Editor's note: This report was written before John Sweeney's election as president of the AFL-CIO.
"The labor movement is irrelevant to the vast majority of unorganized workers in our country. And I have deep suspicions that we are becoming irrelevant to many of our own members."
That hightly unusual declaration by a top union leader, Service Employees International Union President John Sweeney, kicked off this year's contest for the leadership of the AFL-CIO. Sweeney and his allies are challenging the federation's incumbent leadership in the first contested election in the AFL-CIO's 40-year history.
The election has touched off a much-needed discussion about some of organized labor's many problems, and has even sparked interest in the AFL-CIO's usually dust-dry biennial convention, where the election was to be decided in late October.
As a rule, union leaders have been reluctant to talk about the sorry state of organized labor--which is why Sweeney's remark came as such a surprise to people in the labor movement. Yet the crisis is obvious. Since labor's heyday in the 1950s, the percentage of workers in this country who are represented by unions has declined to about 15 percet. Without unions to set higher standards for wages, benefits and working conditions, both organized and unorganized workers have, on average, seen their standard of living decline since the mid-1970s.
The movement that won the eight-hour day, prohibitions on child labor and protections against workplace injuries is now barely able to mount a defensive battle against the current right-wing assaults on working and poor people. Organized labor failed to come up with a visible strategic response to the major economic shifts that rocked U.S. workers during the 1980s and '90s, from technological change to rapid globalization.
Top union officials leadership has remained mostly white and male, and many would argue, our of tough. A potent demonstration of the gap between union leaders and the nation's 16 million union members came at a Florida gathering of the federation's Executive Council in February. The Council virtually ignored a delegation of striking and locked-out workers who had travelled all the way from Decatur, Illinois, to ask for support in their struggle, one of the biggest and longest labor battles in years. Eventually, the Council members--mostly union presidents--allowed the workers to enter their chamber, but denied them the right to speak for themselves.
It was partly the old leadership's dogged refusal to open things up for discussion that gave rise to the effort by two dozen union presidents to unseat AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland and his second-in-command, secretary-treasurer Tom Donahue. The rebellion was led by the presidents of several large unions, including Sweeney, Gerald McEntee of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employess (AFSCME), and Ron Carey of the Teamsters. Faced with this strong challenge, Kirkland retired and left the field to Donahue, his successor as president, and challenger John Sweeney.
The union presidents who oppose Donahue represent a majority of AFL-CIO members. The new leadership will be selected by a vote of delegates at the convention and delegates will vote in proportion to their union's total membership. So Sweeney, at presstime, appears to have the edge. (The election process itself is not very democratic. Many delegates are appointed by union leaders. Union reformers have called for a direct election of top officers, but that won't happen this time around.)
Ironically, Donahue and Sweeney are old friends who hail from the same New York City union local. Although Sweeney is the insurgent in this contest, his platform is almost identical to Donahue's. In part that's because there is broad agreement on many of the problems facing organized labor. Also, the candidates are both long-time labor leaders, true insiders, not revolutionary reformers. Consequently, many rank-and-file union reformers--and there are such reformers in just about every union--approach this election with a healthy dose of skepticism.
One of the big issues for both candidates is the lack of diversity in the labor leadership. Partly to emphasize the point, Donahue chose a woman, Barbara Easterling, a vice president of the Communications Workers of America, to be his running mate. Sweeney selected Mineworkers president Richard Trumka to be his secretary-treasurer, but called for a newly created position of vice president to be filled by Linda Chavez-Thompson, now a vice president of AFSCME. Both candidates have put forward various strategies to increase participation by women and people of color in labor union leadership, including expanding the Executive Council.
The candidates agree on another top AFL-CIO priority: the need to organize more workers. In the months leading up to the convention, Donahue and Sweeney seemed to be in a bidding war to see who would pledge more money toward training new organizers and bolstering unions' organizing efforts. (The AFL-CIO is a federation of 82 national unions, and most of the power to organize, as well as the power to bargain and strike, lies with those unions rather than with the federation.)
Both candidates have also proposed beefing up the federation's political operation. Donahue says he will double the number of union staffers assigned to get out the vote for the 1996 elections. Sweeney too says that resources are needed toget "rank and file members involved one hundred percent in the political process." Sweeney and Donahue both believe labor needs to do a better job of pulling the Democratic Party to the left. Yet both have rushed to defend Clinton, who represents the party's right wing. Neither is enthusiastic about the current movement to form a labor party. (A number of national unions and many local unions have endorsed the labor party idea, and a founding convention is set for June 1996.) "I don't think that it's viable," says Donahue. Sweeney is only lukewarm, saying hewould "encourage those who support a labor political party to keep talking about it."
Sweeney's strongest suit is his 15-year tenure as president of the Service Employees International Union. It's one of the few unions to have seen a dramatic increase in members in recent years. The union invested heavily and intelligently in organizing the unorganized. SEIU is also home to some innovative projects, such as Justice for Janitors, a grassrootsy effort to organize janitors.
Some union activists are more hopeful than others about the changes a Sweeney administration might bring to the labor movement. But no matter who emerges as president of the AFL-CIO in October, the hard job of rebuilding the labor movement remains in the hands of people we don't read about in the papers, the thousands of union members and officers who are trying every day to democratize and enliven their unions.
Laura McClure is a freelance labor reporter based in Brooklyn, New York and edits McClure's Labor News.
THE PROGRESSIVE POPULIST