AFL-CIO Convention: Style 10, Substance 0

By BILL ONASCH

It was during the Great Recession, and the first year of the Obama administration, when the AFL-CIO 2009 convention met in Pittsburgh. The number of unemployed had doubled over the previous 18 months and stood at a rate of 9.8 percent. Workers at General Motors and Chrysler were going through a gut-wrenching bankruptcy restructuring imposed by the new White House—and hailed by the unions as “saving the American auto industry.” Times were grim but the leaders of organized labor were relieved and optimistic now that the evil Bush had been replaced by a “friend of labor.”

When the 2013 AFL-CIO convention assembled in Los Angeles Sept. 8-11, General Motors and Chrysler are again profitable—and corporations in general are making record profits and sitting on a mountain of cash. The official unemployment rate has receded below the eight percent line. The economists explain that we have long been in recovery. Yet grim times are still palpable in the House of Labor despite their friend in the highest of all places.

Much of the fall in the unemployment rate is attributed to workers’ dropping out of the labor market in despair or accepting part-time employment that doesn’t pay the bills or provide benefits. There are still 22 million looking in vain for full-time jobs. For the first time in living memory, there is massive and growing unemployment in the public sector.

Inflation-indexed real wages of the working class continue their decades-long decline as income disparity favoring the wealthy is setting new records. The cynically titled Affordable Care Act—aka ObamaCare—which never could have passed Congress without labor’s heavy-handed lobbying, turns out to be fraught with setbacks and uncertainty even for unionized workers.

The few substantial social gains won in past struggles—such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—are in imminent danger, not just from the Republicans but especially from the White House “friend” twice elected only with indispensable labor support.

The unions themselves have been in alarming decline. Less than one in eight workers today are represented by a union. In the private sector it’s less than seven percent. In recent years the number of strikes has dramatically fallen, even though nearly all employers have demanded substantial give-backs in wages, benefits, and working conditions.

As union officials shy away from actions in the workplace they increasingly look to politics for salvation. But they continue to reject the path taken by unions in Britain, Canada, and numerous other countries, who formed parties of their own to advance working-class interests.

Except in fund-raising—union PACs and  SuperPACs now dole out hundreds of millions of dollars—their political strategy differs little from that proclaimed by Sam Gompers more than a century ago: “reward your friends and punish your enemies” within the two major boss-controlled parties. But many are beginning to wonder whether those they have rewarded so richly are not now punishing them.

Growing numbers of union office holders are starting to recognize that these trends threaten not only the “Middle Class” prosperity of their members for which they have always claimed credit–but their own as well. Federation president Richard Trumka told a journalist that the more astute “feel like it’s five minutes to Midnight.”

This recently manifested urgency to “do something” was reflected in a sharp departure from the same old, same old in preparing and staging the convention. Over the last several decades, typical union conventions in this country had become boring, pro-forma affairs, with politicians as guest speakers, and motions and resolutions adopted by voice vote after little or no debate. They are often held in prime tourist venues. The Amalgamated Transit Union, to which I pay retiree dues, once held a convention afloat a chartered Caribbean cruise ship. In many cases conventions became little more than junkets to reward faithful followers of the top bureaucracy on the local union level.

Such attributes were not entirely absent in Los Angeles. Political “friends” and even some good corporate citizens brought their blessing to the conclave. President Obama had been scheduled to address his generous supporters in person. Unfortunately, he was tied up in Washington lobbying for Congressional support for a new war against Syria, and the delegates had to be content with a video feed. Hospitality rooms offering food and beverage to hungry and thirsty delegates could still be found.

But the last remaining labor-beat reporter at a major newspaper, Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times, was wowed by what he saw in Los Angeles: “At the center of the welcoming hall, brilliantly colored 10-foot-tall posters of workers and union slogans towered over the convention delegates. One giant orange-and-yellow poster resembled an oversize woodcut, showing a farmworker hunched over a wheat field with bold letters, saying, ‘Workers Are the Backbone, Not the Blame.’ All this was a far cry from the dark, drab, lugubrious scenes found at many union gatherings of the past. After decades of decline, the energy and focus—and, yes, the artwork—at this week’s AFL-CIO convention signaled, as one union president put it, ‘our need to put some movement back in the labor movement.’”

