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The AFL-CIO Convention, 1995

by Frank Lovell

Advance publicity predicted that the 1995 convention of the American Federation of Labor—Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), held in New York City, October 23-26, would be different from all others. And so it was. But in different ways than expected by many observers and more than a few delegates. Every one knew that a contest was on for the presidency of the federation for the first time since the merger of the old AFL craft unions and the CIO industrial union movement back in 1955, and now convention delegates would decide the outcome. Both contestants were long time members of the Executive Council, and for many years had been part of the leadership group.

Previous AFL-CIO presidents were George Meany, for 24 years (1955-1979), and his hand-picked successor Lane Kirkland, for 16 years (1979-1995). Neither had ever faced serious opposition. But suddenly this year, Kirkland did. In fact, during the summer Kirkland was forced to retire by a dissatisfied and rebellious bloc on the federation’s 33-member Executive Council, and was replaced by Secretary-Treasurer Tom Donahue, one of his close political associates.

AFL-CIO History

During its 40-year history the AFL-CIO has weathered episodes of dissatisfaction and distrust among the top leaders. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, under Meany’s administration, the East Coast longshore union, the Teamsters, and one or two smaller unions were kicked out of the federation for racketeering, the result of federal investigations and prosecutions, and demands by the government that the unions “clean house.” In 1968 Walter Reuther led the United Auto Workers (UAW) out of the federation, claiming that Meany lacked the social vision and the necessary political subtlety in response to the civil turmoil caused by the Vietnam war and student protests at the time. Both the Teamsters and the UAW subsequently returned to the federation. None of that compared in depth of dissatisfaction to the present crisis of leadership in the AFL-CIO.

Most delegates to the convention this year were more or less familiar with AFL-CIO history. And nearly all of them knew that the leader of the opposition in the Executive Council, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President John Sweeney, was prepared to challenge and promised to reverse some of the conservative policies of labor-management collaboration embraced by the Kirkland leadership. Donahue was pledged to defend Kirkland’s 16-year tenure. What they did not know and could not have anticipated was the openness of the convention, the seeming all-inclusiveness of the agenda, the scope of discussion and debate, the prevailing spirit of solidarity with all unorganized workers and especially with workers on strike, the enthusiastic identification of Blacks and other minorities and with women workers, the declared determination to organize the millions of low-paid unorganized workers, and the specific measures taken to enlarge, diversify, and reeducate the leadership of the labor movement at all levels, from local unions through state and city central labor bodies and including the federation’s Executive Council as well.

1. An Open Convention

The convention center was open for registration of delegates and visitors during the afternoon and evening before the first day, and rooms were available for caucus meetings. This offered an opportunity for socializing and for speculation about what changes would be made by the convention and what could be accomplished.

Long before the convention was called to order at 10 a.m., literature tables, display booths, and information stations were in place, attended by knowledgeable and courteous staff people. Union masters-at-arms were easy to spot and always helpful when asked questions. Obviously this convention was organized differently from past AFL-CIO conventions — for example, in the days of protest against the Vietnam war, when unknown visitors outside official leadership circles were suspect and all credentials were carefully examined before any passes were issued. Back then the duties of masters-at-arms were usually confined to checking the authenticity of passes, and civil questions were treated as insults.

Almost a Carnival Air

The convention atmosphere this time was the exact opposite, approaching that of a carnival. It was a happy occasion, and everyone was glad to be there. A few hundred delegates who had never before attended a national AFL-CIO convention may have contributed to the friendly, good-time feeling. They came from city and state labor bodies around the country, all expenses paid.

Several long tables lined the entrance to the convention hall. Some had free literature, stacks of welcome notices, copies of the General Rules of convention proceedings, and of the day’s agenda. A daily edition of the AFL-CIO News carried reports of talks by invited speakers, committee reports, and floor debates. Copies of resolutions were available on literature tables and in the press rooms.

Other tables had piles of T-shirts with union slogans and logos. Joe Glazer the folk singer had a table with his tapes of union songs. Display booths had photos and models of AFL-CIO labor advancement schemes and education activities — for example, the American Labor Museum.

Labor Museum Promoted

This museum is headquartered in the Botto House National Landmark in Haledon, New Jersey, the 1908 home of immigrant silk mill workers. Convention delegates and visitors were urged to visit this historic site, described as “a haven for the rights of working people.” Promotional literature explained that “in the winter of 1913 more than 24,000 men, women, and children marched out of Paterson, New Jersey’s silk mills calling for decent working conditions, an end to child labor, and an eight-hour day.”

