Featured Post



Sunday, May 6, 2018

The U.S. Labor Movement: The 2017 AFL-CIO Convention and Beyond (Part Two of Two Part Series) by MIKE S.

 Originally Appeared in ROL, USA NL 107-108

 The U.S. Labor Movement:
The 2017 AFL-CIO Convention and Beyond

(Part Two of Two Part Series)

by MIKE S.

Attended by approximately 600 delegates representing fifty-six national unions as well as a number of State AFL-CIO Federations and Local Central labor bodies, the 2017 Constitutional Convention of the AFL-CIO convened in St Louis, MO from October 22-26. The AFL-CIO is the largest U.S. federation of trade unions, claiming to represent some 12 million “organized” workers. The convention is held every four years and sets the direction of the Federation for the coming years and elects the top three positions of leadership of the organization.

Given the dismal record of the U.S. labor movement with its diminishing clout and numbers, the honest working class fighter would have legitimately hoped for a convention that would set a course of rebuilding a weak and disoriented labor movement and increasing the fighting capacity of the U.S. working class vis a vis Wall Street bosses and corporate America. Such a hope was quickly dashed on the rocks of a labor bureaucracy, which is connected by a thousand threads to the capitalist system and its Democratic Party’s political wing.

In 1927 William Z. Foster, outstanding trade unionist and leader of the Communist Party USA, described the labor bureaucrats of his day which equally applies to today: “The modern top trade union leaders are pampered servants of capitalism, well-paid betrayers of the working class. Their aims and ideals have been divorced from those of the rank and file; their prime purpose is to advance their own interests regardless of those of the workers ... The conservative trade union leadership, seeking first of all to protect its fat sinecures, has distinct group, if not class, interests in conflict with those of the workers.” (American Trade Unionism, Selected Writings, 1947, by William Z. Foster.)

For the most elite union bureaucrats, the 2017 AFL-CIO Convention was terrific.  The three top leaders of the AFL-CIO, President Richard Trumka, Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, and Executive Vice-President Tefere Gebre were returned unopposed to office and their high salaried positions which place them in the top 1% income bracket. The top positions pay around $300,000/year plus benefits and perks. A leader who is in office for 20 years can retire with approximately 60% of salary - $180,000/year! These are the very same leaders of the last four years who led the working class from one defeat to the next (with the one notable exception of organized labor’s united participation in the successful anti-TPP fight). The very small, more “progressive wing” of the AFL-CIO affiliated unions were far too weak to mount any serious challenge to the entrenched labor bureaucrats or for a movement of change within the AFL-CIO.


But for the working class and oppressed masses, facing rapidly deteriorating economic conditions and a lack of good jobs, decent healthcare, dignified and secure retirements, along with increasing political marginalization, it was a convention that substituted, phrase-mongering and a highly orchestrated, “smooth” running convention for serious debate, self-criticism, and a sober assessment of workers’ weakening position vis a vis the Wall Street rulers and a militant path forward for the U.S. working class.*

*Specific references in this article to actions of the convention were based on the written proceedings, videos and resolutions published on the official AFL-CIO website.

2017 Convention = Business as Usual

Along with some positive resolutions on paper, some militant sounding speeches, as well as sincere pro-working class sentiments expressed by a number of delegates, the delegates (and the workers following the convention proceedings) were fed a strong dose of national chauvinism, China bashing and “buy American”, especially as it relates to the defense industry.**

**Following the tremendously positive anti-World Trade Organization (WTO) 1999 “Battle in Seattle” and its significant step forward for international working class solidarity of U.S. workers, Ray O. Light exposed that it was AFL-CIO “China Bashing” that turned the U.S. workers back into the embrace of U.S. imperialism and their pro-WTO policies.

Since the convention, AFL-CIO President Trumka and United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard are tripping over themselves in support of the new “protectionist” tariffs on Steel and Aluminum announced by U.S. President Donald Trump, a protectionist and national chauvinist position that divides U.S. workers from the rest of the international working class.

