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AFL-CIO Convention, 1997

by Frank Lovell

The 1997 AFL-CIO biennial convention in Pittsburgh, September 22-25, was in almost every respect a continuation of the federation’s historic 1995 New York convention. The New York convention addressed the deepest crisis of the labor movement since the merger of the old AFL craft unions and the CIO industrial unions in 1955.

Back in 1955, the newly formed AFL-CIO retained for the most part, in its leadership bodies, the craft-conscious business union philosophy of the old AFL. Under its longtime president, George Meany, the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions seemed to prosper as a result of what appeared to be a mutually beneficial policy of union-management collaboration. But collaboration was terminated by the employers in 1978. At that time the employing class launched an attack on the unions designed to destroy the union movement.

Incapable of adjusting to the new situation, Meany and his successor Lane Kirkland sought ways to restructure some form of “labor-management collaboration” with the result that the unions lost millions of members and most of their once formidable political influence. This was the situation in 1995 which delegates to the New York convention attempted to resolve by electing a new leadership with a new policy to fight back against the employing class offensive.

This magazine (No. 129, December 1995), reporting on that convention, summarized: “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.”

Record of the New AFL-CIO Leaders

The new AFL-CIO leadership (John Sweeney, president; Linda Chavez-Thompson, vice-president; Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer) began immediately to implement the new policy: to allocate massive resources to union organizing (the first priority), to identify with the needs of the Black community and other minorities, to address the needs and enlist the support of women and young people, to restore an alliance with academia that had largely atrophied during the era of Cold War prosperity. The gap between the campuses and the official labor movement widened during the student anti-Vietnam War demonstrations of the 1960s and 1970s.

One of the first projects of the new AFL-CIO leadership was the 1996 Union Summer program, which recruited more than a thousand university undergraduates to help in union organizing drives, become acquainted with union values, learn the techniques of organizing, and gain some practical experience in the world of labor. In October 1996, one year after taking office, the three top AFL-CIO leaders participated with nationally prominent academics, labor historians, and others, in a two-day teach-in at Columbia University (see BIDOM Nos. 134 and 135), the first of several such teach-ins around the country.

Throughout their first two years in office the new AFL-CIO leaders traveled extensively, almost continuously, to strike areas, such as Detroit, where newspaper workers are victims of a vicious anti-union attack by the publishers, and to demonstrations against non union conditions and racial discrimination, such as prevail in California agricultural fields. They also mobilized the union movement in support of an “issue-focused political educational campaign” to defeat anti-labor Republicans in the 1996 congressional elections, and help elect Democrats, their way of trying to regain union influence in government.

This, then, was the broad background against which the Pittsburgh AFL-CIO convention was held, the theme being a message to the delegates and (by implication) to the working masses: “You have a voice. Make it heard.”

Community-Labor Teach-in Precedes Convention

As a kind of prelude to the convention, “A Community-Labor ’Teach-In’ (about living wages and social justice),” was organized at the University of Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon, September 21, the day before the convention. This event, sponsored by a long list of local unions and several community and religious groups, was patterned after the Columbia University teach-in, but was much less ambitious. It recalled the history of labor struggles in the Pittsburgh area in the steel and coal industries and addressed the continuing oppression of workers.

Introductory remarks by Professor Charles McCollester, labor historian, reminding the audience of Pittsburgh’s shameful past (referring to the brutal use of armed might by the ruling class against the 1877 rail strike, the Homestead strike of 1892, and the 1919 steel strike) but also of the glory days (the rise of the industrial union movement and the founding of the CIO), followed by music and union songs, defined the character of the teach-in and the intention of its organizers to introduce the concept of class struggle.

Linda Chavez-Thompson and Richard Trumka both addressed the main session of the teach-in on the subject “Labor is Back,” about recent activities and goals for the near future of the new AFL-CIO leadership. Rosemary Trump, a young woman union leader (president of her SEIU local in Pittsburgh and vice president of the international union), also spoke. Obviously talented and an able speaker, she seemed to symbolize an aspect of the emerging movement that the new AFL-CIO leadership seeks to nurture, projecting an image of youth and vitality.