Greenhouse noted a change in rhetoric as well as graphic decoration. He quoted Trumka, “At the end of the day it’s on us to build a movement not for the 99 percent but of the 99 percent. Not just the 11 percent we are right now.”

Trumka prefers the catchy if mathematically inaccurate slogan of the Occupy movement to the stodgy old class formulations of past militant unionism. The taboo imposed on the very concept of class by the class that rules is seldom breached even today by those who represent “working families.” Still, recognition of the need for unions to reach out to social movement and community allies is to be applauded.

Some of the allies invited to partner with, if not join the AFL-CIO, are similarly structured. The NAACP, National Organization for Women, and the Sierra Club have mass memberships numbering in the hundreds of thousands—but are top-down formations currently intimately connected with the political Establishment. They too are overdue for debate that can lead to a more useful utilization of their potential.

Starting months prior to the convention, the AFL-CIO leadership invited these courted allies to join union activists in “listening sessions” to discuss what needs to be done. Thousands purportedly participated in live audience, conference call, or internet format. The listeners then prepared a list of 45 “Action Sessions” at the convention open to “delegates, community members and other stakeholders.”

The present predicament of those who need to toil to live is full of potential “teachable moments.” But the menu offered in Los Angeles by those chefs who listened had only a few tempting appetizers, lots of thin soup—and some questionable sushi.

There was a timely session about “Veterans and Labor Community Partnerships”—but nothing about ongoing war. The only oblique reference to global warming that is posing a threat to our very biosphere was “Infrastructure, Jobs, and Reducing Emissions: Upgrading Natural Gas Distribution Systems.” One entitled “Workers’ Voice: An Independent Movement to Elect Progressives,” amounted to a tweaking of the present policy of trying to advance “accountable” candidates within the two boss parties—especially the Democrats—with a fall-back position of supporting a Lesser Evil when necessary.

Greenhouse was also impressed with some symbolic changes in Federation leadership. Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, was added to the Executive Council. Her organization is an example of “alt-labor,” worker centers and other nonstandard formations that take up worker issues without being legally certified for bargaining rights. Tefere Gebre, an immigrant from Ethiopia, and head of the Orange County California AFL-CIO, was elected executive vice-president, the number three ranking office in the Federation.

Some established union-based issue groups were not given such a hearty welcome. US Labor Against the War and the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer Health Care had to be content with information tables.

Greenhouse completely ignored the anger expressed in Los Angeles about the threat to so-called Taft-Hartley multi-employer health-care plans arising from interpretation of ObamaCare. Delegates passed a resolution detailing immediate steps necessary to protect these plans covering hundreds of thousands of workers and their dependents. A delegation led by Trumka was dispatched after adjournment to meet with President Obama about this urgent matter.

At least they got a prompt answer. The same White House that had granted reprieves to employers on some sections of the law without even being asked piously told labor’s leaders they couldn’t make exceptions to the law just to help their friends.

As all polls clearly demonstrate, the working-class majority in the USA is thoroughly disgusted with the political Establishment. Many good union people are likewise turned off by the emphasis on politics advanced by the mainstream union bureaucracy and clamor for more direct action against the bosses.

Certainly, workplace-centered direct action is the main and indispensable tool of choice in pursuing the primary mission of unions. Likewise, mass actions in the streets are essential to advancing the goals of the social and community movements tardily targeted as partners by union officialdom. But the political monopoly of the bosses and bankers makes any gains through these traditional and still needed struggles tenuous and temporary.

The problem created by those in charge of the House of Labor is not their emphasis on politics but their refusal to recognize the need for class-based politics. Our side should be directly fighting for political power, not begging or bribing politicians beholden to our class enemy. There is no more important question for the American working class today than launching a party of our own. Despite their present weakness and disorientation, our unions, and the allies they now solicit, are the foundation upon which such a party can be built.

Photo: AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks at the Sept. 8-11 national convention. By Nick Ut / AP.