International working class solidarity was further undermined at the Convention with the uncritical lauding by the AFL-CIO top leadership of the U.S. State Department-funded, and AFL-CIO run, Solidarity Center. This was the same Solidarity Center that supported the U.S. imperialist-led 2002 short-lived coup against the popular and pro-worker government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

In addition, the main international convention speaker was Guy Ryder, the head of the United Nations International Labor Organization. Gushing with praise, Ryder told the “big lie” of the U.S. government’s “historic” role in advocating for workers’ rights around the world. This is the very U.S. government that in defense of the super-profits of imperialism and finance capital, financially and militarily backs the most brutal anti-worker, anti-people dictatorships and has been the bloody assassin of many militant working class fighters throughout the world, from Central and South America to South Africa and the Philippines. (Remember the School of the Americas, the Georgia-based U.S. CIA/military training ground of right wing death squads throughout Latin America.)

A resolution on the urgent crisis of climate change was watered down to meaningless platitudes in deference to the reactionary building trade union leadership and their embrace of the fossil fuel industry and the building of pipelines.

Based on the corrupting influence of the money and perks of union owned, run or jointly managed health insurance plans, the convention could not even bring itself to take a decisive stand for a single payer-based health care system, i.e. “Medicare for All.” 

The most touted resolution showcased by the leadership at the convention, entitled a “Workers’ Bill of Rights,” was a narrow and uninspired eight point “platform.” Comrade Ray Light exposed the 2013 AFL-CIO convention’s theme of “inclusiveness” with non-traditional community allies as actually serving to weaken the rights and authority of current union members both in relation to their bosses and the union bureaucrats. By contrast, the 2017 Convention virtually wiped out the needed relationship with allies! Nowhere in the “Workers’ Bill of Rights” is there any reference to the importance of the relationship between labor and civil rights or the fight for social justice.

One example is the call for  “Quality Health Care regardless of income, job or a pre-existing condition.” This is a defense of the current and inadequate Affordable Care Act (ACA) and a far cry from the just demand for true national “single payer” healthcare. Another example is the plank, “Voice in Democracy: To freely exercise our democratic voices through voting ...”,  thus promoting the grand illusion of “U.S. democracy” and making no call to defend the voting rights of workers, Afro-Americans, and immigrants which are under severe attack. Nor does it call for the elimination of corporate and billionaire monies used to buy and sell U.S. elections.

Furthermore, this “Workers’ Bill of Rights” continues the “rebranding” of the labor movement with the bogus “freedom” message:  “Freedom to Join Together: With our co-workers for better wages and working conditions, whether we are in a union or not.” (My emphasis) The AFL-CIO, the federation of 56 unions, at the “head” of the organized U.S. working class, cannot even promote the need for workers to join and build unions as vital self-defense organizations against the capitalist class! So much for being on the cutting edge of the needs and demands of the working class!

Is the AFL-CIO a Middle Class Organization?

Then again, with all the talk of the “middle class” at the convention one would not have been sure they were attending a gathering of “working class” leaders representing working class organizations. For example, AFL-CIO President Trumka had this to say in his acceptance speech upon re-election: “Sinister forces have banded together with their political influence and their money to try to weaken the beating heart of a strong, independent labor movement and a thriving middle class that rises together.” (My emphasis.)  In case the reader thinks this was just an aberration, a mistaken comment, Trumka continued, “Over the past eight years, we have strengthened our unions so we can build new ladders up to the middle class.” (My emphasis again.) And Trumka was not alone.  Secretary Treasurer Liz Shuler opined in her acceptance speech “We built the middle class.” (My emphasis.) So according to the leaders of the organized section of the working class, the basis for existence of trade unions, their reason for being, is to build the middle class - at a time when the working class needs good working class jobs and more class pride, class consciousness, self-respect, militancy and worker solidarity!

The delegates were fed plenty of “big talk” and bravado. AFL-CIO president Trumka bragged that the working class was on the march and more unified than ever. Taunting the U.S. ruling class, which for the moment is running roughshod over the working class, he proclaimed,  “Our opponents are tough. They’re well-heeled and ruthless. But their deep pockets can’t overcome our deep passion for a fairer and more just nation. I say, bring it on!” (My emphasis) At a time of working class weakness and disorganization, how many workers are begging for more attacks from our class enemies?!

Political Independence at Last?

