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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The U.S. Labor Movement: The State of the AFL-CIO from the 2013 Convention to the 2017 Convention (FROM ROL, USA NL, #106)

The U.S. Labor Movement:
The State of the AFL-CIO from the
2013 Convention to the 2017 Convention

(Part One of Two Part Series)

by MIKE S.
The AFL-CIO, the largest federation of trade unions in the United States representing some 9 million “organized” workers in 57 affiliated unions held their 28th Constitutional Convention last Fall from October 22-25, 2017 in St. Louis, Missouri.* Their convention is held once every four years, the previous held in 2013. This article, the first of two parts, provides some insight and analysis on the role of the AFL-CIO and U.S. labor movement during the intervening four years between the two AFL-CIO Conventions. The second part, to appear in the next Ray O’ Light Newsletter, will address the 2017 Convention itself and the immediate aftermath.

*A number of large unions are not in the AFL-CIO including the SEIU, NEA, Teamsters and Carpenters. There are no principled differences between those in and outside the AFL-CIO.

Following the 2013 AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention four years ago the Revolutionary Organization of Labor, USA (ROL-USA) published a five part series of articles under the theme - “The AFL-CIO On the Road to Ruin.” 

The first article was entitled: “2013 AFL-CIO Convention: ‘Inclusiveness’ On the Road to Ruin,” by Ray Light. It exposed the fact that the 2013 convention theme of “inclusiveness” while, on the surface “welcoming” new and non-traditional community “allies” to join the ranks of organized labor, actually represented the watering down of the concept of union membership and served to weaken the rights and authority of the current members in relation to the union bureaucracy. It exposes the inability, unwillingness and failure of the current Richard Trumka-led AFL-CIO officialdom, hog-tied politically to U.S. monopoly capitalism and imperialism through the Democratic Party, to defend the interests of current union members and the working class in general.

The three articles that followed, “Boeing Workers Betrayed by IAM’s Buffenbarger and the Democrats”; “Bob King Leads UAW to Defeat at Volkswagen Plant”; (both by Ray Light) and “Hoffa-Led Teamsters Top Brass Sells Out UPS Workers (by Casey Cole) addressed the three most important labor struggles in the months following the 2013 AFL-CIO convention. In each of the three struggles, the top leadership of the respective union sold out its members, or its potential members, to the corporation involved.

The fifth and last article of the five part series is entitled “The Petty Bourgeois Lies of Staughton Lynd” by Ray Light. In opposition to Lynd it makes the case that we cannot rely on the social democratic “left” to help provide a new militant and revolutionary direction for the labor movement and exposes their refusal to either tackle the Democratic Party in service to Wall Street and/or the capitalist system itself, the essence of working class oppression and exploitation.

These were powerful examples that indicated the analysis of the Revolutionary Organization of Labor of the 2013 AFL-CIO convention and its aftermath had real merit. Events of the intervening period up to the recent 2017 AFL-CIO Convention, as well as the Convention itself, underscores that the AFL-CIO is indeed continuing on the “Road to Ruin.”

1) The Shrinkage Continues, unabated: In the early 1950s the ranks of organized labor, those belonging to unions, was 35% of the U.S. working class. By the 2013 AFL-CIO convention it had plummeted to 11.3%.  In each of the four years since that convention the labor movement has continued to shrink. The U.S. unionization rate is now at a 100 year low, approximately 6% of the private sector workforce, 10.7% overall. It is far lower among young workers. With this loss of union organization, workers are facing a decisive worsening of their economic conditions and political standing. The question of whether the labor movement is growing or shrinking is a fundamental test of its leadership’s commitment and ability to organize the unorganized, win the hearts and minds of the workers and build workers’ power in relation to the capitalist bosses. The AFL-CIO union bureaucrats fail the test.

The two most important organizing campaigns in the last few years were at large factories, at an airplane manufacturing Boeing facility in Charleston, SC and an automobile manufacturing Nissan plant in Canton, MS.  Both are in basic industry, a potential power base for the working class. Both contained a concentration of thousands of workers. Both are in the oppressed Afro-American nation and in the U.S. rulers’ anti-union bastion of the U.S. south. Both went down to terrible defeat.

