It has been said that if an earthquake ever struck Washington, D.C., one building would not move — the headquarters of the AFL-CIO labor federation near the White House. The implication of this satiric comment is that the AFL-CIO has been so moribund that nothing could shake it.
Well, a shakening is coming from the leaders of several large unions — from AFSCME to the Service Employees International Union to the Teamsters — who are organizing to replace Lane Kirkland as labor’s big chief during an October meeting. The union rebels say they have over fifty five percent of the votes needed to oust Kirkland who never headed a union and succeeded to the top as the chief assistant to his predecessor, gruff George Meany, well over a decade ago.
Kirkland says he will fight for re-election. When asked why? He said memorably: “That’s what I do, I don’t do anything else.”
That is not enough of an answer to millions of rank and file unions who see a shrinking labor movement in America, export of millions of jobs in the near future, and a leadership that doesn’t fight hard for their interests either in Congress, at the White House or in the mass media.
The AFL-CIO goes on the record for many of the right policies, but it rarely goes on the ramparts. Half-hearted, discouraged labor lobbyists, not backed by any rallies and demonstrations, witnessed losses to business backers of NAFTA, GATT and no labor law revisions.
Years of defeats on Capitol Hill have paralleled little attention to organizing drives and less to developing labor’s own media and media presence. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce building is very near the labor edifice but they are eons apart in terms of the telecommunications, video and studio facilities to reach the nation and the world. You haven’t noticed a syndicated television program or a national labor newspaper or even a new version of Labor’s radio program of the Forties called “The Voice of Labor,” have you?
Less than fourteen percent of American labor is in trade unions — about what the level was in the early Thirties. In Canada over thirty percent of workers are in unions. Worker wages have declined since 1973 when adjusted for inflation. Large layoffs of union and non-union workers are regular announcements by downsizing corporations. Pensions are not as secure in many companies and health and safety conditions leave much to be desired.
At the same time as global corporations are outsourcing jobs to countries where workers will labor for a few cents an hour on modern machinery, company profits and company executive pay are at record levels, along with stock prices.
Workers can be forgiven a sinking feeling that they are being left behind and are increasingly being viewed as expendable by the controllers of capital.
With Big Business becoming Big Government in Washington, D.C., trade unionists are asking tougher questions of their comfortable 9 to 5 leaders at union headquarters. This pressure from below is bubbling up to the AFL-CIO and persuading many union leaders who make up the AFL executive board that it is time for a change.
It is important that this contest between the Kirkland forces and the insurgents become public and focus on the seminal issues of the political economy. It is essential that the next few months not be largely a time of a palace revolt by and against union personalities.
The nation has not witnessed a healthy debate between union leaders and union members for decades. This is because there is an unwritten understanding among unionists that conflicts should be kept private. This self-censorship has spilled over into an inhibition that has kept a public corporate critique out of organized labor. Everything is so close to the vest so as not to rattle the skeletons inside.
It is way past the time for a change. Few people under fifty years of age understand the costs to this country because organized labor did not keep its house clean and did not provide an ever strong countervailing force to corporations.
What is commonly called the nation’s social safety net, the growth of consumer income, the checkmating of many corporate abuses were significant contributions of the labor movement. The anemic remnant of that movement is poised for a turnaround by the forthcoming October insurgency.
How much of a turnaround will depend on how many doors are opened for leaders of progressive locals and rank and file. There are lots of good ideas and energy out there around the country that have been blocked by the bureaucrats at the AFL-CIO.
To be a turnaround with a difference, there needs to be a public debate before October involving American labor on the great issues facing American workers and their need to redress the large imbalance of power between them and multinational corporations.
For information on what one group — Labor Party Advocates -thinks, write to LPA, P. 0. Box 53177, Washington, D.C. 20009-3177.