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Debating Labor's Future | The Nation

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Debating Labor's Future

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Q. Ten years ago there was tremendous hope and promise about the "new AFL-CIO." What is your assessment of what did and did not work at the federation? What do you believe are the lessons of the Sweeney years?

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Janice Fine
  Janice Fine is Associate Professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at the School of Management and...

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In Stamford, Connecticut, organizers are putting the movement back in labor.

Sweeney

: We have learned that labor's political clout has grown tremendously since 1995. During that time we have unified the labor movement around a program of membership education and mobilization. Even though union households constitute only 17 percent of the voting age population, they represented 24 percent of those who voted in 2004. According to national exit polls, 4 million more votes came from union households in 2004 than in 1992, despite labor's decline. Kerry would not have come close without the union vote. Nationally, among nonunion voters, it was a Bush landslide.

I am proud of the record we have in terms of how we have strengthened our political program and our organizing program, but I found the Bush Administration so anti-worker and so anti-union. As a result of our tax and trade policies, we saw very difficult times for workers. We have organized millions of workers, yet we lost almost 3 million good-paying manufacturing jobs with good health benefits and retirement security. As much as we organized, we managed only to stay stable in terms of membership.

Wilhelm

: I think the lessons are programmatic and structural. The AFL-CIO has become a lowest-common-denominator federation. So as a practical matter, if any significant union opposes anything, it doesn't happen. We can't retool the labor movement for the twenty-first century if we are not ready to exercise strong judgment and make big decisions when necessary.

Cohen

: In CWA, we think that the issue is the virtual elimination of collective bargaining rights and the linkage between those rights and any modern democracy. Our union identified that as the critical crisis more than fifteen years ago, when we helped start Jobs With Justice and put enormous efforts into building it. The incredibly positive thing about the AFL-CIO's focus of the last ten years is that more than ever in its history it has focused on exactly this problem. The primary crisis is not about union membership. We reject that. The crisis is about American workers' right to join and build unions.

McEntee

: Up until ten years ago, the federation had no organizing program at all and the political program wasn't really grassroots-oriented, nor was it very large or powerful. Sweeney came in and one of the first things he did was to create a department within the federation for organizing new members, which had never been done before.

He took an entirely new tack in politics, to be much more aggressive in terms of staff and mobilization out in the field. I don't think anybody can argue with the fact that aside from the political parties--and that is open for question with the Democrats--the AFL-CIO is the strongest on-the-ground political component in the United States today. This was Sweeney's leadership. It doesn't mean he did all that he wanted to do.

The insurgents are saying that the AFL-CIO is too close to the Democratic Party and supports more Democrats than Republicans. We are a liberal progressive union, but there are times we support Republicans who stand for working men and women. We support more Democrats because of the way the Republicans at any number of levels are treating us. In Missouri a Republican governor got rid of the executive order granting collective bargaining rights to public-sector workers, and that probably cost AFSCME, SEIU and the UAW 30,000 to 40,000 members. The same thing took place in Indiana, and now there's a strong possibility of losing 60,000 members. These people are Republicans. They are not Democrats, and we all know the record of George Bush since he has been in the White House.

Hoffa

: We've got to get back to building a populist base in this country. There used to be a social contract where if you worked hard for a General Motors, showed up every day and were a good employee, they owed you something. Sometime during the Reagan Administration that got thrown out the window. Now there is this Darwinist ethos. We need an FDR-type person who talks about a populist program to get America back. While I am a Democrat, we have to find people who believe in working families, whether Republican or Democrat, who share our goals to build a pro-worker coalition.

Stern

: One, I think what we learned is that having a plan matters and the plan being relevant matters. So the AFL beginning to focus on organizing matters, building a political program that focuses on talking to members at worksites matters. These were positives. Two, we have learned that a loose federation that allows everyone to act independently of each other is not going to work in the twenty-first century. The model of the federation that was set up in 1955, when one in three workers was in a union and each union could go it on its own, won't work today. Three, strategy matters. John Sweeney has done a strong job taking it to where it needs to go, but now it needs to get to a level that is more appropriate for a new century, and this will be based on organizing wholesale, not retail--organizing whole industries and sectors and markets, not individual worksites.

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