The 6,000 workers at the Nissan plant are over 80% Afro-
American, the most pro-union demographic in the United States. Every other Nissan factory in the world outside of the three in the United States is unionized. Just down the road from Canton, the capital and major city of Mississippi, Jackson, is engaged in a “political revolution” with the election a few years ago of Chokwe Lumumba, and after his untimely death, the recent election of his son as a standard bearer of the same movement. Yet, the United Auto Workers (UAW) was unable, or unwilling, to build the necessary in plant committee and the necessary community links to win. In addition, they failed to build necessary international solidarity, based on the strength of the unionization of the multi-national Nissan throughout the world, to force the company to cease its virulent anti-union campaign and its massive violation of labor law and intimidation tactics against the workers. On August 4, 2017 workers voted against joining the United Auto Workers Union.

In February 2017 workers rejected unionization in a vote at the Boeing plant in Charleston, South Carolina. The International Association of Machinists (IAM) failed to use the unionized strength of the Boeing factories in Washington State to force the largely unionized company to recognize the union once a majority of the 3,000 South Carolina Boeing workers declared interest in unionization.  This should come as no surprise given the IAM bureaucrats’ collaboration with the Boeing corporation and sell-out of the 30,000 workers in contract negotiations in late 2013. (See “Boeing Workers Betrayed by IAM’s Buffenbarger and the Democrats”, Ray O’ Light Newsletter, January-February 2014.)

Furthermore, the pro-union workers in-plant committee had the added challenge that in order to win the hearts and minds of the South Carolina Boeing workers, workers had to understand why the same union that now wanted them to join, had opposed the opening of the factory in South Carolina, the state with the lowest unionization rate in the country. This vital political education did not take place. Here too, this largely unionized company got away with waging a vicious anti-union campaign and the IAM led the working class to the same kind of overwhelming defeat as the UAW did in Mississippi. (The Nissan vote was about 2-1 against unionization. The Boeing vote was 3-1.)

2) The 2016 Presidential Election: Nothing exposes the compromised, corrupt and dangerous character of the AFL-CIO leadership as its relationship to U.S. monopoly capitalism and imperialism through its ties and subservience to the Democratic Party. 

The AFL-CIO main political advocacy over the last few years was focused on the 2016 presidential election. Tremendous human and monetary resources (possibly some $500 million of union funds) went into electing Democrats in general and a Democrat president in particular.

Despite the sordid record of the Democratic Party from NAFTA under president Bill Clinton, to the “failure” to achieve any pro-worker legislation (such as the passage of the “Employee Free Choice Act” or the raising of the minimum wage) in 2008 when the Democrats, under president Barack Obama, had full power of the Legislative and Executive branches, there was never a question whether the union bureaucracy would support the Democratic candidate and proclaim to the workers that he/she is a “champion” of the working class. 

The political work of the AFL-CIO is focused from one bourgeois election to the next, always promoting the “lesser of two evils” choices of the capitalist ruling class. There is virtually no effort to build and engage in political and electoral struggle independent of the two corporate political parties. There was never a serious effort to focus on working class issues rather than the candidates, despite AFL-CIO resolutions to do just that.

The 2016 election contained an extra ingredient that further exposes the absolute bankruptcy of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy and how it is tied by a thousand threads to U.S. monopoly capitalism and imperialism. That “new twist” was the arrival of the presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders and the enthusiasm it generated among large swaths of the working class population and young people in general.

Throughout the election season ROL-USA exposed that Sanders was a true servant of imperialism and the U.S. empire, representing its “left-wing” and that despite his “independent” history Sanders had made a deal to support the candidate chosen by the Democratic primary voters, no matter how tied to Wall Street. Yet, we also pointed out at the time, “... the Sanders For President Campaign is helping to educate the working class and oppressed nationalities and the poor that they are entitled to a better life, after decades in which most of the workers and the 99% have bought Wall Street’s idea that the problems in the USA are due to the workers receiving more than they deserve! (The Democratic Party and its AFL-CIO Labor Lieutenants, NAACP misleaders, etc. claim that ‘the middle class’ needs and deserves more but not the increasing masses of poor people and the working class.) At the same time, the Sanders campaign makes concrete positive mass demands on the U.S. imperialist ruling class. Single payer universal health care, $15/hr minimum wage, defense of the public good, i.e. free public college tuition, public schools and public post office, etc.” (“A Revolutionary Approach to the Sanders Presidential Campaign”, by Ray Light, Ray O’ Light Newsletter, January-February 2016, original emphasis.)