Clearly all this was a far cry from the days when the only display outside an AFL-CIO convention hall was a Union Label banner and a sign telling where to go to buy a souvenir necktie.

Strikes and Labor Party Publicized

Stacks of leaflets and other literature on the A.E. Staley lockout in Decatur, Illinois, the Caterpillar strike, the Detroit newspaper strike, the Machinists strike at Boeing’s airplane production facilities in the Seattle area, and others were handy on free literature tables. All this indicated a progressive change in attitude toward use of the strike weapon and solidarity in struggle against anti-union employers. So much attention to strike activities must surely have been an eye-opener to veteran convention-goers when they arrived on opening day at this convention.

Other leaflets on literature tables announced a post-convention meeting on “Struggles, Solidarity and the Future of the Labor Movement,” sponsored by Labor Party Advocates. Advertised speakers for that meeting included convention delegates, local union presidents, and strikers from Decatur and Detroit. Another widely distributed leaflet announced an evening meeting during, the convention, “Fighting for Labor’s Future,” a Socialist Worker Forum, at Martin Luther King Labor Center, Local 1199 Hospital Workers. This was sponsored by the International Socialist Organization (ISO), featuring workers on strike in Detroit, Seattle, and Decatur.

A leaflet, widely distributed during the convention, urged union activists to “Construct a Party of Labor to Renew the Movement.” It referred specifically to the convention agenda: “Much of the Sweeney/Trumka reform program is a step in the right direction,” it said. “But the most crucial element for the resurgence of the labor movement has not been squarely confronted — the question of independent political action, so desperately needed right now on the eve of the ’96 elections.” This was distributed by members of Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women attending the convention.

Another handout copied a resolution, “That the 1995 AFL-CIO National Convention instructs the incoming AFL-CIO leadership to work vigorously to promote this convention, and to assist Labor Party Advocates monetarily and with human resources to ensure that it is a success.” The resolution was reproduced in full on the letterhead of the Inland Boatmen’s Union of the Pacific, marine division, International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union, Seattle, Washington, with the notation, “passed unanimously at the Sept. 12, 1995, San Francisco region of the IBU general membership meeting.” It never found its way through the convention Resolutions Committee, but like all the other literature it received friendly interest from convention delegates.

Two LPA Leaders Elected

Although the resolution to support LPA was not adopted, two leaders of LPA were elected to the new 51-member AFL-CIO Executive Council. The November-December 1995 issue of the newsletter Labor Party Advocate reports: “Bob Wages, President of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers, and Mac Fleming, President of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees were part of a slate backed by new AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney.”

In keeping with the general friendly, easy-breathing climate of the convention, a series of leaflets appeared on successive days urging the election of Harry Kelber, candidate for AFL-CIO vice president. Kelber is widely known in New York labor circles, having been a member of the International Typographical Union and associated with Empire State Labor College. He edits and publishes an occasional 4-page giveaway, The Labor Educator, highly critical of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy. Although he was not a convention delegate, his name appeared on the candidates list, as required by the constitution and convention rules.

Also, throughout the convention the veteran union activist Paul Rasmussen worked the crowd for joiners and contributors to his “Order of the Blade and the Whet Stone,” which distributes small sums to strikers and publicizes critical strikes, emphasizing the need for international solidarity. Its publication, Blade and Stone (January 1995), with honorary reference to the peasant uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, received general interest and assurances of solidarity from delegates and staff.

This convention recorded the largest attendance in AFL-CIO history—1,068 delegates, representing 78 international unions, 9 trade and industrial departments, 48 state federations, and 454 central labor councils. Another 317 alternates were credentialed. Several hundred visitors attended.

2. Convention Agenda

After adopting the convention rules and concurring in the customary procedure of invocation and greetings from union heads of the host city and state, the convention settled down to the important business at hand — the election of a new leadership and slight modification of the federation’s organizational structure. These things were on the minds of most delegates. Although never specifically stated as the goal of the convention, some necessary changes had been generally agreed upon by the contending caucuses, the Tom Donahue/Barbara Easterling caucus and the John Sweeney/Richard Trumka/Linda Chavez-Thompson slate.

