Labor’s Days in La La Land: Will AFL’s Love Affair With “Alt-Labor Leave Existing Members Behind?

"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Déjà vu all over again?

"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Alt-Labor Uber Alles

Pushing 80 today, Sweeney didn’t officially retire until 2009. On his way out, he tossed the keys to “The Man from Nemacolin,” as Trumka dubbed himself in a vanity film about his life screened at the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh that year. With a mustachioed, more-energetic 64-year old at the helm—and two under-45 staffers on his new leadership team–last week’s convention proceeded to recycle New Voice ideas almost twenty-years old. Delegates and guests again embraced the need for community-labor coalition-building, greater independence in politics, and, of course, more members—preferably in the millions.

"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>The Old Boyo Network 

In an interview with Josh Eidelson from The Nation, Fire Fighters president Harold Schaitberger sounded the alarm about the AFL-CIO becoming “the American Federation of Progressive and Liberal Organizations.” Schaitberger said he didn’t want the AFL to be just “an extension of one ideological part of our society” because “our responsibility is to represent workers’ interests on workers’ issues.”

Harold’s colleagues in the always “non-ideological” building trades have a long history of such progphobia. But, as the convention debate revealed last Wednesday, they fumbled the ball in 2009-10, on the very critical “workers’ issue” known as health care reform. With the AFL-CIO’s active support, the Obama Administration came up with an Affordable Care Act that now threatens to put labor-backed Taft-Hartley trust funds, covering 20 million people, at a fatal disadvantage and possibly out of business altogether. (See http://www.labornotes.org/2013/03/union-health-plans-will-suffer-under-obamacare)

On Sept. 11, delegates finally got a chance to discuss Resolution 54, which calls for fixing the ACA so all forms of union-negotiated health coverage don’t end up being “regressed to the mean,” as one Congressional staffer described the impact of Obamacare, in a meeting with UNITE-HERE.

"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Take an Alt-Laborer To Lunch? 

The labor oratory on Resolution 54 ranged from the overly deferential (to Obama) to the downright fearful and apocalyptic. IFPTE president Gregg Junemann, Maine AFL-CIO leader Matt Schlobohm, and RN Kathryn Donahue, from the California Nurses Association, all made the point that labor’s ultimate solution is Medicare-for-all, not job-based private insurance coverage. Only UNITE-HERE’s D Taylor injected any organizing perspective into the debate; he called for union member mobilization to confront the politicians responsible for the current mess.

One speaker on Resolution 54 was able to say, “We told you so.” Terry O’Sullivan’s Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) saw enough trouble coming its way, in the form of the ACA, to break ranks with the rest Change to Win (CTW) and the AFL-CIO when both were cheering for Obamacare. Now, he warned, “it’s going to be a big frickin’ deal if our members lose their health insurance!”

At the convention, President O’Sullivan spent much time ranting, to the press, about labor’s betrayal by environmentalists, who have earned “solidarity partner” status despite their opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline project backed by LIUNA. Nevertheless, Terry is still scheduled to get a big award from Jobs with Justice/American Rights at Work for LIUNA’s work with day laborers. His own union awarded him total compensation of $621,388 last year, so let’s hope Terry took a lot of Alt-laborers to lunch at his own expense! (Base salary for the LIUNA president was $454,225 in 2012; he also received $16,832 in reimbursements for official business and $150, 331 in other forms of income.)

Amid O’Sullivan’s colorful fulmination about Sierra Club back-stabbing and the back-firing of ACA, he did make one worthwhile observation. “We came here to talk about a new movement,” he said. “But let’s not forget about the old movement.”

"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Going Where Need is Greatest?  "Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Minority Union Reality Check

U.S. unions aren’t going to meet the challenges they face by further abandoning the workplace terrain still occupied by their own members. The very embarrassing post-convention rebuff received by Trumka and the building trades at their Sept. 15 White House meeting about Obamacare calls for the widest possible membership mobilization response. (See business press gloating about it at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/theapothecary/2013/09/14/obama-to-labor-unions-multi-employer-health-plans-drop-dead )Gay rights activists and DREAM Act campaigners have shown how to get this administration’s attention, but it’s not clear that organized labor is up to that task. The same AFL-CIO media relations operation that was going full-blast for five days in Los Angeles—and six months before that–suddenly fell silent last Friday, issuing only a meek “no comment” after top Administration officials dismissed labor’s health care reform concerns.

Finally, dumbing down the very concept of “membership,” Working America-style, is not a “strategic shift” by the AFL-CIO; it’s a shell game that has little to do with serious long-term efforts to build workplace organization in the absence of employer recognition and bargaining rights. One example of those struggles is the decade long “minority union” campaign at T-Mobile. In a convention plenary report and later “action session” presentation, fired T-Mobile worker Josh Coleman and Communications Workers of America (CWA) president Larry Cohen provided a much-needed reality check on the AFL’s recent hype about “non-traditional” forms of organizing.

As Cohen and Coleman acknowledged, building and sustaining TU, a voluntary membership organization of T-Mobile workers, has not been easy. The effort has received strong support from ver.di, CWA’s “solidarity partner” in Germany, which represents 100,000 workers at T-Mobile’s parent company. Yet, even with active involvement of many CWA locals and their member-organizers, it has taken ten years of work to recruit 1,000 TU supporters in a union-eligible workforce of 20,000 or more. Only fifteen T-Mobile workers in Connecticut have been able to win contract protection so far. But workplace education, cross-border networking, direct action, publicity, legal complaints, and community support have produced other non-contract gains.

For similar union-building candor, plus equally valuable information sharing about organizing, bargaining, and strikes in sessions more geared to real action, I strongly recommend attendance at Labor Notes’ own upcoming international conference. It’s not a meeting place that’s going to change the world of labor all by itself either. But the workplace perspective so MIA from the AFL convention will be on far greater display in Chicago next April 4-6. Alt-laborers and “old union movement” members alike will find common ground there, that’s far more solid than the official terra firma in La La Land last week. 

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