fight for Single-Payer health care into the commitment of all in the AFL-CIO family.

The issue of national health care reform was not always envisioned as holding the top spot in the labor movement’s agenda.  Many months before the 2008 national elections, the emphasis of both the national AFL-CIO and Change-to-Win leadership was on winning support for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).  EFCA is this generation’s modest attempt to reform the nation’s labor laws.  Echoes of the once vigorous call to “eliminate Taft-Hartley” (the notorious anti-union legislation passed in the 1950s) can no longer be heard.

The EFCA emphasis hasn’t diminished.  Calls for the passage of EFCA were an almost constant mantra repeated throughout the Convention proceedings, always to strong applause.  But, in the grand social scheme of things, EFCA, despite its potential to begin shifting the balance of power in our continuing search for industrial democracy in America, lacks the broad social appeal of a total reform of our health care system.

“No-Drama” Convention Gets Underway

From opening gavel to final adjournment, the 26th Constitutional Convention was a study in one of the pillars of House of Labor behavior: collegiality.  The opening day was mainly a plaudits-aplenty farewell to retiring President John Sweeney.  It was bridged by unbridled enthusiasm for President Barack Obama’s Tuesday morning visit and crowd-stirring speech.  The resolution-approval process was interspersed with other guest speakers, but by Wednesday the focus of the Convention was shifting to the carefully managed leadership transition and the uncontested elevation of Richard Trumka as the Federation’s 4th Convention-elected president.

Monday Night: The Progressive Wing Has Its Moment

If the Sunday afternoon opening session and Monday’s formal Convention proceedings lacked a break from the time-honored formula, Monday night provided a virtual balloon ride for a majority of the delegates.  An independently financed reception, sponsored by the Single-Payer supporters, was held; the two-part tour de force was attended by an overflow crowd.  The list of national union leaders willing to speak to the Single-Payer partygoers quickly expanded as the momentum for the Single-Payer resolution became obvious.

As the reception got under way, labor singer-songwriter and first-chair troublemaker Anne Feeney performed; her music laid out a challenge to all to revive the militancy and collective struggle for justice.  Principals from the sponsoring organizations said a few words of welcome: Mark Dudzic from the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer; and Greg Juneman, President of the IFPTE, who introduced a series of speakers such as USW’s Leo Gerard and UMWA’s Cecil Roberts, State Federation and CLC Presidents, and finally CNA Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro, along with a host of CNA Nurse-Officers. 

Throughout the long journey to raise the issue of the Single-Payer solution, CNA has played one of the most consistent leadership roles in building the effort.  They’ve been the EverReady Battery of the movement.  DeMoro’s advocacy on the AFL-CIO Executive Council on this issue has been a study in never taking no for an answer.  She was the logical choice to introduce a special guest to the crowd, filmmaker Michael Moore.  A few inspiring words from Brother Moore at the reception, and then, as planned, the packed house crowd became participants in a several-block march to a legendary Pittsburgh movie theatre for the U.S. premier showing of his new movie: Capitalism: A Love Story.

The packed house reception became a packed movie theatre.  Michael Moore introduced the documentary as the one he had long been planning to make.  And, to this audience, he did not disappoint.  Exposed in the uniquely serious/satiric Moore style, the villains of this tale of social oppression and mal-distribution of wealth and privilege were consistently self-indicting.  It is the portrayal of an American tragedy of colossal proportions.  Most of those attending came away with the hope that this film, like his previous movies under the aptly named “Dog Eat Dog Productions,” would help rekindle the long suppressed debate over class privilege and social justice in our country.  Any politician seeking labor support for election to Congress in the future should be made to watch this movie in the presence of at least 100 diverse rank-and-file workers, and then participate in a two-hour exchange with the workers and their family members including high school age children (take that Rush Limbaugh), before any decision is made to put labor campaign dollars and shoe-leather behind their candidacy.

On a personal note: Michael premiered his first film Roger & Me 20 years ago this fall at the founding Convention of the UAW New Directions Movement in St. Louis. I suggest he picked the right first audience then, and after all the years of abuse at the hands of the corporate elite and their political gatekeepers workers have suffered, he picked the right first audience this time too.

President Obama Addresses the Convention

That President Barack Obama has presentation skills and can inspire and charm an audience is a given.  He did both in his Tuesday morning Convention address.  The loud delegate response was in part in appreciation of those skills, but it was driven more by the sense that he and his administration are on “our side.”  He rhetorically ticked off specific actions already taken on his watch to prove that connection.  His rev-up on the issue of EFCA was red meat to the delegates.  Another strong reaction came with the President’s words “Let’s make ‘Made in America’ a reality.”  How he handled the health care reform issue was considerably less transparent.

