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Debating Labor's Future | The Nation

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Debating Labor's Future

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Q. What do you think are the core strategies needed to revive the labor movement? Is it possible for the AFL-CIO as currently structured to lead the kind of revitalization effort you believe is necessary? Should the federation have more power over its affiliated unions?

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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

: The federation is not a national union. It is a coming together of many different unions with different cultures and experiences. You have to bring people along in the process. Consensus is very important for the success of a federation.

We have to do everything in our power to strengthen the labor movement at every level, and that includes state and local initiatives within central labor councils and state federations. We have to continue what we have been focusing on for the past several years to build up our grassroots activists and involve them in membership mobilization efforts around the political program and issues campaigns. Last Election Day we had 225,000 activists out working all across the country.

The major change in the political operation is that we need to convert from a "get out the vote every two years" operation to one that is going on every day of the year, whether holding candidates accountable or mobilizing around issues like Social Security. That is our biggest strength, activating the grassroots members who want to be involved.

Wilhelm

: It is a structural problem. Governance needs to be significantly overhauled. It is also a leadership question. We need a president of the AFL who will take a strong leadership position, even if that means something less than unanimous support for every measure.

The new mantra from their side is that there is not a lot of difference between the two sides of the debate, and this is patently not true. We are proposing a 50 percent rebate of the per capita dues paid by an international union to the AFL-CIO for a well-planned, systematic, well-resourced strategic organizing campaign in their core industry. We think this rebate would leverage about $1 billion. On top of that, $25 million would be devoted to large-scale organizing efforts like Wal-Mart that no one union can undertake by itself. So these two proposals taken together would [mean] spending over half of the roughly $125 million AFL budget on organizing. If the AFL is exhorting unions to organize but not itself focusing on organizing, the exhortations are meaningless.

Cohen

: CWA believes that the constitution needs to change to make it fundamentally a local and state as well as national organization. Central labor councils should be the backbone of the federation, and membership in them should not be voluntary. You can't have an optional labor movement.

We need to mobilize the 13 million union members in this country into one united movement around democracy in the workplace. It is not about how much money we spend or how much staff we have. It is about mobilizing our members around that kind of change as well as around specific efforts to organize specific employers.

Stern

: The constitutional amendments that Change to Win is proposing strengthen the power of the federation, which has historically had little power over affiliated unions. In the end, to be a chartered member of the AFL-CIO should mean that you are able to do certain things for your members.

The way that workers are succeeding is by working together with other workers who do the same type of work in their industry or sector. We call for strong industry coordinating committees that have the authority to bargain, make annual organizing plans and prohibit people who are not part of those plans to continue to be involved in that sector. This would put an end to the thirty unions that organize in healthcare every single year. There is a better way to unite the strength of workers than fifty-seven different international unions. There should be a blue-ribbon commission established to recommend mergers and incentivize them. Finally, there should be an executive committee. The executive council is too large to govern.

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