John Sweeney and the AFL-CIO

The surge of corporate power over our political economy that started in Richard Nixon’s second term has met few roadblocks. From the swarm of business-funded campaign contributions to the concentration of a corporatist mass media to the smashing of both worker efforts to unionize and wronged consumers’ access to the courts, Big Business has become Big Government. Corporate welfare subsidies far exceed poverty welfare programs and the global companies have lost their allegiance to the USA while exporting millions of jobs.

At the same time, corporate profits skyrocket to new records every year, corporate bosses pay themselves about 150 times their entry level worker’s wages on the average, compared to 45 times in 1979. Stock markets set new records year after year to further enrich the stock options of the company’s top management. Governments bend over backwards to weaken or drop health and safety regulation and to further tax loopholes (called incentives) for very demanding companies.

These are heady times for the corporate government and the bosses are getting used to getting their way, despite a corporate crime wave, increased poverty, (one in four children living in poverty), and a declining standard of living for about 80 percent of American workers.

Nonetheless, the year 1995 may mark the peak of corporate power for a while. And the event prompting this prediction is the replacement of the moribund rulers of the AFL-CIO with a more dynamic team headed by John Sweeney, head of the Service Employees Union and Richard Trumka, head of the United Mine Workers.

Not much is written about the consequences to most people in this country when the mainstream labor movement goes into a free fall decline — in union membership (down to about 15% of workers from over 30% in the mid-Fifties) and in defending the interests of children, consumers, workers and retirees in battles with corporations and legislatures.

Organized labor’s leadership lost its energy and its soul in the past 30 years which was connected to the suppression of union democracy and not a little corruption.

The election of a new slate to head the AFL-CIO that occurred on October 25, 1995 in New York City marked only the fifth elected leader of that organization since Samuel Gompers took the helm of the old AFL in 1886.

Sweeney and Trumka will increase the AFL-CIO’s budget for organizing new workers by five fold. Most unions spend only 5 percent of their annual budget for organizing workers. The new leaders believe that should go up to about 30 percent.

There are many hurdles ahead. The awakening trade unions must make a major push to update the labor laws which are now easily manipulable by companies to thwart union organizing, especially in manufacturing industry. In Canada and western European nations, it is much easier to organize workers because the rules are simpler. Canadian workers need only sign a majority petition to get going; while in this country there are more cumbersome and vulnerable procedures that management can and does exploit.

Other missions need to be adopted. The Gingrich-Dole crowd are out to destroy the workplace safety laws and budgets. Work-connected diseases and trauma claim about 100,000 American lives a year. The new AFL-CIO can make this casualty toll and its prevention a major election issue next year. First they need to beef up the job safety staff at the Federation and other national unions. The AFL-CIO managed to fund only one to one and a half staff full time to push for the health and safety of American workers. Quite a disgrace!

To train future leaders and reflect present worker needs, union democracy should become a central part of the agenda. It is the facts and ferment that the rank and file bring to the labor movement which can be the core of a new agenda for the future of the nation’s economy and the quality of life of working families.

Imagine the present corporatist agenda which involves placing trillions of dollars in unproductive investment instruments, including large amounts of the unions’ 4 trillion dollars in pension monies, while gaping needs for investment capital at the community level go unmet. Billions go into speculative derivatives and empire-building mergers and acquisitions, but too little for renovating the public works, clinics and housing stock of America.

Attention to consumer justice matters helps preserve the buying power of hard-earned wages from marketplace fraud, hazardous toxics and defective products. Prudent consumer protection regulation of the Savings and Loans in the Eighties, for example, would have prevented the half trillion dollar bailout of these banks that workers, as taxpayers, are having to pay for the next 20 years.

The harbinger of what is to come from an aroused organized labor is the little noticed Labor Party Advocates (LPA) movement. It is remarkable how the media has missed these worker meetings all over the country whose purpose is to lay the groundwork for a solid political agenda for labor. If it had been covering these events, the press may have not been surprised at the militancy of many attendees at the historic AFL-CIO convention last month.

(Readers interested in more information about LPA should send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Labor Party Advocates, P. 0. Box 53177, Washington, DC 20009.

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