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Checking the Union Labels | The Nation

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Checking the Union Labels

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The election of new AFL-CIO leaders more than three years ago ushered in an era of glasnost. Where open discussion and criticism of union problems was once verboten under the regime of George Meany and Lane Kirkland, current labor federation president John Sweeney has, to his credit, let a hundred flowers bloom. As a result, some union activists and officials have joined academics who write and consult on workplace issues in a wide-ranging dialogue about what must be done to revive the labor movement. One byproduct of this exchange is a minor book-publishing boom. Houghton-Mifflin, Monthly Review, Verso and university presses like Cornell, NYU and Wayne State have all brought out collections of labor-related essays inspired by or related to the 1995 leadership shake-up.

About the Author

Steve Early
Steve Early is the author, most recently, of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor (Haymarket). Early spent many years helping...

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Jo-Ann Mort's Not Your Father's Union Movement and the Ray Tillman-Michael Cummings collection due out this spring, The Transformation of U.S. Unions, are useful additions to this literature of change. They offer different but complementary perspectives on the challenges facing labor today. Both address many of the same topics: how and why Sweeney's reform administration came to power, what it's doing to promote new organizing and political initiatives, the importance of community-labor alliances, the challenge of globalization and the role of women and immigrants in unions.

However, as Mort's subtitle suggests, her contributors are mainly "insiders"--new AFL-CIO department chiefs, other union headquarters staffers or their pollsters, consultants, speechwriters and journalistic admirers. In contrast, the Tillman-Cummings book draws more on the workplace and organizing experience of union rank-and-filers, past and present. Its nineteen contributors include two subway motormen, several auto workers, a letter carrier, a machinist, a former Teamster and a onetime telephone installer.

The authors rounded up by Mort, communications director for UNITE, give Sweeney's team high marks for its media savvy, campus outreach, liberal pronouncements, sensitivity to diversity issues and purge of cold warriors. Some who aided in the production of the book are, in effect, grading their own papers or something close to that. For example, the editor thanks "Denise Mitchell and her entire AFL-CIO public affairs staff...for assistance in making sure that the articles got written." Three chapters later, there's a laudatory account--by Mort--of the $10 million "repositioning" ad campaign engineered by Mitchell to enhance labor's public image. The overall tone of the book is thus more self-congratulatory than self-critical. (One writer--an outside-the-Beltway contributor--does warn his colleagues that "we must be careful that our public relations initiatives don't outweigh the substance of our accomplishments.") There is heavy emphasis on technocratic solutions to labor's problems (i.e., more sophisticated use of paid media, opinion surveys, union pension funds and new policy ideas) and not as much focus on membership empowerment.

The Tillman-Cummings crowd acknowledges the differences between Sweeney and his conservative predecessors, but they are more apt to find gaps between the new AFL's upbeat rhetoric and the grim reality of continuing union decline. They express concern about the degree to which implementation of the federation's programs is still top-down and staff-driven. They believe there's a crucial link between union strength and internal democracy (a subject rarely mentioned in Mort's book) and that organized labor's failure to permit a greater rank-and-file role in decision-making will prevent it from becoming an instrument of fundamental social change. Says Herman Benson, elder statesman of the group and defender of union dissidents for the past forty years: "Before the labor movement can effectively spread the message of freedom and social justice to the nation, it must renew that same spirit within its own ranks and convince its own members that this great movement belongs to them and not to its officials."

Contributors to both books agree that Sweeney's ascension to power was, as Benson notes, more in the nature of a "palace revolt" than a rank-and-file rebellion like the one that made Ron Carey the first member-elected president of the Teamsters in 1991. Yet Los Angeles journalist Harold Meyerson, author of the lead essay in Not Your Father's Union Movement, takes a particularly narrow view of the historical context of the first AFL-CIO leadership fight in more than a century, while other contributors to the Mort book and Transformation see a connection between mounting local unrest and the 1995 leadership coup.

To Meyerson, the deciding factor in Sweeney's challenge to Kirkland and later his successor, Tom Donahue, was the AFL-CIO's "dismal performance" in the 1994 midterm Congressional elections, which elevated Newt Gingrich to the House speakership. Neither Sweeney, then president of the Service Employees International Union, nor Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, could imagine battling Gingrich's Contract With America without progressive "alliances with community, civil rights, and feminist groups" and "large-scale and highly effective political action programs" like the ones their own unions had developed. So they organized an Executive Council majority to oust the old leadership and overhaul AFL-CIO departments along the lines of SEIU and AFSCME headquarters operations. "This insurgency was not ideologically based," writes Meyerson. "The revolt would not have broken out even among the most diehard anti-Kirkland unions had the Democrats maintained their hold on Congress."

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