There was much talk of “political independence,” highlighted as one of the fundamental “themes” of the convention. (To the extent the bourgeois media paid any attention to the AFL-CIO convention, they took note of this position.)  Pressured by the growing sentiments within the rank and file of organized labor, and among the working class as a whole, that the political system is rigged, (sentiments that certainly played out in the 2016 presidential election), Trumka called on the delegates to fight together “For a fiercely independent movement ...” In the name of such independence, no politicians were invited to speak at the convention, highly unusual for an AFL-CIO Convention. A resolution titled, “An Independent Political Voice” stated, “The time has passed when we can passively settle for the lesser of two evils.” Another resolution, “Exploring New Directions for Labor in Electoral Politics” advocated that “... the AFL-CIO also pursues a strategy of advancing our core issues through referenda and ballot initiatives and propositions at the statewide and local level; studies the viability of independent and third-party politics ...”  These are welcome words from an institution in service to the Democratic Party and the monopoly capitalist system it represents.  Certainly a real break with the Democratic Party would be a huge step forward for organized labor in the United States. 

But before the working class reader gets too hopeful, let’s analyze what really happened.

The hype of keeping elected politicians away was likely a maneuver to keep Senator Bernie Sanders from speaking to the convention. The two largest unions of the AFL-CIO, AFSCME and AFT, were early and staunch supporters of Hillary Clinton and are major players in the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

Along with the Democratic Party apparatus they cast the blame at the feet of Sanders for “dividing” the Democratic party and placing Trump into the White House. (In reality it was the social democrats of these large unions who paved the way for the Trump presidency.) Apparently, these union leaders insisted that Sanders not be allowed to address the convention and they hold the purse strings to back up their demand. Senator Sanders, even as a loyal representative of the  “left-wing” of the imperialist Democratic Party, has been the AFL-CIO’s most reliable labor ally in Congress. To keep Sanders out, the AFL-CIO leaders had to keep everyone else out.

As regards whether the labor misleaders would implement the two resolutions on “independent politics” (both of which appeared to have strong support from the delegates), the working class got the immediate answer less than a week after the convention – and clearly it will be up to the rank and file to bring any of these positive resolutions to life with “bottom-up” organizing and mobilizing.

On November 1st, the Democratic Party leadership unveiled the second phase of what they’ve dubbed their “Better Deal” platform.

It focused entirely on “pro-union” provisions such as, “Streamline the NLRB procedure to secure worker freedoms and effectively prevent violations”, “Protect the integrity of union elections against coercive captive audience meetings”,  “Ban state laws that undermine worker freedoms to join together and negotiate,” and “Use federal purchasing power and policy to help expand opportunities to negotiate.”

These proposals (all small positive steps if they were legislated) are being made at a time when they are virtually impossible to translate into action and legislation. Indeed, when the Democratic Party controlled the White House and the House of Representatives and had a veto-proof majority (60) in the Senate in 2008, no similar proposals were promoted and legislated! In this light, this “Better Deal” is a Democratic Party con game on the working class.

Before his suitcase was unpacked from the St. Louis Convention, where he declared AFL-CIO “political independence,” Trumka was standing at a November 1st press conference in a lovefest with the Democrats as he declared,  “And today we’re here to talk about how the Democrats have also listened and responded with a true workers’ rights agenda as part of the “Better Deal.” (The official record of the Convention proceedings reflects no debate, discussion or resolutions in support of the Democratic Party “Better Deal” platform or how the labor movement should relate to it.)

Trumka continued to lavish more praise, “I want to thank Leader Schumer and Leader Pelosi and everyone up here today with us. These are true champions of working people at a time when too many politicians have lost their way. We see their leadership every day, and it has led to these very important proposals ... Changing the rigged rules of our economy by uniting behind the labor proposals in the ‘better deal’ is the right step forward. Not only for the labor movement, but for the Democratic Party, for our country and for our economy.” 


2017 AFL-CIO Convention Postscript

In early January 2018 the AFL-CIO issued a press release announcing that Julie Greene was hired by the Federation to head the AFL-CIO’s “Mobilization Hub”, i.e. to elect political candidates that “stand with working people.” Since 2014 Greene served as the director of the Office of the Secretary of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and director of the Office of Democratic National Committee Leadership. In the revolving door of the AFL-CIO and Democratic Party, prior to 2014 she served as deputy political director of the AFL-CIO.