Preparations for the convention and the organization of the convention itself reflected this agreement between the contending forces that this convention must be perceived as a new beginning and must project an image of change and labor solidarity.

Donahue’s Keynote Speech

The main agenda point on opening day was the keynote speech by AFL-CIO President Donahue. His talk began with a clear statement of his basic understanding of the union movement: “We have come to New York for one fundamental purpose,” he said, “and that .is to set the course of the future of the Federation, for the revival of America’s working middle class, and for the restoration of America as the leading economic power in the world.”

In the course of his remarks Donahue noted that the union movement must grow in numbers, and in special influence. He said, “This federation will raise and spend millions of new dollars for massive, multi-union organizing drives that will target entire industries and geographic regions.” He promised “to double and redouble the recruitment and training of new organizers....”

Reviewing labor history he said, “The struggles of 60 years ago — the great sit-down strikes and the mass organizations of those on industrial assembly lines — are shining moments in labor history. But I tell you we are living in a fool’s paradise if we think for a moment that we can simply tear a page out of that book and use it to set the course of the remainder of the 1990s and beyond.”

Opposed to militant mass action, Donahue offered the following: “We must worry less about blocking bridges and worry more about building bridges to the rest of society. We must enlist the support of members of the public, not inconvenience as many of them as possible. Our purpose,” he said, “is not to break down the system, but to make it work for working families.”

He concluded with the hope that the union movement can, “through our legislative action, reform this nation and make it one in which the rich will pay their fair share, and the young and the sick and the old will be cared about and be cared for.”

This was applauded by all delegates, most vigorously by the Donahue supporters.

3. Test vote

Following the keynote speech by Donahue a sharp debate developed over when to vote on a constitutional amendment to create a new executive position, that of vice president. This amendment was submitted by SEIU and 23 co-sponsoring unions, the purpose being to make room at the top for the woman candidate, Linda Chavez-Thompson, on the Sweeney/Trumka slate.

As maneuvering for delegate support intensified, the Sweeney camp feared that this question of voting to create the new post of executive vice president was being used against them. Consequently, Steelworkers President George Becker, a Sweeney supporter and secretary of the Constitution Committee, asked the convention to postpone voting on this issue until after the election for president. The Constitution Committee chairperson, Bricklayers President John Joyce, said the committee had considered the matter and voted 8-5 against changing the AFL-CIO constitution and urged concurrence. He opposed postponement of discussion.

“Shock Troops for Change”

Sweeney then spoke at length for postponement, prompting Donahue, who was still chairing at that point, to threaten to cut off Sweeney’s microphone. The exchange was indicative of the personal relation ship between the two, and of the relationship of forces each represented. “John, I hope you won’t force me to cut off that mike,” said Donahue. “No, I won’t, Tom,” said Sweeney, as he continued his remarks to the cheers of his supporters and jeers of opponents. This showed the Sweeney supporters better organized and far more spirited. Calling themselves “A New Voice for American Workers” and wearing red T-shirts for Sweeney/Trumka/Chavez-Thompson, they responded as a solid convention bloc, drowning out all opponents. Led by James Gibbs of the United Mine Workers and other veterans of militant strike actions, they were described by the media as “shock troops for change.”

When the question was called and the roll call taken, Sweeney’s forces tabled the Constitution Committee recommendation and postponed the vote on the executive vice president post, by a substantial majority of 7.2 million to 5.8 million. The different unions voted for the most part along traditional lines. The building trades and the small craft-minded unions nearly all fell into the Donahue column. Sweeney voters consisted of the old CIO industrial unions — steelworkers, auto, coal miners, etc. They won the support of the revitalized Teamsters. And the rail unions were all solid behind Sweeney. This first roll call indicated what the outcome of the convention was likely to be. As things turned out, this early line-up remained intact.

Debate over Size of Executive Council

Another contentious question, also introduced by Steelworker delegate Becker at the same time as his motion to postpone voting on the new post of vice president, was the size of the new AFL-CIO Executive Council. The Sweeney caucus had introduced a constitutional amendment to increase the size of the Executive Council from 33 to 45 members, but Becker now moved to table the matter. He argued that this, too, had become entwined with the campaign for federation president. Debate over the size of the Executive Council carried over into the second day of the convention. This debate revealed contrasting attitudes and conflicting interests among top officials, also the petty organizational trickery and transparent demagogy typical of union politics.

