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Better Luck Next Year

The AFL-CIO regroups and hopes to rebound in 2002.

David Moberg

This has not been a good year for American workers or their unions. First, George W. Bush took office and immediately began rolling back worker protections and giving away a shrinking budget surplus to the wealthy. Then recession set in, spreading woes that had already afflicted beleaguered manufacturing industries. And beyond the immediate tragedy of September 11, the terrorist attacks tanked several hundred thousand jobs in travel and tourism, worsened the general economic downturn, raised suspicions about immigrants, and gave the Bush administration an excuse to curtail civil liberties. The momentum of burgeoning movements for immigrant rights, global economic justice and curtailment of sweatshops abruptly halted in an atmosphere of confused and distraught public sentiment.

As union representatives gathered here for the biennial convention of the AFL-CIO, the mood was subdued and sober. Organized labor movingly paid tribute to the working people, including 733 union members, who died in the hijacking and terror attacks, celebrated the heroism of the rescue and recovery workers, and angrily tallied both the job losses and the callous and greedy actions of corporations and their political servants in the White House and Congress. There were few new initiatives, as labors national federation re-elected without dissent its current leadership, including president John Sweeney, for another four-year term.

There also were rumblings of discontent with labors progress and some refreshingly frank admissions of shortcomings by Sweeney himself. Yet in the end, most remarkable was the determination of the labor movement not to hunker down, as it did under Reagan in the 80s. Instead, union leaders appeared resolved to push more vigorously its program of grassroots political activism, aggressive organizing, and progressive global and domestic policies, includingdespite the less favorable climatecontinued advocacy of immigrant rights.

The war on terrorism may complicate matters for organized labor, but it is not likely to paralyze unions, which fought hardbut unsuccessfullyto block fast track trade promotion authority for Bush (the measure passed in the House by a single vote). They also continue to press both Democrats and Republicans to deliver an economic stimulus program that emphasizes financial help for the unemployed and low-income workers (extended unemployment compensation, direct subsidy of health care costs for the unemployed, federal aid to states and localities, and infrastructure spending), not tax cuts for big businesses.

A few leaders shared Jesse Jacksons well-received plea for labor to hit the streets in protest of Bushs policies and growing worker hardship. Gandhi, Jesus and Moses all marched, argued Mineworkers President Cecil Roberts, and Moses didnt send Pharaoh no e-mail or fax (both of which delegates could send from convention terminals using a new system for mobilization of union members via the Internet).

While Sweeney commended Bush for the conduct of the war on terrorism, he warned that he and his corporate backers are waging a vicious war on working families … and we condemn them for all of that. Indeed, even if the scattered doubts on the war were kept private (one leader, for example, questioned why labor should trust leadership of the war to a man they trust with nothing else), there seemed to be little war fever. With only one voice of dissent in its executive council, the AFL-CIO strongly criticized Bushs wartime measures, like the USA PATRIOT Act, that threaten civil liberties [and] hand our adversaries a partial victory by degrading the essential guarantees upon which our nation is founded.

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With midterm elections coming next year, union strategists hope that the political machinery honed during Sweeneys first six years can capitalize on popular outrage at corporate and Republican greed to deliver victories to labor-backed candidates. By systematically registering union household voters, deluging them with information on populist economic issues and candidate positions (most effectively through personal contacts at work) and turning out the vote, the labor movement has dramatically raised the union household share of the electorate and their support for labor-backed candidates. Without union voters, argues AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal, Gore would have lost by a wide margin last year and Republicans would hold 61 Senate seats, instead of 49. Yet with the votes of just 3,000 more union members in five congressional districts, he calculates, Richard Gephardt would have been Speaker of the House.

Labor makes a strong case that helping unions organize new members is the best way for progressives to regain political power at all levels, and unions are demanding that candidates promise to aid unions and neutralize hostile employer campaigns against unionization as a condition of support. Gerald McEntee, president of AFSCME (public service workers), acknowledges that we let ourselves and working families down by not talking to politicians about this enough in the past.

The new link of politics and organizing is paying off. In California, Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat who intermittently favors labor, supported rules requiring state and public university employees to join or pay fees to unions in their workplaces; he also signed legislation prohibiting use of any public subsidies, contract payments or other funds to fight unionization. New York Republican Gov. George Pataki signed legislation in a televised speech to the convention giving workers not now covered by state or federal labor laws the right to union recognition simply by signing membership cards. The move will mainly benefit workers at new Indian-owned casinos in the state, but it gives added stature to the card check strategy used by many unions to bypass frustrating National Labor Relations Board elections. And Jim McGreavey, a Democrat recently elected governor of New Jersey with strong support of the states unions (which had boosted registration of union members to 77 percent from less than 50 percent five years ago) pledged at the convention to be an advocate for labor and institute several pro-labor measures as his first acts in office.

A growing number of labor leaders, like Bruce Raynor, president of UNITE (apparel and textile workers), want unions to be more aggressive and more independent, giving money directly to neither party and endorsing candidatesno matter what their partyonly when they will support unions and working people. Increasingly, labor is also seeking clout and independence by running union members for office. Having more than fulfilled its goal of electing 2,000 union members to public office in 2000, the AFL-CIO has now set a target of 5,000 union members in office. It will be sort of our labor party in the United States, McEntee says.

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The success in retooling union political efforts has not been matched in organizing, as Sweeney acknowledged to the convention, calling the labor movements continuing failure to organize even at a pace to maintain its share of the work force the harshest judgment that history can make about labors leaders.

There have been large-scale successes over the past year or twoincluding campaigns organizing janitors on the East Coast, wireless communication workers, home care workers, commercial laundry workers, nurses, public employees, roofers in Arizona, teaching assistants, airport employees and aircraft engineersand there are plans for other big drives, including joint efforts to organize 50,000 port truckers and 15,000 Gulf Coast ship workers, as well as the final stage of a long drive to organize 20,000 flight attendants at Delta Airlines. But even the few unions that are doing the best work fall short of the pace needed for the labor movement to hit its goal of organizing a million new workers each yearand many big unions are still doing relatively little.

Yet some union leaders are starting to question how the AFL-CIO spends its money and how effectively it advances organizing. The federation has been running a deficit, but many individual unions also are financially squeezed as layoffs rise and dues drop. And while Sweeney remains personally popular, there was an undercurrent of discontent among individual union leaders coupled with a desire to play a greater role in deciding the direction of the movement. The tightly scripted convention, which offered no opportunity for discussion, reinforced their sense of frustration.

Despite some setbacks and shortcomings, labor is showing some signs of a rebound. Although rapidly increasing health care costs and layoffs make bargaining more difficult, Minnesota state workers struck successfully in late September, and HERE (hotel workers) won a strong contract in Boston in early December, including a guarantee that employers would be neutral and abide by a majority of signed union cards at any new hotel. Also, although union leaders recognized that the terrorist actions have set back prospects for immigration reform, they resolved to push forward vigorously for legalization and better protection of immigrant rights, starting with a new national round of public forums early next year. Despite one of the toughest years in our history, the union movement is better poised today to make working Americans voices heard than we believed would have been possible six years ago, Sweeney argued.

The next four years will test the adequacy of that preparation. This convention is a turning point, Raynor says. Weve grieved. Now lets get back to work.

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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