Following the same basic script he had used before the joint session of Congress the previous week, the President described what would be unnecessary layers of activity if you weren’t trying to justify keeping the fox of for-profit insurers in the chicken coop of social need.  The majority of this crowd knew the fallacy of that concept and thought that, at best, he had started his bargaining with the defenders of the status quo from the wrong place on the spectrum of options.  This was an evolving Single-Payer congregation, not folks you could dazzle with an invitation to adversaries to “play nice.”  But the delegates’ good manners were generously on display.  They have an earnest desire for him to be the President who gets it.  One who can bring government around to the role of honest broker — to be the working people’s friend!

For that portion of the house waiting for a clear and unequivocal declaration of support for the Public Option, the President danced around like a boxer looking for a neutral corner.  AFL-CIO President-to-be Rich Trumka, in a brief press conference immediately after the President had left the hall, helpfully stated: “The President is fighting for the Public Option and so are we!”

One day later, in his speech to the Convention, Brother Trumka said that he had told the President: “Mr. President, so long as you stand for a public option we are going to stand with you!”

The Two Health Care Resolutions Are Called Up for a Vote

In a move that caused some curiosity among Single-Payer supporters, the Convention Resolutions Committee called up Resolution 34, the Single-Payer/Social Insurance Resolution first before the original leadership-backed Resolution 4.  Delegates wishing to speak on Res. 34 lined up at the four raised microphone platforms provided in the delegate section.  Speakers supporting the Resolution were several deep at each mike.  Among them were Donna Dewitt, President of the South Carolina State Fed; Jos Williams, President, DC Metro CLC; Jeff Crosby, President, Northshore (MA) CLC; Mike Keenan, President, Troy Area CLC (NY); Dawn Des Brisay, ILWU Delegation Chair; and David Newby, President, Wisconsin State Fed.  There were no speakers who spoke against the resolution.  It was approved without dissent by a very enthusiastic voice vote.

Resolution 4 was taken up next.  Similarly, no speakers rose to speak against Resolution 4 which defended supporting the current attempts to secure legislation with a Public Option.  But unlike the Single-Payer speakers, this line-up spent most of their speaking allotment railing against the insurance industry which, inconveniently, is locked into the legislative concept they are defending.  One USW native of Canada spoke for Res. 4 but ended her remarks by touting the Single-Payer system in her home country.  This resolution also passed without dissent but the voice vote was considerably less enthusiastic.

The Single-Payer, Medicare-for-All HR 676 advocates had arrived with a small known core of delegates, well organized, but with untested reach.  They would leave the Convention with a victory and new-found expressions of solidarity with the cause from the newly-elected national AFL-CIO leadership.

A New Federation President Issues His Call to Action

Rich Trumka can make a speech.  Rich Trumka can make a rousing speech.  He’s been doing it for years.  He made a rousing speech on the day of his election to the Presidency of the AFL-CIO.  It was a brawny speech in a once brawny city before a once brawny labor movement’s remaining leadership corps.  In his speech he laid out some traditional markers for action by the “new” administration. He wants to see more organizing, more aggressive efforts to hold labor-supported politicians accountable for their failure to deliver on issues affecting working people, and he wants to build alliances with environmentalists and other affinity sectors.  He and his administration champion diversity.  Brother Trumka acknowledges the need for global unionism.  The “to-do” list goes on.

The speech, despite its tone of urgency, mainly covered familiar ground and focused on ideas and actions that were either remedial or repositioning within the labor movement itself.  It did not place labor clearly in the leadership of building a broad social movement for all working-class people.  I want to believe that, given his UMWA orientation and its role in birthing the CIO of old, Brother Trumka can subscribe to that notion, but it did not come through in his inaugural address.

It was also unclear in the speech what predatory forces are blocking the road to social justice toward which the laundry list of projected actions is directed.  There are an identifiable set of forces blocking our road and attacking our values.  It makes it so much easier to develop a strategy to fight an enemy if you name it.  Michael Moore names the enemy.  Most of the unions in other countries who would constitute our solidarity mates in a new global unionism paradigm call out their class adversary.  The so-called “Social Compact” has been busted for decades now.  The one-sided class war continues to be waged against workers and they want to know that their leaders understand and can explain the nature of the conflict.