4. Union Politics

To counter the Sweeney caucus proposal to enlarge the Executive Council by a limited number, the Donahue majority on the Constitution Committee recommended that the Council consist of one representative of each affiliated union, a total of 78 members. Arguments for this proposition were that it guaranteed democracy and diversity. The democracy argument ran as follows: all affiliates should be equal partners in the AFL-CIO. If only some are represented on the Executive Council, those not represented will be the victims of discrimination. The only guarantee of democracy and safeguard against discrimination is an all-inclusive Executive Council.

The other argument was that diversity of gender, ethnicity, and opinion is essential. This is assured only if all affiliates are represented. One delegate, Evelyn Dubrow, a veteran of many conventions and now vice president of the newly merged needle trades, argued that the federation would be ill-served if all the small unions were not given a voice and vote on policy matters because good ideas and helpful suggestions come from small unions as well as big ones.

Albert Shanker, head of the large, dictatorially structured teachers union, also argued strongly for “democratic principles,” claiming that the convention must correct a bad mistake the Executive Council had made in this regard. He said the Council had earlier opened its doors to heads of all affiliated unions who wished a presence at its meetings but had failed to grant them voting privileges, thus depriving them of their democratic rights.

Nearly all delegates had been active in the union movement long enough to know that these kinds of arguments sometimes serve as useful debater points. But most also knew that the Donahue caucus had something more in mind. The early test vote proved that their chances of winning the presidency were slim and the maneuver to get a 78-member Executive Council was a transparent attempt to gain control of that body. On the Council each member has one vote, and the small unions far outnumber the large ones. So if the Sweeney forces should win the presidency, it would only be fair (in the interest of labor unity and harmony within the federation) — so the argument went — to let Donahue’s forces control the Executive Council.

“Too Male, Too Pale, Too Stale”

This motivation of Donahue’s supporters was never explicitly stated as the debate continued. But Bill Lucy, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, came close. He hinted at what the Donahue caucus was up to when he argued against their claim that the large body would give minorities a greater voice. “This is a process which in fact will dilute diversity,” Lucy said. “It does not require new math to understand that five or six or seven out of 33 is better than five or six or seven out of 78.” He granted that women and minorities may occasionally be elected to head unions and qualify for a seat in the near future, “but that will be about as rare as chicken teeth.”

Leon Lynch, vice president of the Steelworkers, said the 78-member Council idea was poorly conceived and would stifle change rather than encourage it. He said, “81 members (including the three top executive officers) are just too many and too cumbersome as an Executive Council.” Besides it would consist of 78 mostly elderly white men, three African American men, and two white women, he said. And this is no way to change the image of the AFL-CIO as presently perceived, “too pale, too male, too stale.”

When the roll call on this question was taken, the 78-member council was defeated, 5,686,152 for and 7,315,388 against. For a second time a test of strength showed a clear majority for the Sweeney slate. The size and composition of the new Executive Council was referred to a parity commission representing both caucuses, its recommendations to be voted on after election of the president and other executive officers.

5. Debates Between Candidates

The debates for the presidency and vice-presidency were carefully organized and well presented. Each debate lasted two hours, moderated by a panel of journalists and others, who directed questions to the candidates following their campaign talks.

There were no surprises.

In the Sweeney/Donahue debate Donahue repeated the basic concepts he had presented in his keynote speech to the convention. He said that he was among the first to realize that change in the AFL-CIO is badly needed, that its image must be improved. “Everybody in this room shares the broad vision of growth and strength,” he said.

Sweeney vs. Donahue

Sweeney looked to the current political situation for answers to the problems workers face. “Workers look at their paychecks, the political system and the public debate and wonder why is nobody speaking for me? Then, in fear and frustration, they look for leadership to the Rush Limbaughs who seek scapegoats rather than solutions for the problems of stagnant wages, corporate greed and a fractured society,” he said.

On the need of an ideological labor movement, Sweeney said, “our movement should be opened up and the dialogue should be as wide as we can possibly make it. I think this campaign [inside the AFL-CIO] has produced some of that spirit in bringing more movement back into the labor movement.”