Six panel sessions to choose from provided discussion opportunities on as many subjects, ranging from “Living Wage Campaigns” to “Working Women and Unions.” Prominent community activists, union organizers, and labor educators from around the country participated, including Elaine Bernard from the Harvard Trade Union Program, Linda Lotz from Los Angeles Clergy and Laity United, Tony Lack, a University of Pittsburgh student who participated in Union Summer ’96, Rick Adams from Alliance for Progressive Action/Rainbow Coalition, Bill Serrin from New York University Department of Journalism and former labor reporter, and Staughton Lynd, who is presently labor education coordinator, Teamsters Local 377 in Youngstown, Ohio. One workshop on labor political action featured Tony Mazzocchi, speaking for the Labor Party, along with representatives of the New Party and other populist or “progressive” groups.

The closing session of the teach-in included a brief talk by Professor Frank Wilson of the Pittsburgh Metro Chapter of the Labor Party, labor songs by the Pittsburgh Solidarity Chorus, an essay by a young person from Canada on “Free the Children International,” and remarks by Bill Fletcher, director of education, AFL-CIO. Approximately 400 attended the teach-in, mostly from the liberal and radical sectors with a smattering of students. Some bought books from Monthly Review Press and Pathfinder Books literature display tables. Almost everyone participated in the panel sessions and enthusiastically applauded the efforts of the organizers of this event.

Convention’s Top Priority: Organizing

There could be no doubt when the AFL-CIO convention opened in Pittsburgh’s cavernous convention center that organizing the unorganized is the federation’s top priority. One hundred new union members stood on the dais behind federation president John Sweeney when he delivered his keynote speech. In it he gave content and special meaning to the new leadership’s slogan, “Organize, Mobilize, Energize.”

Sweeney began with a short list of accomplishments. “We’ve created a new culture of organizing and begun devoting substantial new resources to organizing,” he said. “We’ve developed an exciting new program that is helping local unions across the country change in order to organize,” this to make the admonition to mobilize meaningful. And to provide the necessary energy, “We’re training more young people through our Organizing Institute and we’re helping our unions take on entire industries and geographic areas.”

He pointed to the new union members with him on the dais and said, “Our membership numbers are beginning to creep back up because of more than 2,000 organizing victories won by workers like those who are with us on this stage.” He added, “We have more membership drives underway than at any time in my memory.” These include the strawberry campaign in California, apple pickers in Washington state, construction workers and hotel workers in Las Vegas, auto parts workers and airline clerks all over the U.S., and low-wage workers in garment and other industries in the South.

The fact is that organized labor must continuously recruit new members to keep even with downsizing and layoffs. Since 1995 union membership increased less than one half of one percent. But what this says is that the new leadership has managed to reverse the downward drift.

“We have to continue to change and reach to find ways to organize on a bigger scale and at a faster pace,” Sweeney said, “because the employers we are confronting are raising the stakes by spending millions of new dollars to deny workers their legal right to organize, and because our enemies in the political arena are doing everything they can to choke off our new movement before it has a chance to live and breathe.”

2,000 Union Candidates by the Year 2000

Turning attention to the general anti-labor political climate, Sweeney recommended less support to professional politicians and more direct participation by union members as candidates for public office. “In this country, there is a gigantic cultural disconnect between professional politicians and working families,” he said. “The politicians live in a cocoon of privilege and power while we wrestle with the realities of paying the bills and finding time for our families. They attend thousand-dollar-a-plate dinners while we worry about the cost of a loaf of bread and a quart of milk.” He urged the replacement of professional politicians with working men and women in seats of government — 2,000 union candidates by the year 2000. But he failed to say what their party ticket would be.

Sweeney likewise urged a big voter registration drive — “4 million new union family voters by the year 2000.” But he failed to mention how these newly registered voters can vote to improve their lives. Instead, he recommended a 3-question litmus test for every candidate: “Will you vote to support the right of workers to organize to improve their lives? Will you take a stand against employers who violate our laws and interfere with a worker’s free choice to join a union? When a worker is fired for union organizing, will you stand with us, will you march with us, will you go to jail with us?” Almost all elected officials in this country (and both Democratic and Republican parties) have answered these questions many times by their actions. Their answer always is a resounding NO.

Become a Social Movement

Sweeney went on to suggest that the union movement must strive to become a social movement, a movement of social protest and militant action. “We also have to sink our roots back deeply into our communities and begin drawing power and support from the wellspring of our democracy, from our local unions and our churches and synagogues and allies in the movements for women’s and civil rights, because in the final analysis, we must revitalize our movement from the ground up.”

From the 880 delegates and alternates and a larger number of others among those attending the convention, this perspective outlined by Sweeney received enthusiastic and sustained applause and loud shouts of approval. There was not a single voice of open opposition from the delegates at any time during the convention. But it was clear from casual conversations and caucus meetings among them that there are many incumbent union officials who discount what is said at conventions as mostly rhetorical, having little to do with the daily operation of union business.

