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The Six-Year Itch | The Nation

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The Six-Year Itch

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Even though labor has persuaded Democrats to emphasize bread-and-butter "working families" issues more, there is still excessive deference to party leaders in defining policy battles. And the federation often seems peculiarly reluctant to employ the "street heat" tactics that it advocates for central labor councils. Calling for local hearings on its new immigration policy, which urges a broad amnesty for undocumented immigrants and an end to the punitive sanctions labor once supported, the AFL-CIO said it wanted only a few hundred people to attend each one. The Los Angeles County federation flouted the orders and turned out a huge crowd of 20,000 calling for "amnesty" and "union." Pressure from local leaders was also largely responsible for the AFL-CIO's vigorous presence during the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, where labor unions and environmentalists set a new standard in cooperative protest against corporate globalization. In both cases, however, Sweeney proved adaptable rather than trying to shut down the upstarts, as his predecessors might have done. Manufacturing unions have been frustrated that the AFL-CIO did not take issues of trade and deindustrialization seriously enough under Clinton, even though it was part of the coalition that twice blocked renewal of fast-track authority and tried, but failed, to deny permanent normal trading relationship status to China. But the AFL-CIO is mounting an aggressive effort this year to deny fast-track trade authority to Bush.

Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

About the Author

David Moberg
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, writes frequently for The Nation on labor issues.

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In the immediate future, the AFL-CIO will focus on forging closer links between politics and organizing, demanding that union-backed politicians at all levels of government fight for the right of workers to join unions freely--either by passing legislation or taking direct action to support workers. "There has to be a direct link of politics and organizing. If we're going to succeed in politics, we need more members. And a major reason to be involved in politics is to change the environment so that workers can organize," Rosenthal notes. "Our goal is to build power for working people. The only way to be more powerful is if more workers are in unions."

Sweeney in August deployed roughly twenty staff members from the field mobilization department to work on politics full time and another twenty to work on organizing, mainly the linkage with politics. While skeptics view the move as a bureaucratic shuffle, the AFL-CIO sees it as responding to the call for more focus on organizing and politics by its main field staff. The goal is to lay the groundwork for eventual reform of labor laws by making the public more conscious of how workers' rights are systematically violated. Federation officials believe that they opened Al Gore's eyes by exposing him to workers who had suffered reprisals from their bosses because they tried to form a union and consequently plan to "Algorize" every politician who seeks union support. If Democrats take up the challenge, they can strengthen and reorient their party toward working people--not only immigrant janitors, whose success in organizing and contract fights has now made new janitor organizing far faster and easier, but also highly educated workers, such as engineers, doctors, nurses, university faculty and teaching assistants, who are interested in unionization. But many emerging labor leaders who doubt that the Democrats will see the light argue that labor should seek out sympathetic Republican moderates. Others--like Rosenthal--believe unions should refuse to endorse or should mount primary challenges to Democrats who don't deliver.

Sweeney still hopes to bring back the Carpenters by the December convention, when he is likely to be the only candidate for a new four-year term as president. But to appease McCarron, he may have to resolve conflicts over organizing among the anachronistically fragmented building trades unions. Since the Carpenters left, Sweeney has welcomed into the AFL-CIO two new unions--one linked to the American Nursing Association and a California school employees' union. A railway union that had disaffiliated also returned through a merger with an old rival, one of eleven mergers since Sweeney took office. But he has not presided over the bottom-up changes in union culture that would allow for the kind of consolidation and strategic unity the labor movement needs.

Unions have made their greatest progress in recent years, both in politics and organizing, when they have engaged their members as active organizers and campaigners. They have also gained to the extent that they have projected a broad vision of social justice, democracy, economic fairness and worker rights on the job and in society that inspires members, allies and the public. If the labor movement can turn itself into a new civil rights movement, with a sizable number of the 16 million union members feeling that organized labor is truly their voice, the energy from below linked to a grander vision may help to resolve many of the internal conflicts that seem so intractable now. "In order for the movement to grow, we have to recognize that it's not simply a matter of will," argues former Sweeney assistant Bill Fletcher. "The equation is vision plus strategy plus organizing equals power. We need a compelling social vision, and organizing the unorganized is not sufficiently compelling."

Much to his credit, Sweeney got union and environmental representatives to talk about a common vision, but the effort was rudely undermined when the Teamsters and building trades backed Bush's plan to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a move that put labor at odds with vast majorities of Americans, offended key allies and represented retrograde thinking about the future of the American economy. The federation took refuge in an ambiguous earlier resolution favoring "exploration" with appropriate "environmental safeguards," which let each side in the internal debate save some face but really gave more aid to the drilling proponents. Also, the AFL-CIO followed the auto workers' misguided lead in accepting low fuel efficiency standards. And it has failed to project ambitious agendas with broad public appeal on other issues as well, such as public financing of elections and universal national health insurance.

There appear to be no rivals for Sweeney's job. The typical reaction is, Who would want a position with such big responsibilities and so little power? Despite the frustrations, especially about organizing, most union activists respect Sweeney's hard work in forcing debate on how unions must grow faster and smarter to wield power for their members. Yet Sweeney is a relatively cautious leader, inclined toward finding consensus, even if his rhetoric has often raised hopes that he would push for more radical changes. "When I first ran for office, I said many times it wasn't who headed the AFL-CIO that was important," Sweeney said recently, "it was where the AFL-CIO is headed." Indeed, Sweeney has helped turn the labor movement in the direction of doing--or at least talking about doing--more aggressive organizing, grassroots political mobilization, alliance-building and advocacy for all working people. In any case, Sweeney's mixed record is far better than the stagnation that preceded him. The test of coming years will be his ability to focus the AFL-CIO and the labor movement on organizing, making it both a political priority and a new civil rights movement, while expanding the social vision that gives meaning to that mission.

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