Donahue, on the other hand; contended that workers are not now prepared for struggle because they recognize that the odds are not in their favor. “They are not answering the call to arms because the war is too dangerous for them, because the laws are lousy. Those laws are only going to be changed through effective political action; they’re going to be changed in voting booths and legislative assemblies,” he said. Paraphrasing the political philosophy of Gompers, Donahue said, “the union movement is worker-based, directed at workers’ needs on the job... to improve their conditions of life, their conditions of work. Secondarily, we are forced to change society...for the benefit of all.”

Against Donahue’s caution and misgivings, Sweeney argued for action now. “The Federation must commit massive resources to organizing,” he said. “I favor creating a separate department of organizing to coordinate and focus the Federation’s organizing activities. I favor creating the special Southern Organizing Program.”

Much of these differences over how to achieve the economic and social goals of organized labor were brought out in response to questions by the panelists. But throughout the debate the basic difference between action now and cautious conciliation with the employing class was expressed by both candidates, each in his own way.

Easterling vs. Trumka

The second debate, that between Barbara Easterling for vice president on the Donahue ticket and Richard Trumka with Sweeney, dealt more specifically with the union records and personal qualifications of these candidates than with union policy and the future course of the AFL-CIO. Both candidates have family backgrounds in the miners union and early struggles in the coal fields. Both were on-the-job workers and union activists from an early age. And both won election to top positions in their respective unions, she as a telephone worker who became secretary-treasurer of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and he as current president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).

In reviewing her union experience, Easterling said, “As a woman, and as women in this room know, I had to work twice as hard as the men, be twice as tough, and all the while look twice as good. Fortunately, it wasn’t that difficult.”

Trumka recalled the 1960s and the struggle in the miners union when Jock Yablonski, a candidate for president of the union against the entrenched Tony Boyle machine, was murdered. He said, “Hardly a day goes by when I’m not reminded how some of the same attitudes we took on back then are still in the labor movement today, because now, as then, there are those who see only the risk of division in an open and honest debate.”

“There are those who tell us it’s better to run from fights we’re not sure to win rather than take a stand because we can’t afford to lose,” he said.

Trumka: “Workers Are the Majority”

He said the AFL-CIO has failed to deliver the message that workers are a majority in this society, not a minority. He said the employers and their politicians, the enemies of organized labor, have defined the workers as a minority group and as irrelevant politically. “Well, we’re not irrelevant,” he said. “We’re the last hope and the last defense of the American worker, and we’re the only hope that the middle class has right now.”

In response to questions framed by the panelists, Easterling and Trumka both addressed the problem of organizing workers in the service industries, a high percentage of women, most without job security, health care, vacations, or pensions. “I will speak for them,” said Easterling. “We have great resources to determine what corporations and companies are not organized. We should be in those places. I intend to get in there. I intend to get in that employer’s face. I intend to deliver the goods for the women that are in those plants.”

Trumka said that the convention will decide. He expressed the belief that this problem called for some readjustment in the federation structure, and that the new post of executive vice-president is badly needed, a post to be filled by AFSCME Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson. She will be going out to reach these low-paid workers, he said, to direct organizing campaigns across the country.

Results of the roll call vote were later reported (AFL-CIO News, special edition 4) as follows: “John J. Sweeney of the Service Employees was elected the fourth president of the AFL-CIO in an historic vote that saw both top offices change hands, and the later creation of a third executive office.” Sweeney received 7,341,669 votes to 5,716,165 for Donahue. Trumka defeated Easterling by a slightly wider margin. The maverick candidate for vice president on the list of candidates for Executive Council, Harry Kelber, received 2,044 votes. Creation of the new office of Executive Vice President and election of Linda Chavez-Thompson to that post was accomplished by acclamation.

6. Reconciliation

A “unity slate” of candidates to constitute a 51-member Executive Council, as recommended by the parity commission representing the opposing caucuses, was endorsed by convention vote, each candidate receiving more than 13 million votes. The new Executive Council (including the three newly elected executive officers) has on it 15 women and people of color, making 27 percent minority membership as compared to 17 percent on the old Council (6 out of 35).

Sweeney, in his capacity as newly elected AFL-CIO president, praised the action of the new 51-member Executive Council. He called it “a great step in binding up the wounds that have been inflicted over the past few months.”