On the surface the honest working class reader would think that given the pro-union history of the democratic-socialist Bernie Sanders, his record as possibly the most reliable ally in Congress for the U.S. labor movement, and his pro-U.S. working class, anti-wall street campaign message, the leaders of organized labor would rally to the banner of the Sanders campaign.

Yet, even support for the “left-wing” of the Democratic Party proved impossible for the corrupt and compromised “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class” bribed out of the “super-profits” of imperialism, as Lenin described them 100 years ago.

Most of the union leaders immediately rallied around the most pro-Wall Street candidate, Hillary Clinton. This included most of the leadership of the largest unions inside and outside the AFL-CIO – The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), AFSCME, United Food and Commercial Workers, SEIU and the NEA. Their political influence, as well as their large monetary resources directed against the Sanders campaign, helped seal its fate. Showing a disdain for and lack of confidence in the working class, they argued that Sanders could not win. Some of the pro-Clinton support was tinged with red-baiting against Sanders and “socialism.” Furthermore, there were clearly promises of positions, perks and influence in a projected Clinton White House.

The few unions that endorsed Sanders were able to delay the AFL-CIO endorsement of Clinton for a period of time. The AFL-CIO leadership dishonestly claimed to be neutral regarding which Democrat should be endorsed. However, the Wikileaks exposure of the John Podesta emails (Clinton’s campaign manager) exposed that AFL-CIO President Trumka was early on stealthily working for such an endorsement.

With huge swaths of the U.S. working class rightfully fed up with the two ruling class parties and their failure to address the urgent needs of the working class and oppressed nationalities, the AFL-CIO lost a great opportunity to educate and organize the U.S. workers against the rigged capitalist system. In fact, by playing a direct and often corrupt role – such as Unite-Here in the Nevada Caucuses openly collaborating with the Las Vegas Casino bosses to promote Clinton – in preventing the Sanders campaign from primary victory, the opportunists of the labor movement actually paved the way for the election of Trump.

The reality is that the union membership is in advance of their leadership when it comes to the role of the Democratic Party and the sentiment to chart a new political course. Despite the arrogance of the union leadership, which is out of touch with the political sentiments of their members, the working class was voting for “change.” It was going to be Trump or Sanders. The accession of the fascistic demagogue Trump to the presidency, with his bullying and aggressively anti-worker, anti-union, anti-people agenda, can be laid right on the doorstep of the AFL-CIO misleadership.

3) Rebranding and Repackaging: Anything but fighting the powers that be!:  A few days after the AFL-CIO’s massive “defeat” at the election polls, the AFL-CIO leadership Council held a meeting. Apparently this meeting had been timed to be a victory celebration of a Clinton election victory and all the spoils that would be shared by the union bureaucrats, their staff and attorneys, etc. with promised White House appointments and influence.

In light of the election results one would have expected some deep soul-searching and self-criticism.

Instead there were three main speakers. Nancy Pelosi, the “ranking” Democratic Party member of the House of Representatives (and former Speaker of the House); Chuck Shumer, the “ranking” Democratic Party member of the Senate; and Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic Party’s hope (at least of its so-called “progressive wing”)  for the next Presidential election in 2020 and whose comments were live streamed to the world from AFL-CIO headquarters. The AFL-CIO was clearly functioning under the baton of the Democratic Party “conductors.”

There was no self-critical analysis of why the union leadership was so out of step and out of touch with the ranks of union members. There was no self-critical analysis regarding the lack of an independent workers political party.  There was no self-critical analysis of the road forward. Rather there was the same worn-out path of “taking back the Senate in 2018”, “taking back the White House” in 2020, i.e. electing Democrats as the “salvation” for the working class. And there was certainly no acknowledgement that, by backing the corporate and corrupt Hillary Clinton, the AFL-CIO bureaucrats paved the way for a Donald Trump presidency.

The AFL-CIO leadership then embarked on a mission of “rebranding” itself as an answer to its problems, much as corporate CEOs might do to increase sagging “market share.”  Rather than organize the unorganized and lead in the concrete fight for the needs of the working class, they commissioned Democratic Party political consultants to conduct polls on how the AFL-CIO can improve its messaging.

