Day 2: AFL-CIO Adopts More Militant Rhetoric, Fails to Jettison Cautious Habits

Michael Hirsch Sep 10, 2013

Editor’s Note: Longtime labor and political writer Michael Hirsch is blogging daily for The Indypendent from this week’s quadrennial AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles. At the top of the convention agenda are plans by the 13.5 million member labor federation to open its doors to millions of more workers in the U.S. who do not currently belong to a union. You can see his first post here.

It’s official. The key resolution committing the giant labor federation to work collaboratively with a host of organizations outside of its traditional mandate passed overwhelmingly on Monday morning. “The labor movement must be broad and inclusive,” the resolution read.

[It] cannot be confined within bargaining units defined by government agencies or limited to workplaces where a majority of employees vote ‘yes’ in the face of a ruthless campaign by their employer to deny them representation. The labor movement consists of all workers who want to take collective action to improve wages, hours and working conditions. Our unions must be open to all workers who want to join with us. The AFL-CIO and affiliated unions must continue to innovate and experiment with new forms of membership and representation to achieve the ultimate objective of assisting all workers to bargain collectively through an affiliated union.

Given that the AFL was founded as a cluster of craft unions aimed at restricting the number of workers enjoying access to skilled jobs, this statement alone is a revelation. Now the Federation wants to work hand-in-glove with “a diverse group or organizations [that] has emerged to meet the urgent needs and advocate on behalf of the unrepresented, particularly low-wage and immigrant workers.” (See here for the full text of the resolution and here for the text of all resolutions passed.)

One indication of just how keenly the need to reach out to community allies is felt was the pointed response to ending mass incarceration. James Boland of the Bricklayers offered remarks in support of the resolution that targeted the private prison industry for supporting some of the advanced industrial nations’ most punitive prison laws. In what was plainly a fine textbook presentation of what is wrong with the system critics rightly call “the school-to-prison pipeline,” Boland cited massive overcrowding, horrific sentencing laws, prolonged pre-trial incarceration and virtually no system of integrating felons back into the working world. 

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka damned the practice as “locking up people left behind,” adding that “we’re not locking up individuals; we’re locking up demographics … We have to stop investing in private prisons and start investing in working people.”

On the conference floor, a California teacher linked the rise of the new prison system to “the systematic defunding of schools” and a CWA delegate slammed it as an overtly racist practice. By any standard this was a strong resolution, as was one outlining a program to organize the South, still a bastion of union-busting and low wages. And the recognition that the Federation aimed to speak for and help organize all working people, regardless of race, creed, gender or sexual preference speaks to a growing sense not only of acceptance of the diversity of the U.S. working class  but of the need for labor to cultivate allies. 

So far, so good, because that, as Bertolt Brecht said, “is the praise that precedes the panning.” With all the appropriate attention to defeating corporate-friendly austerity measures, there was no attention to challenge bankrupting U.S imperial policies or even an interest in modifying the bulk of wasteful military spending. The question of armed U.S intervention in Syria was also off the table. 

Even some of the best project proposals came with caveats.  An initiative from the Communications Workers reversing the prohibition by insurers on coverage for the discrete health needs of transgendered people — coverage that goes well beyond the clinical sex-change procedures — was tabled without debate. Supporters agreed the committee’s action had less to do with lingering homophobia than with a fear of proactively requiring affiliated unions to do something, a traditional taboo in this classically federated organization, but the opportunity to support equity in health care was lost for the nonce.  A similar problem arose with the resolution on developing Southern organizing strategy, still necessary after a similar effort collapsed in the late 1940s. Despite being described then and now as a necessary crusade, the resolution was modified in committee where the words “long-term investment” by affiliates in the effort were removed.  

On political action, to my mind nothing much is changed, despite a convention consensus that everything has changed. While labor leaders talk about the long salutary history and the valuable lessons learned in the fight for union rights, the political action perspective adopted shows an incredible amount of presentism and a preference for politicking over actual organizing. Obama, perhaps the worst Democratic president since Woodrow Wilson, was praised repeatedly for keeping his door open to union lobbyists. (A flaccid three-minute videotape from Obama to delegates got a respectable but not overwhelmingly enthusiastic response.)

The group did pledge itself to “independence from any one party,” but that meant independence from a commitment to supporting one over the other of the two mainstream parties. 

“We are not beholden to the Democratic or Republican Parties,” AFSCME president and political committee chair Lee Saunders said. “We will work for those who support working families,” something Samuel Gompers in effect said some 120 years ago, and that to distance himself from the emerging socialist movement. Saunders would do that work with a mass influx of volunteers into upcoming races. That bulking up of volunteers was conspicuously absent in the disastrous 2010 midterm elections that saw the GOP take over some 30 statehouses, gain free rein to gerrymander voting districts for the next ten years, take back the House of Representatives and end the Democrats’ s ostensible filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.  

As one senior staff member told me, the Federation isn’t looking back much farther than 2010, or ahead to more than the 2016 presidential election cycle. No independent campaigns or select pilot projects are even contemplated, though AFL-CIO Political Director Michael Podhorzer did emphasize the possibility of grooming a slew of labor candidates to run in Democratic primaries. “We’ve got to cultivate and grow our own,” he said. But when asked about pulling the trigger and running at least some few test insurgent campaigns against both parties’ worst candidates, he responded that the Federation already did that, by supporting insurgent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. “And remember, even if we backed independents [over both parties] they’d still caucus with the Democrats,” Podhorzer said. 

So what did we learn in labor school today? Among other things, it seems that while the language in many resolutions signified a welcome sea change in militancy and a respect for empowerment and inclusion, the actual conducting of business was scripted and disempowering. As one wag put it, the plenary sessions had the air of what he imagined went on in the days of the Soviet party plenums. A committee chair reported out and motivated a resolution, which was seconded by a floor speaker, then passed by rote with no debate. One indication of just how staged were the proceedings was the vote on an amendment to beef up the prison pipeline resolution. When an Amalgamated Transit Union delegate floated opposing criminal background checks because of the obstacles they present to ex-felons seeking to get and keep decent jobs, his proposal sank. In two days of proceedings, it was the only amendment offered from the floor. It was also the only one to fail, and not necessarily on the merits. 

More tomorrow.

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