Solidarity with Strikers

The penultimate session was devoted entirely to a rousing demonstration of solidarity with workers on strike. It began on the convention floor with a display of strike banners and picket signs and calls for solidarity by a hundred or more strikers from around the country, appealing for support from the delegates. This preceded the introduction of a resolution which cited the lockout of Paperworkers at the A.E. Staley plant in Decatur, Illinois, the newspaper workers at the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News, who were being replaced by scabs, the fired workers at the Bridgestone/Firestone rubber plant in Decatur, the strikes at American Signature, Bayou Steel, Boeing, Bell Atlantic, Caterpillar, Frontier Hotel, Alitalia, and more.

Reports and discussion on the resolution, participated in by many strikers, who told about strike-breaking activities of hired thugs and local police, brought home to the delegates the broad sweep of the anti-union campaign launched several years ago by the employers and now taking the form of armed assaults on strikers.

The convention resolved: “These companies [engaged in strike breaking activities] shall be made to pay a price every bit as dear as that which they seek to impose on their workers. Standing together, in solidarity, we shall prevail.”

Dan Lane, a striker at A.E. Staley, made a special appeal to the convention for financial assistance. He worked at Staley for 19 years before being told that his job was finished, that he was no longer needed. He has been on a hunger strike since September 1, trying to call attention to the suffering of the 760 locked-out workers at the Staley plant, and to help convince Staley’s biggest customer, Pepsico, to stop buying corn sweetener from Staley. He said a boycott by AFL-CIO unions and other pressure on Pepsico will help convince that company that it will be better off to find other sweetener sources.

Problems Workers Face

These first-hand reports from victims of employer greed and violence brought home to delegates the real meaning, in terms of personal suffering, of data on the worsening state of the U.S. economy, in which the rich are getting richer and the workers are getting poor.

In that discussion, speaking to an omnibus resolution on the economic situation which calls for full employment, lower interest rates, public investment, fair taxes, higher labor standards, a safety net for the unemployed, an end to the export of jobs, harnessing technology, and addressing the problems of the inner cities, among other things, Machinists President George Kourpias directed attention to the causes of the strike by his union at Boeing Aircraft.

“The issue of our whole strike at Boeing is about the future of this country,” he said. “Right now, the back end of the 737 is being built in China... .Thirty percent of the 777 is being built in Japan. There’s a factory in China with 30,000 people doing this work for McDonnell-Douglas and for Boeing [— they’re] making $50 a month. Aerospace workers in America are being asked to compete with that?” This problem of jobs being lost to the globalization of capital investment was not addressed by the convention, and it remains for the union movement to find solutions.

7. A Perspective of Mass Action and Organizing

The Sweeney leadership team wasted no time before demonstrating in the most immediate and practical way that they intended to carry out their campaign promises of mass action and union organizing. Upon taking over the presidency Sweeney set the course of action. “If anyone denies American workers their constitutional right to freedom of association, we will use old-fashioned mass demonstrations and sophisticated corporate campaigns to make their labor rights the civil rights issue of the 1990s,” he said.

As if to concretize this idea on the spot, a demonstration of all convention delegates and visitors was called for noon on the final day of the convention, led by the newly elected officials. The demonstration began at the convention site, 53rd Street and 8th Avenue, a center of garment district sweat shops. About 2,000 marched, carrying union banners and shouting “sweatshops have got to go.” Also some marchers introduced the new union song, “We are the union, the mighty, mighty union,” and this refrain was picked up and repeated by hundreds of other voices. At the sweatshop center, union officials and immigrant garment workers who had been robbed of wages and otherwise victimized denounced the garment industry’s greedy bosses, calling for fair treatment and threatening legal reprisals.

Back at the convention hall the closing session completed some unfinished business, adopted noncontroversial resolutions, and adjourned. Since then, in the weeks immediately following the convention, the top AFL-CIO officials (Sweeney and Trumka) have appeared at mass demonstrations in Ohio for labor legislation and in the Seattle area to endorse and support the strike against Boeing.

8. Speculation

During the convention groups of delegates and others gathered almost constantly between sessions to discuss the issues on the floor of the convention at any given time and to speculate on the meaning and consequences of decisions being taken. There were never signs of rancor. Delegates, for the most part, remained in good humor even when difficult and sometimes embarrassing questions came up.

How to explain what seemed to be a sharp change, in some ways even a reversal, of established AFL-CIO policy, which since the merger 40 years ago has been to encourage close collaboration with employers, especially those under union contract, and with the government, especially the Democratic Party? Of course, there have been exceptions. In the 1972 presidential election (when Nixon was running for his second term, not knowing the consequences of Watergate) George Meany refused to support the Democratic presidential candidate, George McGovern. And it often has happened that good employers long considered “pro-union” have had fallings-out with their unions, and this has led to strikes which more often than not were settled amicably. But not recently. So what has changed?