The answer from these pollsters was to promote “workplace freedom.”  In an eerily familiar refrain of the right-wing Chamber of Commerce and union busters who promote the “freedom” to not belong to unions, the “freedom” to not pay union dues and the “freedom” for workers to individually promote their own deals with the boss, these pollsters proposed the following narrative: “In America, we value our freedom. Working people deserve the same freedom corporate CEOs have: the freedom to negotiate a fair return on our work so we can provide for our families ...”

No matter how the refrain was then couched in the “Freedom to Join Together”, these Democratic Party consultants promote an individual solution to the collective problems faced by workers, rather than the collective path of “fighting the powers that be!”

In lock step with these Democratic Party consultants, the AFL-CIO leadership has adapted their proposals; it now permeates its messaging with the “freedom” message as a substitute for the concrete fight around demands of the working class from Medicare for All, to $15/hour, from organizing the unorganized to protecting Social Security. The AFL-CIO leadership has embraced this rebranding as its bankrupt answer to declining clout and membership of unions. “On the Road to Ruin” indeed!

4) From Ferguson to Dakota Access: Where Was the Unity of Labor with Civil Rights?  The bureaucrats have little problem passing “positive” sounding resolutions and then pigeonholing them. Such is the fate of resolutions promoting the unity of labor and civil rights. 

When the people of Ferguson, Missouri rose up in response to the cold-blooded police murder of young Michael Brown, the Trumka-led AFL-CIO fell flat on its face – attempting to walk a “neutral” ground between the Black community and the reactionary police forces and their unions. (But as the famous labor song Which Side Are You On says: “There are no neutrals here”!) The AFL-CIO refused to forthrightly condemn the militarization of the Black community (accelerated under the Democratic Party-led Obama presidency) nor the role of the police and their unions in what has become open season on the Afro-American communities and in particular young Black men.

When the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe took its powerful stand in defense of clean water, Native American rights of sovereignty and a livable planet, with the support of tens of thousands of allies, the AFL-CIO proved to be in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry. 

The North America’s Building Trades Unions, following the cue of the fossil fuel billionaire Koch brother robber barons and the ferociously anti-union National Association of Manufacturers, put themselves squarely against the interests of the Native American people and the urgent need to address rapid and catastrophic climate change. Sean McCarvey, head of the “North American Building Trades” penned a letter to AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, with a copy to every AFL-CIO Vice-President. His letter criticized “environmental extremists” “professional agitators” and “attacks on good union jobs” and further claimed the workers were subject to intimidation, harassment and violence by the protesters. McCarvey had no condemnation of the company and police violence against the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe members and their supporters while he had plenty of invective directed at the few unions that sided with the Native American people. 
Trumka, a “man of action” when it comes to dues income, responded quickly. (The Building Trades represent 35-40% of AFL-CIO dues income.) The AFL-CIO quickly issued a statement in support of building the Dakota Access Pipeline and building it through the promised sovereign lands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. So much for the unity of labor and civil rights!

5) The Healthcare “Debate” and Medicare for All:  With the election of Donald Trump as president and long standing promises of the Republican Party to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the debate over the future of the health care system in the United States roared into the news and the public’s consciousness.

For revolutionaries and working class fighters this presented a great opportunity to promote and fight for some level of national “single-payer” healthcare and to expose and oppose the absolute corporate greed and profit taking of the hospitals, health insurance industry and pharmaceutical companies and their hostility to the well being of the masses of people.

The leadership of the Democrats and Republicans limited the “debate” within the confines of the existing order – either protect and defend the Affordable Care Act (The Democrats) or even much worse, repeal it and drive 25 million more people off the health insurance rolls. (The Republicans.)

Once again, the Democratic Party leadership whistled the tune for the labor bureaucrats. Despite the fact that the ACA has failed the working class and the “Medicare for All” call of Bernie Sanders helped propel that campaign to such prominence, the AFL-CIO bureaucrats stayed true to their ruling class masters and defended the ACA – without joining the fight for “single-payer” Medicare for All.

The many union/employer joint insurance plans, some health plans owned and run by unions, the millions of dollars of union income and the corrupt salaries and perks emanating from such arrangements, took precedence over the needs of the vast majority of workers, including those workers represented by these very same unions.

Some “Green Shoots” Despite Everything

In the series of five previous articles from 2013 and 2014 referred to earlier in this article, the authors took note of a number of  “green shoots” – positive developments, with potential for the crucial revival of a militant, democratic and fighting U.S. labor movement.