Teamsters a Powerful Presence

From start to finish the convention was alert to the presence and the newly won prestige of Teamsters President Ron Carey and the Teamsters delegation. The strike victory over UPS was almost universally recognized as a significant turning point in labor history, proof that the strike weapon is powerful and that labor once again can win with it.

The daily reports of government investigations and rumors of AFL-CIO complicity in illegal financing of Carey’s re-election as Teamsters president failed to resonate at the convention. In their speeches on the convention floor and in casual conversation, delegates frequently invoked the UPS strike victory as an example of what the union movement needs. But it was clear that something should be done to dispel the rumors about the mishandling of finances during the Carey campaign for the Teamsters presidency. Carey, Sweeney, and Trumka all answered relevant questions raised by reporters.

Carey called a press conference on the second day of the convention which made front-page news in the local papers. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said, “He denies knowing of aides’ scheme on campaign cash, seeks Hoffa probe.” It said, “The denial came in Carey’s first news conference since court-appointed election officer Barbara Zack Quindel on Aug. 22 invalidated his victory over challenger James P. Hoffa in a bruising election campaign that took place last year.” It reported that Carey said, “If there’s a victim here, I certainly am the victim.” Carey suggested a thorough investigation into the source of the $2 million spent on the Hoffa campaign which he said unquestionably came from “employers and organized crime.” Sweeney was later asked if the vendetta against Carey was in retaliation for the UPS strike. He said he had his own opinion about that but thought it inappropriate to comment.

On the third day of the convention under the agenda point in celebration of recent strike victories and recognition of strikers, UPS workers in company uniforms (their brown work clothes) came down the aisles of the convention and ran onto the dais. This brought the convention to its feet. They were strike leaders and they sang the songs they learned on the picket lines. Ron Carey welcomed them and gave a short talk on how the strike was organized. He praised those who answered the strike call, hailed the solidarity within the Teamsters ranks, and thanked the union movement (especially the AFL-CIO leadership) for its solid support. His message was that strikes today are unavoidable against recalcitrant employers, and strikes can be won when properly organized with the involvement and participation of the union membership.

Election of Officers, Adoption of Resolutions

The final point on this session’s agenda was “Nomination for AFL-CIO Offices.” The Sweeney/Chavez-Thompson/Trumka leadership team was duly nominated for re-election, each nomination duly seconded. This was done with fulsome laudatory speeches, like they do at Democratic and Republican party conventions when it comes time to nominate the candidate for president. The AFL-CIO’s top executive officers were unanimously re-elected, their terms of office extended to four years instead of the previous two years.

The main business of the convention was discussion and action on a long list of 22 resolutions and nine constitutional amendments, dealing with everything from the AFL-CIO’s political and social policy to its organizational structure. Much of the time of the convention was devoted to these serious matters, making clear and formalizing until the next convention the leadership’s social policy and its organizational responsibility. These discussions, which must have seemed tedious to many delegates, were sandwiched in between appearances of politicians, clergymen, community leaders, union officials from abroad, special guests representing victims of persecution and police torture in foreign lands, and musicians to lift the spirits.

Some resolutions were not acted upon, but instead were referred to the incoming Executive Council. They included those having to do with the blockade against Cuba, one to endorse the Labor Party, and another on the use of union dues for political education. Those resolutions that were discussed on the convention floor dealt mainly with social policy, the purpose being to begin the education of the delegates and call their attention to these particular issues for further education and implementation at the local union level and in central labor bodies around the country. These bore identifying titles, indicating their content: Building a Broad Movement of America’s Workers, Making Government Work for Working Families, Workers and the Global Economy, Civil and Human Rights, etc.

Anti-Communist Clause, Campaign Finance Reform, Etc.

The proposed constitutional amendments were all submitted by the Executive Council. One was a new preamble to the constitution. Another is a meaningful correction of the AFL-CIO’s non-discrimination policy. Another eliminates the anti-Communist clauses of the Cold War era and substitutes new words. Typical is a passage that speaks of the need to “protect the labor movement from any and all corrupt influences and from the undermining effects of authoritarianism, totalitarianism, terrorism and all other forces that suppress individual liberties and freedom of association and oppose the basic principles of democracy and of free and democratic unionism.”

Probably the most far-reaching change in the constitution is the expansion of the president’s and Executive Council’s power to appoint committees. This is likely to affect the structure and functioning of AFL-CIO central labor bodies in many cities.

