Debating Labor's Future
Q. The whiteness of labor union leadership is a huge problem. How can this be changed?
: The key on diversity of all types is that all union structures and AFL-CIO structures reflect the composition of the membership base. If we did that, this would already look a lot different than it looks now. Second, if we believe in affirmative action for employers, we need to practice it ourselves in terms of things we can control, like staffing. Also, if we have labor councils rooted in America's cities and members are members of labor councils and those councils are viewed more and more as building blocks of a unified labor movement, that will diversify our movement structures.
: At our union it is an enormous problem, and we are doing everything we can to figure out how to encourage the development and advance the leadership of people of color and people whose native language is not English, because our union is majority minority and majority female. The increased diversity at HERE has come from developing new leaders, teaching leadership skills to women and people of color who are hungry for them. At the end of the day, the key to diversifying the labor movement and taking advantage of the vast strength that will come from greater diversity is organizing.
: The federation has no power over what is going to be the color of the executive council or the leadership of the executive committee. It comes back to individual unions and then to the long history of what kinds of people were organized by unions. For years, the AFL and even the CIO were organizing mostly white folks. They weren't organizing African-Americans. They weren't organizing Mexicans. The public sector helped break through this barrier. Now as we organize in home healthcare and childcare and in places like New York and Illinois and West Coast cities, we bring in large numbers of people of color and immigrants. Once we bring them into the union, we can educate and train and bring them up the ranks into leadership.
Q. Some people believe that the split between the AFL and the CIO was good for organizing large numbers of new workers into the labor movement. Do you believe a split today could have that same galvanizing effect?
: You know, this is not the 1930s and '40s, when US industry was on the rise and we were shifting from an agricultural to an industrial economy. We are shifting to service, working families have no basic healthcare, the working poor is growing and people are barely getting by. Right-wingers in Congress are actively attacking worker protections at every turn. It should tell you something that those right-wingers are salivating at the prospect of a split. Look at the Republican websites--they are gleeful, because the truth is, we have maintained power out of proportion to our numbers because we have been organized. A split will help no one. Unions need to work together to take on the giant bosses who are allied against us. That is the only way we can succeed.
: The labor movement is incredibly divided right now. The only way it is united is at a table in Washington, DC, or because it uses the same initials after its name. But when it comes to dealing with companies like United Airlines or national strategies about how to organize Wal-Mart or healthcare workers, there is no unity. The airline industry, the most heavily unionized industry in the country, is Exhibit A, B, C and D. If we don't believe our lack of ability to coordinate and cooperate within companies and across them is a factor, we are crazy. I don't think a split itself will create a whole new wellspring of growth and hope. I don't expect immediate results. But when you are going down a road that is getting smaller and smaller, and the markings are pretty clear that it is just wrong for workers, you have to change.
: There is no question that the historical context is radically different, but I would point out that the CIO did not begin as a split but as a group of unions who wanted to try doing some things differently. The AFL expelled them. The question is, Will the federation take advantage of the greatest opportunity since the Great Depression to respond to what the country needs the most, or won't we? I don't think there ought to be a split. At UNITE HERE it is not our preference to leave the AFL-CIO at all. But the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. We have a responsibility as labor leaders--we can't just say, Well, if a majority of unions want to embrace the status quo, let's embrace it as well.
Q. President Sweeney, how will historians look back on these past ten years and your role within the labor movement?
: I think they will recognize that the labor movement made some significant changes and focused heavily on organizing and political activity, that while two national elections were lost, we had our greatest number of workers and their families turn out in elections. They will see many successful organizing campaigns but a horrible Administration in Washington. Bush has had the worst jobs record since Herbert Hoover. They will see a record of strong activism on the part of rank-and-file workers in support of a strong, united labor movement.
Q. Any regrets?
: I would have loved to have organized more workers and enjoyed some political victories, but unfortunately neither you nor I have had that.