Labor Briefing, Nov. 2017

Nov. 2017 AFL-CIO

AFL-CIO top elected officers (from left): Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer, Richard Trumka, president: and Tefre Gebre, executive vice president, at the St. Louis convention.

By BILL ONASCH

No VIPs in St Louis—The AFL-CIO quadrennial convention to elect officers and pass policy resolutions was held in St. Louis, Oct. 22-25. While many of the biggest unions—the National Education Association, Service Employees International Union, Teamsters, and Carpenters—are not affiliated, the federation still represents 12.5 million workers.

In response to police killings of African Americans, racial profiling, and voter suppression, St. Louis became the launching pad for the Black Lives Matter movement. A pre-convention conference on Diversity and Inclusion attracted hundreds of arriving delegates along with many in the local communities.

When speakers from Black Lives Matter didn’t show, it was discovered that entry of a BLM contingent had been blocked by Convention Center management. Hundreds of delegates then took the conference outside to join them in solidarity. After only a few minutes, management relented and all marched in to the scheduled venue.

The three top officers—Richard Trumka, president; Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer; Tefre Gebre, executive vice president—were reelected without opposition. In their acceptance speeches all three spoke to the convention theme—Join Together; Fight Together; Win Together. But underlying this surface of unity were currents of major differences that often were responsible for glaring omissions and compromises in the 56 adopted resolutions.

There was a resolution “War Is Not the Answer,” but unions in the war industries insisted on another, “Support 100 Percent Buy American In Defense.” The Labor Campaign for Single-Payer did a good job in putting the federation on record supporting the “Medicare For All” campaign. But the same resolution said they would for now also keep on championing the Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare, written by and for the insurance Robber Barons.

Perhaps the most contentious issue of all is climate change. The building trades, rail, and mine worker unions, eager to get fossil-fuel-related jobs, take a position similar to Trump’s. Other affiliates like National Nurses United and the Amalgamated Transit Union are part of the Labor Network for Sustainability, which advocates a Just Transition approach to protecting workers whose jobs will be lost in the switch to clean, renewable energy. The two sides faced off and nearly came to blows during the Tribes’ occupation at Standing Rock, which attempted to block construction of the Dakota Access pipeline.

Resolution 55, “Climate Change, Energy and Union Jobs,” was in most respects a big advance. It unequivocally endorsed the consensus of climate scientists about the devastating impact of global warming resulting from carbon emissions and urged the U.S. government to implement commitments in the Paris Climate Accords. And it advocates Just Transition for displaced workers and their communities affected by energy restructuring.

But while promoting clean, renewable energy alternatives that are crucial to ending carbon emissions, it also throws a dangerous sop to coal miners and the building trades by including gimmicks like the coal industry pipe dream of “carbon capture and storage”—and nuclear power.

There is never going to be “clean coal.” Nuclear reactors don’t emit greenhouse gases but they do leave behind radioactive waste that remains dangerous to humans for centuries. There is no known protocol for securing this threat over such a time span. And, of course, there is the danger of catastrophic accidents like Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island. Nukes have no place in our energy future.

There were other good resolutions on immigration, public education, fighting fascism, $15 minimum wage, and the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico. But all 56 share a common attribute—their objectives cannot be achieved through collective bargaining. They are all essentially political questions. And unions in the United States are the only labor movement in the English-speaking world not to have a labor party of their own.

Past AFL-CIO conventions typically featured speeches by big-name Democrat “friends of labor.” Usually, that was about all that interested the corporate media. But such Establishment VIPs were not invited this year. This was a belated recognition of what polls have shown over the past several years—the working-class majority is fed up with both major parties and think there should be a new alternative.

Resolution 2, “An Independent Political Voice,” begins: “For decades, the political system has failed working people. Acting on behalf of corporations and the rich and powerful, the political system has been taking away, one after another, the pillars that support working people’s right to good jobs and secure benefits.”

That’s true enough—though socialists would begin the time line around the Industrial Revolution. Resolution 2 continues: “Against this, we have one choice. We must give working people greater political power by speaking with an unquestionably independent political voice, backed by a unified labor movement.” But “voice” is not a party, and power cannot be shared between hostile classes.

There appeared to be three distinct camps with incompatible visions among the delegates:

  • The bureaucracy that still follows the advice of Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor, to reward your friends and punish your enemies among the candidates of the two boss parties.
  • Leaders of several major activist unions that support the effort of the “socialist” Bernie Sanders to transform the Democrats into “labor’s voice.”
  • A smaller but significant group that wants to revive the once promising, now defunct Labor Party.

The first two strategies have a long, well-documented track record of failure. It’s high time that American workers, like our British class siblings, choose option 3.

UE Beats Koch Brothers—The Trumpite Iowa state legislature hoped to wipe out public-sector unions by requiring them to be recertified every year in which they negotiate a contract. That means winning an election with a majority of the bargaining unit, not just of those voting. The independent United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers has six contracts coming up. The UE won all six, with 87 percent opting to stay union.

Glad Grads—Finally overcoming objections and delays by the University of Chicago administration, U of C graduate student workers got their chance to vote in an NLRB representation election in late October. It wasn’t close—1,103 to 479 in favor of Grad Students United, affiliated with the Illinois Federation of Teachers. This necessary first step now leads to the challenge of negotiating a first contract.

If you have a story for the Labor Briefing please contact billonasch@kclabor.org