Will the new labor leadership at the AFL-CIO of John Sweeney and Richard Trumka shake up this giant passive organization of trade unions into a new dynamic? They certainly talk that way in the few weeks since they moved into the AFL headquarters near The White House in Washington, D.C.
There is no way to go but up. Organized labor has seen its membership decline and its percentage of the workforce that is unionized fall from the low thirties in the 1950s to half that today. Its anemic past leadership has been long on shadowboxing with business opponents and funneling campaign money to politicians who care little about labor and curtsey to corporations.
Defeat after defeat in Congress and vis-à-vis industry have turned into humiliations. When computer programmers are laid off but not before they train their lower-paid replacements from overseas who come into the U.S. labor market under a special federal statute, that’s humiliation.
When workers at the Caterpillar plant in Illinois are beaten by replacement workers and have to go back to work without a contract under company rules that restrict their free speech and the kind of slogans they can wear on their T-shirts, that is humiliation.
Now some 30,000 building maintenance workers are on strike in New York City, because the building owners, who charge the highest rents in the nation, are demanding that new, hires start at about 50% lower wages than present workers. Few are betting on the janitors and cleaners winning this battle.
What is amazing about organized labor’s weakness is the strength of their existing but little used assets. Let’s take an inventory!
First they have a large audience of workers whom they have abandoned to the likes of Rush Limbaugh because the AFL-CIO has no national media programs on radio and television. In the 1940s
unions owned about 20 radio stations which they shortsightedly sold in the 1950s. Since then, despite the expansion of cable channels in the dozens, there is no labor cable TV channel, no regular program or even an occasional one hour show.
Whether it is radio, broadcast television or cable television, organized labor is not there. A few local labor radio programs have begun to appear, but is there any constituency remotely as large as labor that its leaders electronically ignore so comprehensively. It is not a matter of money; trade unions have well-stocked treasuries these days because there are so few strikes to deplete strike funds.
The new AFL-CIO leadership plans to change this indifference to media communications, realizing that union newspapers sent to their members are not sufficient.
Second, the unused power of their hundreds of billions of dollars in union-controlled pension funds. These funds have major stock holdings in large corporations. They have large deposits in large banks. Labor unions have rarely used this financial muscle with any sustained imagination and strategic sense. There is some indication that the new leadership may revise this reluctance.
Third, Sweeney and Trumka are very clear about one vigorous direction — pouring much more money into organizing workers, including lower income laborers, and training a young generation of organizers. They want trade unions to spend a third of their budgets on organizing; some unions spend around one-twentieth of their budgets on this key mission.
Without organizers and a backup infrastructure — such as astute communication over the media — workers don’t have a chance against large employers and their union-dissolving consulting firms.
Fourth, with their many thousands of rejuvenated locals, organized labor can start to elect candidates who stay true to their promises and understand the needs of workers and their families in a nation whose corporations are often busy downsizing the middle class.
Department of Labor data show that about 80% of American workers are earning less, adjusted for inflation, than they did twenty years ago. Global corporations are getting away with more and more and workers are working longer hours and not keeping up.
The AFL-CIO has announced an election year budget of $35 million for the Congressional races. How that money is spent or wasted remains a key question? Will it disappear in ineffective thirty second television ads or will it leave something of value behind after election day that can carry on the struggle?
Finally, organized labor always needs a burr under its saddle from the workers themselves to advance union democracy for clean responsive unions and a “shop floor” agenda for a full employment economy.
Labor Party Advocates, an issues-oriented association of workers, workers with some trade union support, fulls this prescription. This summer they will have their first political convention, with its agenda up front, to respond to the two major parties who tell labor that politically, it has no where to go.
(For more information about Labor Party Advocates, write to LPA, P. 0. Box 53177, Washington, D.C., 20009-3177).