Summarizing the AFL-CIO Convention over four years ago, Ray Light, leader of the Revolutionary Organization of Labor-USA (ROL-USA), wrote: “Unfortunately, the 2013 AFL-CIO convention was in the classic social democratic class collaborationist tradition of ‘letting off steam.’ It provided the delegates with ‘bells and whistles’ to give the appearance that something hopeful and constructive for the workers, at least among the members of the unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO, will result. U.S. monopoly capitalism and imperialism hopes that such a convention will help keep the U.S. working class contained within the limits of the current organized labor movement that refuses to break with the ‘Republicrat’ political duopoly and especially the Democratic Party wing of the Wall Street ruling class as organized labor continues to grow ever weaker.” (“2013 AFL-CIO Convention: ‘Inclusiveness’ on the Road to Ruin”, Ray O’ Light Newsletter, November-December 2013, Number 81)

Four years later, the 2017 AFL-CIO convention represented more of the same dead-end for the U.S. working class.


West Virginia School Workers Lighting the Path and “Fighting the Powers That Be!”

Lenin in “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism” (1916) described the “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class” as those “who have been bribed out of imperialist super-profits and converted into watchdogs of capitalism and corrupters of the labor movement.” And as the AFL-CIO officialdom continues to lead the working class “On the Road to Ruin” the corporate rulers have become that much more aggressive and successful in exploiting the U.S. working class. Income inequality stands at an all-time high and corporate profits are at record levels while the working class and the oppressed face ever increasing austerity (less income and economic security, diminished benefits, fewer rights, and even falling life expectancy.)

In this context of increasing capitalist exploitation, there are hopeful signs that the U.S. working class is beginning to stir and fight back. The series of Ray O’ Light Newsletter articles on the “AFL-CIO’s Road to Ruin” pointed out the significance of “green shoots” of new class struggle stirrings of workers in the aircraft, auto, truck transportation, communications and postal industry and the organized striving for “living wages” of the working poor in the fast food and retail industries.

In late February, AFSCME and the AFL-CIO called a national “day of action” in opposition to the anticipated Supreme Court “Janus” ruling that would ban “fair share” dues that unions can collect from public sector workers for the costs of negotiations and enforcement of collective bargaining agreements. While such a ruling would represent another setback to the unions and the working class, the labor bureaucrats have little more to offer than wringing their hands at the potential loss of members, loss of income and loss of political (i.e. Democratic Party) influence. The national day of action turned out to be a feeble and failed attempt at rallying the working class.

Virtually at the same moment, 34,000 West Virginia teachers and school service workers, with no legal right to strike, no legal collective bargaining rights and no union contracts, had a different answer to the courts and government which are sticking it to the workers. Educators and school service workers, from custodians to cafeteria staff, engaged in a nine day illegal statewide strike, fueled by rank and file leaders and members and uniting workers from three different unions. Parents and students, deeply concerned for the need for quality education, overwhelmingly supported the workers.

The workers and their supporters built on a rich West Virginia history of union struggle steeped in bloody class warfare in the coalfields of oppressed Appalachia. From the streets they engaged in true “collective bargaining” directly with the powers that be! And when the elected politicians promised a deal and encouraged them to return to work, and some union leaders joined in this effort to cool-out and suppress the movement, the teachers and school workers stood firm and remained on strike until their demands that included an immediate 5% raise and a freeze on health insurance costs was signed, sealed and delivered – and, in solidarity, ensured that these gains were extended to all West Virginia state workers.

Exposing the class collaborationist character of the current leadership of organized labor, there was virtual AFL-CIO silence on the strike and no calls for union solidarity until Trumka put out a press release on March 6th, the same day the victorious strike was over!  American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten’s  response was to leverage the courage and determination of the West Virginia workers to appeal and plead with the “powers that be” into “reconsidering” their attacks on public sector unions.

These reactions of the labor bureaucrats to the extremely positive development of the West Virginia strike, underscore the conclusions enumerated in the final article of ROL-USA’s “AFL-CIO Road to Ruin” series (July-August 2014, Ray O’ Light Newsletter #85) “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!!!’”


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.