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Resurrecting road kill.

John Sweeney, the new president of the AFL-CIO, told delegates to the labor federation's annual convention in New York City to vote for him "if you are tired of being treated like so much road kill on the highway of American life."

The question now is what organized labor can do to revive itself, after being flattened by NAFTA, job flight, coercive management, and an increasingly hostile political climate.

Union membership has dropped from 34.7 percent of the American work force in 1954 to 15.5 percent in 1994, The New York Times reports. Labor's cause has also suffered in public-opinion polls, as Rush Limbaugh and other conservative faux populists persuade lower-middle-class workers to side with their billionaire bosses against a caricature of corrupt and lazy unionists who whine about wages and working conditions.

Sweeney is right when he says that American workers have not been this badly off since the Depression. Locked-out Staley employees in Decatur, Illinois, know it. So do the striking newspaper workers in Detroit. So do hundreds of thousands of people in cities like Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Youngstown, Ohio, who have seen well-paid jobs in manufacturing dry up and blow away. So do the growing number of people all over the country forced to work long hours for low pay and no benefits in service-sector jobs.

Sweeney's promise to spend $20 million a year of the AFL-CIO's funds on organizing, and to press individual unions to spend 30 percent of their money on getting new members, is certainly a good start. And his track record as the head of the Service Employees International Union is in many ways heartening. The SEIU doubled in size under Sweeney, mainly by drawing in women, immigrants, and members of minorities who work in jobs that had not previously been unionized. His confrontational tactics--staging massive marches, tying up traffic, getting hundreds of demonstrators arrested--are also refreshing in an era when labor leaders have too often remained above the fray.

But it would be a mistake to look at Sweeney as labor's messiah. It will take much more than electing one person to revive the movement. And, as Jane Slaughter, veteran of Labor Notes, points out, Sweeney is a member of the establishment that helped labor to arrive at its current weakened condition.

This weakness is visible even in one of SEIU's proudest organizing success stories--the Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles. The campaign drew thousands of unorganized Latino janitors into the union, in part through the successful use of civil disobedience. But after the janitors won their contract, they found that their huge, monolithic SEIU local was unresponsive to their needs. So, using the same organizing skills the SEIU had taught them, they formed a caucus called the Multiracial Alliance, ran against the Anglo leadership of the local, and won. The SEIU international responded by putting the local in trusteeship--seizing control at the highest level.

"It's exactly what you don't want to see," says Slaughter. "You do this fabulous campaign and people are very militant, and then, when they get their contract, they're told to shut up and go home. The people who ran for office did this amazing thing--these mostly Latino janitors took control of their union. And the international wouldn't put up with it."

Another issue is how Sweeney relates to management on the shop floor. "The big question is," says Slaughter, "does he fall in with the prevailing rhetoric of labor-management cooperation and partnership or is he going to cut through the bullshit and say our interests are different?"

As a member of a national committee that called for labor-management partnership, Sweeney has sent conciliatory signals to employers already.

And Sweeney has gotten awfully cozy with the Clinton Administration. When there was a split in the labor movement over whether to back Clinton's healthcare plan or a single-payer program, Sweeney supported Clinton. Even after the Administration's failure to work hard to boost the minimum wage, or to pass a striker-replacement bill, even after Clinton's betrayal of labor on NAFTA and GATT, Sweeney remains totally committed to the Democratic Party, and said recently that Clinton has done a "great job" as President.

Nonetheless, the militancy Sweeney espouses ignited passions at the AFL-CIO convention. Sweeney's election, and the success of the rest of his ticket, is significant mainly because it is the work of a grassroots insurgency. Newt Gingrich called it a "disaster"--another good sign.

Sweeney talks a lot about organizing. "The question now is, what does organizing mean?" says Adolph Reed Jr., who is working for the Jobs with Justice Coalition in Chicago. "Does it mean just bringing people into unions, or does it mean building a social movement with labor at its center?"

There is some hope that the grassroots may force the leadership of the AFL-CIO to get more radical. Support is growing for an independent labor party among union members, and several large locals have endorsed the idea. "Sweeney could get swept along by it--the same way pastors got swept along by congregations in support of the civil-rights movement," Reed suggests.

The real leaders at the AFL-CIO conference were the rank-and-file in attendance, the kind of people the old union leadership tried to shut out. Among the most passionate speakers was Dan Lane, who has been conducting a hunger strike on behalf of the workers locked out by Staley in Decatur, Illinois, and who drew a standing ovation from the assembled unionists in New York City (see "On the Line," page 14).

Around the country, in places like Decatur, individual unions are waging inspiring battles. They need support and solidarity on a national scale.

When one union goes out on strike, all unions in the affected industry should go out on strike. Otherwise, unions will get picked off one at a time. That has been the story for the last fifteen years. When the air-traffic controllers went on strike, the pilots didn't strike, the stewards didn't strike, and the machinists didn't strike, so the air-traffic controllers were grounded. Then, when the pilots went on strike, no one else followed, and they had their wings clipped, too.

That's no way to run a union movement. In other Western industrialized nations, there's a strong sense of solidarity, which translates into power--the power of a general strike. You'll know the union movement has changed for the better when you see a general strike again in this country.

The AFL-CIO also needs to become a force for international solidarity, and forge real ties with unions overseas. That's the only way labor will be able to compete against multinational capital.

In the last forty years, however, the AFL-CIO has served as the CIA'S organizer overseas, forging ties not with indigenous unions, but with sectors aligned with the ruling powers.

The labor federation's whole international apparatus needs to be dismantled, including the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), the AFL-CIO's subsidiary in Latin America, which was founded during the Cold War to help fight communism, and helped finance death-squad attacks on unionists in El Salvador during the 1980s.

Finally, the AFL-CIO needs to become part of a social and political movement for democracy in America. It needs to democratize itself, and it needs to align itself with the real democratic forces in society, instead of simply playing a bit part in the election campaigns of morally bankrupt politicians in the Democratic Party.

If the new leadership of the AFL-CIO can harness the energy and solidarity of the grassroots, then it may, indeed, be possible for the labor movement to scrape itself off the road. And not a moment too soon.
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Title Annotation:organized labor
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Dec 1, 1995
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