Marking the fourth year of president John Sweeney’s tenure, the 13-million-member AFL-CIO had much to celebrate at its biennial convention in Los Angeles in mid-October. The two-decade hemorrhaging of union membership has been stanched. A couple of hundred thousand new members have joined in the past two years–although the percentage of unionized jobs is still declining slightly. Some powerful unions are taking seriously Sweeney’s call to divert more resources to organizing. There are now more than 150 “union cities,” thanks to revitalized central labor councils. Nearly three dozen communities have enacted living-wage laws. Labor has placed trade policy on the national agenda. And the cold war-era break between Big Labor and leftish social movements has mended, as unions once again reach out to religious, community and political-activist groups. As a regional United Auto Workers official put it, “What you can say after four years of Sweeney is that we might not yet be running on all eight cylinders, but at least we’re running again.”
Indeed, the resuscitation of moribund labor promised in 1995 when Sweeney’s New Voices slate took over the federation’s executive offices has been heartening, but it remains incomplete. Too many local and national unions at best pay only lip service to the imperative of “changing to organize, organizing to change.” Scores of central labor councils remain frozen.
Labor’s weakness was vividly displayed as it handed an early endorsement to Al Gore just as the Vice President had fallen another twelve points in the polls. Sweeney, Gore’s ethically tainted campaign chairman Tony Coelho and President Clinton himself launched a full-court press for the union nod. With labor disaffection running high because of NAFTA-related job losses and Clinton/Gore free-trade policy, there was a chance of an embarrassing refusal to endorse. The Teamsters, United Auto Workers and other scattered pockets of resistance held out to the end, but to no avail. “We met privately with Bill Clinton last weekend and tried to squeeze him on healthcare policy in exchange for the endorsement,” said a leader of New York’s 1199 healthcare workers union. “But we’re the ones who wound up getting squeezed.”
Disappointment over the rushed endorsement was palpable in the convention hall. “It’s not even our disagreement over policy with Gore that gets me,” a top needles-trade strategist complained. “It’s like, Hello, has anyone out there noticed this guy is running a losing campaign and we just signed on to it?”
Federation officials vow they’ll spend $40 million on politics this election year. It will go mostly for leafleting, door-to-door canvassing and grassroots mobilizing rather than the costly TV ads at the center of the 1996 effort. Despite the fears of some that too much early primary spending on Gore will drain resources needed for retaking the House in the general election, the AFL maintains that its top priority is to oust the GOP majority.
Labor is providing a base for victories at the national level, such as raising the minimum wage, stopping Social Security privatization and defeating fast track for the extension of NAFTA. But the AFL’s Gore endorsement reflects a defensive posture, suggesting that it may be too soon to look to labor as the resource-rich motor for a new progressive movement.