A 20 page pamphlet by Harry Kelber of the Trade Union Leadership Institute in New York is circulating throughout the labor movement as if it were an underground dispatch. Clearly titled “Why Unions Are in Trouble… And What They Can Do About It,” it is a polite but scathing indictment of a movement that has lost its way and is losing membership every year.
While acknowledging the great gains over the past century that the labor unions have brought to industrial workers, Kelber gets to the point right away. Although the signs of deterioration are everywhere — bunion leaders are uniformly tight-lipped about their own shortcomings. AFL-CIO leaders, including the 33 vice presidents, have an unwritten gentlemen’s agreement to avoid public criticism of the organization and each other, and they resent criticism when it comes from outsiders… It takes considerable courage to risk your job by challenging union leaders who have the power to ruin you.”
Labor leaders shrink from communicating. Despite its 14 million members and 50,000 local unions across the country, the AFL-CIO owns not a single television station, radio station nor a daily newspaper. AFL-CIO and major union leaders usually avoid television talk shows and other opportunities to convey their views.
Kelber describes the self-perpetuation leadership of the AFL-CIO which needs the support only of the leaders of a dozen largest unions, who cast hundreds of thousands of bloc voters at the biennial convention, to re-elect him. No dissent, no participation by the rank and file, and severe subordination of state and city labor organizations are the norm.
The labor press, with few exceptions such as the Machinists and the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers publications, is an exercise in dull self-praise. The AFL-CIO News has a circulation of 50,000, comes out twice a month, instead of its customary weekly schedule, and has no letter-to the editor column. Besides the usual pictures of President Lane Kirkland and Secretary-Treasurer Donahue, the pages do not report when unions lose elections, when union leaders are guilty of wrongdoing and when there is internal dissension in unions, as presently is the case within the United Auto Workers.
Lately, the AFL-CIO has gone to Madison Avenue to try to brighten Labors public image. A two-year $13 million campaign is on the television to sell unionism that way cosmetics, beet and toothpaste are sold. One would think that such a sum spent on advancing worker health and safety enforcement, defending workers as consumers and producing documentaries that would reach the nation’s classrooms, as the companies do, would be money better spent to put a reality behind a brighter public image.
It is so much easier to sign a $13 million contract with a major advertising agency than to add several full time worker safety advocates to the AFL-CIO staff in Washington to bolster their present stall of just one. The OSHA job safety agency never had it easier.
Western trade union leaders, themselves beset with the pressures of arrogant multinational companies, are amazed nonetheless at the passivity, corruption and declining political power of U.S. unions. Canada has over 30% of its workers in unions, more than double that of the U.S. In Western Europe, trade unions are part and parcel of major political parties. While labor is still on the good side of many issues, their influence at the Congressional and state legislative level is weak and getting weaker.
Kelber recommends more internal trade union democracy to bring fresh leadership to the forefront. He wants a moral crusade for comprehensive health insurance and fairer labor laws. He wants unions to organize the millions of unemployed into cohesive associations.
Above all he wants more free political debate, more media attention, more attention to the younger generation to get labor back on track to clean up its own house so that it can take on those adversaries who want the Fortune 500 to rule entirely this country.
(Interested readers may obtain Kelber’s booklet by sending $1.50 to Trade Union Leadership Institute, P. 0. Box 3610, New York, New York 10185. Bulk orders are available.)