AFL-CIO convention talks about ‘change’ — but how much change?


The recent AFL-CIO convention in Philadelphia elected President Liz Shuler, who had taken the helm of the labor federation after the sudden death of former President Richard Trumka, to a full term as president of the largest labor federation in the United States. Shuler has set the goal of increasing the size of the ranks of organized labor, with a pledge to “grow our movement by more than one million working people” over the next 10 years.

Union density in both the private and public sector has been shrinking for years under the lash of bipartisan austerity programs and the union-busting tactics of the bosses. The labor bureaucracy itself bears much responsibility for their cooperation with the capitalists in their one-sided class war against working people by accepting two-tier contracts, the slow strangulation of defined benefit pensions, and wage and benefit concessions.

Last year’s “Striketober” labor actions showed the continuation of a rising militancy among workers, with roots going back to the labor rebellion in Wisconsin in 2010, the “red state” teachers’ strikes of 2018-19, and the GM strike of 2019. Recent years have seen an uptick of strikes, which have spread from the public to the private sector—and notably to the industrial working class, with strikes at John Deere, Nabisco, Kellogg’s, and Frito-Lay. Organizing drives at Amazon, both at Bessemer, Ala., and at Staten Island, N.Y., and at Starbucks show the increased openness of young workers to unionization.

Following the end of the AFL-CIO convention, on June 14, several hundred delegates and guests took part in a solidarity rally for the workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. PMA workers voted in favor of union representation by AFSCME District Council 47 in 2020, but today, they are still fighting to get their first contract. Museum workers and AFL-CIO representatives, including Liz Shuler, spoke of the need for cross union solidarity to make sure these workers get representation. In an earlier Philadelphia Inquirer article, museum union President Adam Rizzo noted that he had “naïvely thought that you win an election and most of the work gets done, but the work gets harder as you negotiate with management and continue to do the weekly outreach.”

Allocating more resources to organizing is a key goal of the new federation president. “We want to make sure our organizing unions” take part in this new drive, Shuler told the convention. “We have to firm up the structure and the financing. We want to concentrate our resources on organizing. … The federation’s muscle on organizing has not been as robust” as it should have been.

A new Center for Transformational Organizing is part of the new plan, with a more centralized federation-wide approach to organizing and expecting results. In part, the example of union cooperation in the Amazon drive at Bessemer, where 15 unions sent 100 organizers to the aid of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) effort there.

However, the past practices of the AFL-CIO raise doubts as to whether the increased expenditures and allocation of resources will be very effective by themselves in organizing unions. Top-down organizing styles have dominated in the past, and it remains to be seen whether the federation can overcome this shortcoming. The unions’ track record of concessions to management is also a barrier. Workers in new industries in the South see the concessions by union tops at the UAW and other unions as proof that the bureaucrats don’t have workers’ interests at heart.

Tailing Democrats

The labor bureaucracy’s incestuous relationship with the Democratic Party was once again on full display at the AFL-CIO confab. On the final day of the meeting, President Joe Biden was the main speaker, highlighting his support for unions and calling for passage of the PRO Act (Protect the Right to Organize Act), which would make union recognition easier to achieve. Biden noted that the Build Back Better bill includes language taken from the PRO Act that would fine labor law violators $50,000 per violation, and double for repeat offenders. Biden touted his record in job creation and promised that new “green” jobs would be union jobs and subject to prevailing wage laws. Biden also called for increased taxes on the rich.

Politically, the federation is intent on deepening its ties to, and involvement in, the Democratic Party. The American Federation of Teachers’ secretary-treasurer, Fedrick Ingram, called for “progressives” and labor to take the long view and develop a strategy for advancing labor’s interests through involvement in the Democratic Party. He said, “It’ll take a decade or two-decade plan” to reverse the rise of the right. Labor must “start with the school boards, the city and county commissions, and build your bench as you go…”

Continued subordination of working people to the Democrats by the labor bureaucracy is an obstacle to the interests of workers. Time and again, when the Democrats had the opportunity to pass pro-worker legislation, from increasing the minimum wage, to single payer health care, to labor law reform, they failed to act. The labor tops continue to squander the resources of the unions on a party that will never fully back workers’ interests. Instead, labor’s formidable resources, including the massive get out the vote (GOTV) efforts of the unions, could be marshaled to support an independent working-class party.

Class collaboration since 1886

The American Federation of Labor was formed in 1886 by craft unions and led by Samuel Gompers, who pushed for a “pure and simple” unionism and eschewing politics. The AFL had a history of craft union insularity and support for Jim Crow that continued into the 1940s. The formation of the Congress on Industrial Organization (CIO) by officials who split from the AFL in the 1930s sparked a revitalization of labor and was based on the organization of enterprises on an industrial basis. The new CIO included “unskilled” workers, immigrants, and Black workers on a larger scale than any previous union organization.

Both the AFL and CIO supported the New Deal and the Democrats despite considerable support for a Labor Party at the time. Both federations supported the wartime no strike pledge. During the war wildcat strikes were crushed by the government with the cooperation of the labor bureaucracy. After the war, a strike wave hit basic industry as workers sought to regain lost ground. The postwar red scare and McCarthyism drove socialists and communists out of key unions and reinforced the conservative leanings of the labor bureaucracy.

The AFL and CIO merged into a unified federation in 1955 and the labor bureaucracy under George Meany pursued conservative anti-communist policies. This included support for the war in Vietnam when a few unions opposed the war. Cold war conservatism and bureaucratism left the labor movement unprepared for the onslaught of attacks that began under Democrat Jimmy Carter and accelerated under Reagan. Forty-plus years of one-sided class war has put working people in a precarious position both on the job and politically.

At the time of the unification of the AFL-CIO, Tom Kerry wrote, “The narrow, limited aims and objectives of those who support, defend or engage in apologetics for an outlived social system do not determine the course of history. When objective necessity required more effective forms of organization, the American working class smashed all barriers and the CIO appeared. Today the American working class has gone about as far as it can within the limits of the policy, leadership and organizational forms so far developed. Objective necessity has now posed before the American workers the need to organize their own political party.

“How soon this need will find organized expression on a mass scale cannot be foretold; but one thing is certain, when the American workers lose patience with the timid, conservative, class-collaborationist, coalition politics of the Meanys and the Reuthers—as they surely will under the impact of a crisis like the one that gave birth to the AFL 70 years ago or the one that gave us the CIO 20 years ago—the result will be a major political explosion.” These words carry as much truth today as they did in 1955.

Rebuilding a class struggle left wing in the labor movement is an urgent task and inextricably linked to our need for an independent political instrument of our class. Electoral illusions and dependence on one party of big business will only mean the continued decline of the house of labor and open more space for the far right. Rebuilding the unions on a class struggle and politically independent basis is the only road forward against decline.

Photo: Newly elected AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler speaks at a rally for unionized workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on June 14. (From Liz Shuler’s Facebook page) 

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