One of the Runaway Six Returns to the Fold

On the last day of the Convention, one of the 2005 CTW defectors, UNITE-HERE, was welcomed back to the Federation with open arms.  John Wilhelm, UNITE-HERE President, had been a guest at the Convention all week long with some of his union’s members, many of whom had retained affiliation in their respective community’s Central Labor Councils.  The photo op of Wilhelm standing on the podium, hands clasped and arms raised between Rich Trumka and Arlene Holt-Baker, with John Sweeney still around for the picture, had to be a sweet moment for the Federation hierarchy.

Also in attendance throughout the Convention was former West Coast SEIU UHW President Sal Rosselli and John Borsos, both now leading the construction of a new independent union called the National Union of Healthcare Workers after SEIU President Andy Stern used a trusteeship to engineer a coup d’état on the one of the most successful locals in the SEIU stable.  The battle for representation rights over hundreds of bargaining units previously serviced by the current NUHW leaders is well underway.

The CTW Four Years Out

In late September 2005, I attended and reported in this forum on the founding Convention of the breakaway Federation calling itself Change-to-Win.  There was, as then noted, a lot of enthusiasm and it was a well-managed kick-off event.  The theme “organizing is power” was its mantra and, almost like a weapon pointed at the wounded AFL-CIO, was designed to drive the agenda of the new Federation.  There was little concern expressed about the building of a broad social movement.  Organizing would lift all boats.  Despite a feeble attempt by some at the time to project it as a new version of the CIO, CTW came into being with none of the social urgency and commitment to worker solidarity that distinguished the old Congress of Industrial Organizations.  CTW was certainly no more a safe harbor for the kind of leftists that energized the leadership and base of the CIO than the AFL-CIO.  And, words like solidarity and justice were curiously missing through its founding papers.

One unstated assumption of CTW’s potential stability was the fact that its founding unions shared a contingent relationship to employment sectors less threatened by globalization than the declining industrial and manufacturing sector unions.  CTW, however, neglected to analyze the way neo-liberalism’s long bony fingers can penetrate any sector of labor.  What started out as a compact of common purpose has turned into an arrangement of affiliates mainly processing their separate interests.  There’s also ample evidence that internal conflicts and personal rivalries are on the rise.

CTW did not have the ability to mediate the internal conflict within UNITE-HERE.  Rather, CTW architect, SEIU President Andy Stern, took sides in it, now funding the defecting elements of what was mainly the old UNITE side of the union, so the official union’s defection is no surprise.  Similarly, Stern engaged aggressively in the internal SEIU takeover of his union’s West Coast Health Workers Union in Northern California.  This highly publicized struggle has created ill feelings among a lot of labor progressives and supporters of increased internal democracy in unions today.

CTW now seems to have become an alliance of convenience than a full-fledged Federation.  The folks at the AFL-CIO headquarters have a public ‘live-and-let-live’ approach on this, but you can bet, with the return of UNITE-HERE, they are listening closely to hear if more shoes start to fall.

Concluding Commentary

These concluding remarks will be brief.  The new Trumka Team has, as promised, hit the road to pitch their program.  That sounds like a good thing, maybe even unusual, since George Meany and Lane Kirkland would have both been on vacation following similar Conventions in their day.  A new team should take it to the people.  And the people should not hesitate to take their concerns and ideas to them.  It was often said during the election campaign that union members and citizens in general had to push the new Obama Administration and Congress: the power for “change-you-can-believe-in” had to come from the grassroots.  The same goes here.  Go out, give them an earful.

There’s a lot of suffering in America.  The really anti-social forces, as Michael Moore demonstrates so well, are organized under their own banner — it’s not The Stars and Stripes Forever — and in the pursuit of their common goals they need victims.  Our lack of a widely accepted analysis, a limited sense of collective purpose, and no robust strategy for fighting back continues to provide them with a steady stream of victims.

The New Team, hearing from the victims, must come to grips with the fact that this can’t be just about advancing unionism as we know it.  America needs a new, overarching vision of what a just society should look like.  Labor has to be a part of, and give leadership to, a boarder social movement.  Politicians can’t provide it.  They have to be drawn to it by forces they can’t ignore or compromise into confusion.  Labor’s got to stop the infighting and listen to its progressive voices from within.

There were a lot of good, determined, and progressive unionists at the Convention in Pittsburgh.  They represent a new spirit in the ranks back home.  Selling short on issues like health care or full employment is no longer acceptable.  Hear the voices like that of my airport inbound cab driver (I want to dub him the Oracle of Three-Rivers).  With the strategic renewal of struggle and solidarity, our fight for justice can be turned around.

Jerry Tucker can be contacted at <>.