Labor’s Plusses and Minuses

Does the progressive movement have its leadership today?

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Richard Trumka, President of AFL-CIO

Leadership is everywhere – popping out of our computer screens every time we look! The problem is that they are nearly all self-appointed, untested, and mostly unqualified.

The most popular leaders – Senator Sanders, Senator Warren, Mrs Clinton, etc – all suffer from tunnel vision — a single-minded determination that we will win at the ballot box, while the truth is that democracy keeps shifting away like sand in an hourglass.

Not that elections aren’t critical – but they’re not the only form of struggle. The best leadership available today is the American Federation of Labor/Congress of Industrial Organizations, the AFL-CIO.

Not That Labor Leadership Is Perfect

What we really need is a mass workers’ political party beholden only to working families. We don’t have one, and I don’t see one on the immediate horizon. But when it does come, it is most likely to come out of the AFL-CIO.

Here are some of the positive arguments for AFL-CIO leadership of the progressive movement:

  1. Unions have more money than all the tiny little organizations that are begging for contributions every day.
  2. They have physical buildings, meeting places that are long-established in communities. Here where I live, nearly all the progressive groups try to get into the Communications’ Workers Hall, and the AFL-CIO encourages them.
  3. Say what you might against the better-paid union members, they are solidly working class. If you think about it, most of the progressive groups vying for leadership are actually led by preachers and professionals – people in the ideologically uncertain “in between” class.
  4. While the AFL-CIO works hard on elections, they also work hard year-round on lobbying, organizing workers, participating in protests, economic struggle, and organizing mass demonstrations
  5. Since the leadership turnover of 1995, AFL-CIO leadership has affirmatively tried to end its old policy of isolation. For example, they no longer call for deportation of all undocumented immigrants – they call for organizing them. They have active Constituency Groups trying to organize working people as interest groups such as women, Latinos, gays, etc. Some of the better labor leaders are also coming out strong for public presence and improved communications. They also established Working America to incorporate, politically, all American workers whether or not they work under union contracts.
  6. Many unions maintain a relationship with their vast numbers of retirees and, consequently, greatly increase the union’s political clout. Non-union retirees, like non-union workers, are pretty much on their own, and largely helpless, as political entities.
  7. Increasingly, unions are partnering across national lines. It’s not there yet, but it’s on its way to becoming a world movement.
  8. The basic idea of unionization is cooperation of all workers in a workplace, consequently today’s unions tend to be anti-racist, anti-sexist etc. Women in unions, for example, have already largely achieved the American dream of equal pay for equal work.

OK, There’s a Downside

The reasons that union movement leadership isn’t as good as a mass Workers Party could also be listed:

  1. Individual unions, which make up the AFL-CIO and provide its revenue, are defensive organizations with one dominating purpose – to defend their members against their particular employer. Broader social concerns aren’t the main business of union locals nor of their national leaderships. This constraint has less of an influence on labor’s federation, the AFL-CIO, but it is fundamental to understanding the union movement.
  2. As mentioned above, union members tend to make more money than non-union members; consequently, they don’t share exactly the same viewpoints. While many workers dream of making $15/hour someday, some union members are already making $35!
  3. Union contracts are based on seniority. That means that older longer-term workers tend to displace the younger workers. There is almost no other way to keep bosses from applying work rules unfairly, so seniority rules in union contracts. The aging of the union membership is a harmful consequence. “Who has the youth has the future,” goes the saying, and some of America’s unions try hard to cultivate younger leaders, but seniority keeps pushing them out the door!
  4. While the unions fight hard against losing jobs to outsourcing, they have virtually no defense against losing jobs to automation. This was not always true – the CIO (pre-1955) always fought for shorter working hours – but it seems to be true now. The reason may be that workers, including union workers, are also consumers. As consumers, they are debt-ridden and addicted to overtime pay. They may be averse to discussing shorter working hours as a social solution.
  5. To someone outside the unions, it may seem strange, but some union leaders tend to want to keep things the way they are rather than embrace change. The reason, believe it or not, is fundamental democracy within the labor movement! The present corps of union leaders were democratically elected by their members just the way things are. Any change, especially change that involves mobilizing the membership, is change that will “rock the boat” before the next union elections. If the membership undergoes change, how will the next union elections turn out? This has to be on the minds of local union and national union leaders, but is less of a problem for the AFL-CIO federation.
  6. The AFL-CIO, I think intentionally, has no real sense of history. Without an honest history, they tend to ask people to believe the self-serving union histories that exist. In those histories, all labor leaders of the past were heroes who never actually made a mistake.
  7. Unions aren’t intentionally revolutionary. Their revolutionary potential comes from their consistent advocacy for workers’ rights. The AFL-CIO’s anti-capitalism doesn’t come by intentional design, but from the nature of things. Bosses continually accuse union organizers of trying to destroy their own workplaces, but it isn’t true. Unions simply want a better deal for workers within existing workplaces, not a revolutionary overturn. The union struggle, then, might be seen as eternal, with unions always fighting bosses and always wanting to win in the immediate sense, but never wanting a decisive victory.

Summing Up: Stick With the Unions!

AFL-CIO leadership is today the best option for the progressive movement. An actual Workers Party that seeks power would be better, but a true mass Workers Party is more likely to come out of the AFL-CIO than from the imaginations of radical activists, the Democratic Party, or anywhere else. Consequently, those of us seeking progressive leadership should look to join a union, organize a union, join Working America, and/or, at the least, consult with the AFL-CIO for leadership in the progressive movement.

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