Over the past few years there have continued to be some encouraging signs that workers, under the pressures of intensifying capitalist exploitation, are stirring and beginning to push back against their bosses and even the union bureaucrats heading up their unions.

•    Members of the United Auto Workers at Fiat/Chrysler in opposition to their union leadership, voted down their negotiated tentative agreement at the end of September 2015 because it did not go far enough to end the divisive two-tier wage and benefit system.  This forced the bureaucrats and the company back to the bargaining table to come up with a somewhat better deal for the workers before the workers would ratify the agreement. Even after the “better deal” workers at Ford, where the negotiations followed Fiat/Chrysler, nearly defeated the “improved” tentative agreement on the same grounds with a 49% no vote.

•    In a period where the crucial strike weapon has largely been knocked out of the arsenal of the U.S. working class, 46,000
Verizon workers took it to the streets in April/May of 2016 in a 46 day strike against concessionary demands of the profitable company, and essentially prevailed. The Communication Workers of America is one of the few unions that have maintained its culture of striking and was not afraid to use it.

•    The American Postal Workers Union, under more militant leadership, turned the tide on concessionary bargaining in their 2015 round of negotiations with the United States Postal Service, organized a positive rank and file “contract campaign” and led a successful fight to stop a privatization scheme of placing postal retail services into the private office supply store Staples.

•    Rank and file members of many of the unions whose leadership endorsed Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, openly rebelled against their leadership. Numerous local unions voted to support Sanders and many members joined “labor for Bernie” and got involved in the “political revolution.”

•    Millions of working people during the 2016 election rebelled against the mainstream Democratic and Republican parties (“Republicrats”). Disgusted with business as usual and the status quo, they voted for change. Neither of the two candidates tapped by the “powers that be” to be nominated at the end of the long drawn out and illusory “democratic” primary process – Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton – was successful!

•    The “Fight for $15 and a Union” campaign has yielded some positive results and changed the debate over living wages. A number of cities and states, propelled by the movement of the workers, have raised the minimum wage well beyond the federal poverty minimum wage of $7.25/hour.
•   Every single union, inside and outside the AFL-CIO galvanized in opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal negotiated to enrich the multi-national corporations at the expense of workers everywhere, including in the United States. This labor unity helped lead to its defeat. Seemingly lost on these bureaucrats is that fact that if their candidate, Hillary Clinton, had won the election, TPP would have been passed and signed into law.  Nevertheless the united stance was an encouraging step.

•    The AFL-CIO has five “Constituency Groups”:* Every one of them relies on AFL-CIO and the various affiliated unions for their funding mechanisms. All five of the groups bucked the AFL-CIO national leadership and top leaders of many of the unions and supported the just stance of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

*The five groups are the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI), Pride at Work, Asian Pacific Americans Labor Alliance (APALA) and Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA).

In “The “AFL-CIO’s” Road to Ruin: Part V” article titled “The Petty-bourgeois Lies of Staughton Lynd”, Ray Light pointed to some “green shoots”: “ROL-USA finally sees encouraging signs in the U.S. labor movement after the wages and conditions of the U.S. working class have been savagely attacked by Wall Street finance capital and Corporate America. The class struggle ferment in the aircraft industry, the auto industry and in the truck transportation industry demonstrated over the past six or eight months combined with the initial organized strivings of the working poor from Walmart to McDonald’s places new pressure and demands on the AFL-CIO leadership; it exposes the class collaborationist character of the current leadership of organized labor. And it provides opportunities to build a class struggle-oriented labor movement from the base to the top.” (July-August 2014 Ray O’ Light Newsletter, #85.)

The same article concludes: “The current AFL-CIO leadership is key to the U.S. imperialist efforts to keep the U.S. working class marching without protest to impoverishment. However, there is a growing restlessness among all strata of the U.S. working class, including its organized sector whose standard of living and jobs are drying up at an alarming rate. Thus, the importance of the ROL-USA and other revolutionary minded activists sharing the message: In opposition to the bureaucratic leadership of the AFL-CIO: The path to Working Class Gains against Wall Street capital and ultimately for Power for the U.S. working class over capital has to begin with this: ‘We’ve Got to Fight the Powers That Be!!!’”

(See Ray O’ Light Newsletter #107 for Part II:
The Significance of the 2017 AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention)


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