Some delegates commented that the change really began several years ago. (These points were made in private or informal discussion, but were not brought up in the discussions on the convention floor.) There had been a noticeable change on the part of the employers. Back in 1978 the employers began to resist union pressure for closer collaboration, becoming more distant and stand-offish. At that time George Meany said that the employers seemed to be asking for “class war” and that if that’s what they wanted, that’s what they should get.

Years of One-Sided Class War

It was later realized by Lane Kirkland and others on the Executive Council that the employers did in fact get class war, but it was all one-sided, directed against the union movement by the employers and successive government administrations. That led to strike defeats and decline in union membership.

In 1982 Lane Kirkland called in several “experts” (labor historians, economists, sociologists, and others) for advice on how to revive and expand the union movement, how to win new members. In August 1983 a preliminary report was issued, titled “The Future of Work.” The trouble was that there were few unions in this future. A second report prepared by many of the same “experts” in early 1985, titled “The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions,” recommended “new approaches” to the problem of union building. But these did not help much to organize new unions or win new members to old unions. So members of the Executive Council have been saddled with this problem for the past decade and have finally come up with this solution: that something must be done to change the AFL-CIO image and start moving.

Some delegates with long memories and some curiosity about the history of the modern union movement, especially the beginning of the CIO movement in 1934, wondered if there was something similar now in the changing consciousness of working people to what happened in the 1930s during the Depression. Millions of workers are convinced that this country today is in the midst of a depression. Maybe this, as well as the mean-spirited attitude of most employers today, has influenced the thinking and the decision of some top AFL-CIO officials to strike out on a new course of action. However, not many thought of John Sweeney as another John L. Lewis (founding leader of the CIO).

Contrast with Rise of CIO

One difference between what was happening at this convention and the changes in the union movement at the time of the rise of the CIO is that the organizers of the CIO had a clear idea about how they would realize their goal. They were convinced that to revitalize the union movement in the 1930s the mass production workers in basic industry would have to be organized into industrial unions. This form of industrial organization was essential to success. The old craft union structure of the AFL was inadequate. So the debate then was over how to win the workers: industrial unions vs. craft unionism.

At this 1995 AFL-CIO convention no such debate occurred because there was never any consideration given to how this union movement will be revitalized. It sounds good to say “$100 million organizing plan launched” (AFL-CIO News, September 25), but questions remain: How will this “organizing plan” be launched? What exactly is the plan anyway?

Several delegates discussed this question at different times during the convention. Some Labor Party advocates thought it will eventually be resolved by the movement within the unions to build a labor party. But for now, there is still hope that somehow Clinton will help the unions grow, as promised by representatives of the Clinton administration who were guest speakers at this convention.

Clear Class Language

One guest speaker who made a profound impression on some delegates came from the mine pits of Wales. This was Tyrone O’Sullivan, of the British Trades Union Congress. He described how in the last three years 35 of the 51 mine pits in the United Kingdom have been closed by the government. But when Tower Colliery (where O’Sullivan works), which had been mining coal since 1830, was shut, its 244 miners refused to leave. He said they raised the equivalent of $3 mil lion and took possession of the pit. “The only worker-owned pit, 100 percent owned by the miners, not only in Britain but in Europe,” he said. “That’s an extraordinary achievement for a group of miners who were down and out.” His message to the convention: “Working people have got to solve our own problems in our own workplaces, in our own communities, because nobody else is going to do that.”

He spoke in clear class language, the working class against the employing class. “No matter how bleak the future may seem, you must never give up the struggle,” he said.

“We Will Learn As We Go Along”

One of several delegates who had been much impressed with O’Sullivan’s talk said the situation of the AFL- CIO is something like that of the Welsh miners. Who knows how we will manage to revitalize the union movement and mobilize and organize millions? “They don’t know,” he said. Who is “they”? The union leaders, Sweeney and Trumka and Chavez-Thompson; and the rest of us, all the delegates here. Nobody knows yet how it will be done. But the decision to make a start in that direction is good. We are on the road, and we will learn as we go along.

Whatever happens in the future it will be remembered that this 1995 AFL-CIO convention made the start. It began the break with the past.

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