The convention was strong for “campaign finance reform,” an issue which the union officials seem aroused about, and when Clinton referred to campaign reform during his address to the convention, that drew applause. Sweeney in his keynote speech had stressed: “Our political system is awash with dirty money, corporate money, and foreign money. It is corrupting our elected officials and it is corrupting the soul of our nation. And it is crowding out the participation and power of workers and then-families.”

Clinton’s “Fast Track” Not Well Received

Among the politicians from the U.S. Congress who addressed the convention were Tom Daschle, Richard Gephardt, Arlen Specter, and Edward Kennedy; Labor Secretary Alexis Herman was also a guest speaker.

President Clinton received a polite welcome, but a negative response to his effort to sell “fast track,” the buzz word that usually sets off boos in union halls. He claimed that more trade with foreign countries creates more jobs in the U.S., and that his trade negotiators need a free hand to make agreements which Congress can approve or reject. The so-called fast track rule prohibits Congress from making changes in negotiated agreements, thus speeding up the legislative approval process. But the delegates had heard all that before; and even though they were more restrained in their opposition than usual, they weren’t buying those excuses. Later in the day they adopted a resolution condemning “fast track.” Clinton won back some points when he talked about education and health care, and called for racial reconciliation.

Gephardt was the outstanding political star. He came to the convention armed with photos of the miserable health conditions, environmental pollution, primitive hovels of Mexican workers employed in the modern American industrial plants on the Mexican side of the border, the maquiladoras, where hourly wages are a fraction of the U.S. minimum scale. Gephardt promised to fight in Congress to include environmental protection and guarantees of workers’ rights in all trade agreements. He is pledged to oppose “fast track.”

All political guest speakers at AFL-CIO conventions are routinely introduced as friends of labor; otherwise they presumably would not be invited. This aspect of the federation is one that remains unchanged since the days of George Meany, going back even to the time of Gompers at the turn of the last century.

Specter was the only Republican invited, perhaps because the convention was held in his state. He expressed appreciation for support from some unions in past elections and said he plans to vote against “fast track” this time.

Politicians were not the only guest speakers. Kweisi Mfume, head of the NAACP, Bill Jordan, general secretary of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, and Reverend Jesse Jackson were in most ways welcome contrasts.

Last Day: Young Activists Speak Out

The final day of the convention seemed to be a well-planned departure from the usual exit path at union conventions. Traditionally the convention disintegrates on the last day. The delegates are leaving, having elected (usually re-elected) the executive officers for the next term and made whatever deals they thought might be personally beneficial. They pay little attention to what is supposed to be happening at the podium. And before anyone can remember how the convention adjourned or what business was transacted on the last day every one is gone, and it remains for the convention secretary or some official record keeper to fill in the name of whoever it was that made the motion to adjourn.

Not so this time. It was as if the leadership had decided to save the best for last. Youthful activists from organizing projects and from model central labor councils were brought to the dais to talk about how the policies of the new leadership are being implemented. Emphasis was on coalition building, uniting with racial and national minorities, and with the gay and lesbian communities, to help liberalize society and transform established institutions, including the labor movement itself. Many of the young activists repeated what was often said in the heat of organizing drives, “The face of the labor movement must change to look like the face of the American working class; it must become younger, darker, and more female.”

Many activists, recruited from Union Summer projects, are women. They hope to become the union leaders of the future.

The “Union Cities” Program

The final day’s agenda outlined in terms of first steps and early encounters what the leadership calls the “Road to Union City,” a community organizing effort led by the union movement.

Jesse Jackson was the final speaker. The convention adjourned at noon. The AFL-CIO officers and Jackson held a street rally outside the convention hall, a small sample of what they mean when they call for “Street Heat” — mass demonstrations in the streets to help create Union Cities.

The plan is specific, already in operation. “With American workers hurting as never before, our unions have to respond as never before, and that’s what our new ’Union Cities’ program is all about. It sets out eight steps toward rebuilding our movement from the bottom up.” How? “Working through their central labor councils, and with their national unions, local unions across America will be taking these steps together: educating and motivating their members, defending the right of workers to join unions, organizing thousands of new members and creating a powerful new political voice that speaks for working families from county courthouses to the White House.”

Brave words. But how the plan materializes will depend upon the continuing radicalization of the working class and its ability to transform the union movement, no small undertaking. Still, this convention took several decisive steps that can, given the creeping stagnation of capitalism, lead on to the pursuit of a class struggle program, including the eventual organization of a labor party based on a substantial section of the unions.

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