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A "palace coup" at the AFL-CIO?

By Lee Sustar | March 21, 2003 | Page 11

CAN A "palace coup" by liberal union leaders in the AFL-CIO reverse labor's decline? And will the federation's resolution critical of the war drive on Iraq lead to greater union involvement in the antiwar movement? Those crucial questions were left unanswered as the AFL-CIO Executive Council drew to a close late last month.

Meeting amid news that union representation had declined once more--to 13.2 percent overall and just 8.5 percent in the private sector--labor leaders were under pressure to come up with some kind of strategy to organize the unorganized. In fact, the new AFL-CIO organizing director, Stewart Acuff, called an "organizing summit" a few weeks earlier.

The meeting--the first of its kind since 1959--drew some 200 organizers and leaders from 39 of the federation's 66 affiliated unions. As in similar, smaller gatherings in recent years, the stress was put on reducing spending on everything but organizing--with the exception of putting funds into supporting Democratic Party candidates.

The AFL-CIO Executive Council, as usual, restated its support for such activities at its traditional February meeting. But as the event drew to a close, leaders of three big unions that have been more aggressive about organizing--John Wilhelm of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees, Andrew Stern of the Service Employees International Union and Bruce Raynor of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees--pushed through a proposal for a new executive committee composed of the 10 biggest unions in the AFL-CIO.

John Sweeney, as AFL-CIO president, would be able to appoint an additional seven members to the committee, which will meet monthly without the staff and bureaucratic procedures that dominate proceedings of the 56-member Executive Council.

According to Business Week, Sweeney initially resisted the idea--which is why the magazine called it a "palace coup." The move could also be seen as a counter-coup against the right wing of the AFL-CIO, however.

Ever since Carpenters' leader Doug McCarron pulled his union out of the federation in 2001, he and Teamsters President James Hoffa have cozied up to Bush on issues ranging from oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to Hoffa's participation on the so-called Committee to Liberate Iraq.

But if conservative union leaders thought their relationship with Bush would bring them clout inside the AFL-CIO, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao set them straight. Chao used the labor secretary's traditional speech to the Executive Council to launch an attack on labor corruption--a cover for new financial reporting requirements that will cost unions huge amounts of time and money.

Chao's insults followed a long list of Bush administration assaults on labor--including bans on airline strikes, the use of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act against the West Coast dockworkers, the privatization of 850,000 federal jobs and a bar on union membership for thousands of workers in the Department of Homeland Security and more.

Meanwhile, Corporate America is demanding--and mostly getting--tens of billions of dollars in givebacks, especially in the airlines, with bankruptcy court judges backing management in imposing cuts in pay and benefits.

Concentrating power in the biggest unions that are most committed to organizing may help the AFL-CIO provide a more coherent response to these attacks. Yet devoting more money and resources to organizing--urgent though that is--won't by itself reverse labor's decline. After all, unions aren't likely to succeed in organizing the unorganized in one industry while capitulating to concessions in the next. And supporting Democrats in the next election--leaving aside the corporate domination of that party--won't halt Bush's assault on the remnants of the welfare state.

The revival of the unions will come from the same source that it always has--an upsurge from below. While strike levels in 2002 were at historic lows, rumblings are audible. The widespread adoption of union resolutions critical of and opposing war on Iraq--the greatest labor dissent on U.S. foreign policy since the First World War--is a reflection of the increasing numbers of union members willing to take up the issue.

There's no predicting what impact the war on Iraq will have on the employers' war on workers at home. But the resulting shakeup in U.S. politics will reach deep into the organized working class--and help take the discussion of how to rebuild our unions beyond the AFL-CIO offices in Washington into the rank and file.

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