AFL-CIO leadership in turmoil: labor needs new strategy

By Scott Cooper, in The Organizer,
6 March, 1995

It was first reported in the Washington Post. "Key union leaders in the AFL-CIO have concluded it is time for Lane Kirkland to step down as president of the 14 million member federation if organized labor is to meet the challenges of the future." Some union leaders "said they are prepared to try to force him out ..." (Jan. 29, 1995)

What a set of challenges they are. The list of "charges" against Kirkland - issued to the Post by "influential members of the AFL-CIO's ruling Executive Council" - is only the beginning. Kirkland was out of the country last year during the debate in the Senate over banning permanent strike replacements. He failed to organize and lead a strong labor challenge to NAFTA and GATT. He's playing "an insiders' game" with the White House.

Factor in what may well be the biggest challenge facing the trade unions, and the situation gets even more serious. On Jan. 30, members of both houses of Congress, led by Sen. Nancy Kassenbaum and Rep. Steve Gunderson, introduced a bill - the "Teamwork for Employees and Managers Act of 1995" - to legalize company unions. The bill comes only two weeks after the release of the Dunlop Commission report, whose main thrust is to recommend easing federal labor law to allow company unions under employer control. The commission was initiated by the Clinton administration.

"The evidence presented to the commission report is overwhelming that employee participation and labor-management partnerships are good for workers, firms and the national economy," the report states. The report goes on to recommend the "growth of ... non-union employee participation programs" that are "involved in ... discussion of terms and conditions of work or compensation" and that section 8(a)(2) of the National Labor Relations Act - which bans company unions - be "clarified ... in such a way that employee participation programs operating in this fashion are legal."

The 23 Democratic and Republican legislators who introduced this bill moved swiftly to reverse the ban on company unions. The U.S. Congress - spurred by the multinational corporate CEOs to whom it is beholden - will likely follow their lead.

Fed up with "jointism"

Confirmation that this is serious business can be found in Decatur, Illinois, site of a central labor struggle in the United States today. Some 7000 workers in that city are either locked out or on strike at Caterpillar, Staley Manufacturing, and Bridgestone/ Firestone.

These workers are in a fight for their very lives. Before they were locked out or went on strike, they lived through the sham of "quality circles" and "labor- management committees" - all variations of jointism. Today these workers are battling bosses who used company-union schemes to take away their hard-earned right to independent organizations that defend workers. Their situation is one which the Dunlop Commission report seeks to generalize.

What does that have to do with the challenge to the top leader of the AFL-CIO? Everything. The resistance to Kirkland reflects no simple palace coup. It flows from the huge setbacks suffered by unions in general. It results not merely from the Executive Council's restlessness, but from the anger and resistance of the rank-and-file itself.

Take the Dunlop Commission recommendations specifically. Last spring, the AFL-CIO published its own special report on the changing American workplace. In that report were criticisms of management's refusal to conduct jointism schemes "equitably." But, basically, the report endorses "labor-management cooperation."

This comes as no surprise, since the AFL-CIO leadership has failed consistently to mount any serious challenge to these schemes. The hypocrisy runs so deep that sometimes the contradictions can be found in the same sentence. According to Morton Bahr, president of the Communications Workers of America and an author of the AFL-CIO's report, "to effectively participate in workplace decision-making, front-line workers must first have their own organizations." The "workplace decision-making" of which he speaks, though, represents the destruction of labor's own organizations.

Rank-and-file workers throughout the country are realizing this. They're fed up with jointism. They're fed up with supporting Democratic "friends of labor" who can't even deliver a bill banning permanent scabs. They're fed up with union- busting. They're fed up with the loss of labor's clout.

Lane Kirkland and others haven't gotten the message, and that's a big part of why some union heads are seeking his ouster. It's a direct result of the bankruptcy of their own policies of business unionism.

Some union presidents - all requesting "anonymity for themselves and their unions" - told the Washington Post that if Kirkland doesn't announce his retirement they may "force a showdown at the AFL-CIO convention in October." Who would they want to replace Kirkland? None other than AFL-CIO Secretary- Treasurer Tom Donahue.

This is the same Tom Donahue who reportedly has come under fire of late for claiming that the Dunlop Commission report would help achieve labor law reform favoring the unions. As many have suggested, Donahue knew in advance of the commission's findings. Clinton and his labor secretary, Robert Reich, have been quite open about their support for jointism. Surely the commission would endorse their position.

The bottom line, though, is that the fight that needs to be waged in the AFL-CIO is not about Lane Kirkland or Tom Donahue per se. We must put an end to "business as usual." Labor must overcome the paralysis wrought by the AFL-CIO leadership, which has no strategy or plans to take on Clinton, Gingrich, and their corporate masters.

Struggle in Decatur is key

The struggle in Decatur is a key to reversing the decline of union power in this country. The bosses say there will be no more pattern bargaining. The bosses say there will be no compromise. The bosses say there will be no unions. The workers there have confronted the challenge.

The AFL-CIO leadership's advocacy of collaboration with the bosses has run head-on into the reality of Decatur, where every union supported jointism programs only to find them used as a weapon against them. In that city, three unions have shown their willingness to fight, but their resolve is being weakened by permanent replacements at Bridgestone/Firestone and by the lack of any national initiative to come to the aid of the embattled workers.

What is required today is a national fightback. On the Decatur front, the AFL-CIO must stand finally and unequivocally on the side of the workers. The leadership should issue a call for a National Day of Action in Decatur, mobilizing tens of thousands of unionists to travel there and show support for our brothers and sisters. Legions of rank-and-file unionists in the streets of Decatur will show the bosses and the government that labor will no longer tolerate unconstitutional injunctions such as the one denying workers the right to picket in Decatur.

It will take tremendous pressure to turn the AFL-CIO leadership around on this question of mobilizing the ranks. Every unionist should encourage his or her local to demand that Kirkland and Co. issue the call.

The fightback cannot stop there. It requires other components, both internal and external. Within the AFL-CIO itself, democratization is on the agenda, and every local union should make this a priority. Beyond that, building a Labor Party must be put at the center of union activity.

To build a Labor Party means to adopt an offensive posture in the face of the government-corporate onslaught against our rights and gains. Support for a Labor Party is growing nationally. Already, three international unions - OCAW, BMWE, and UE - have expressed their support. As we go to press, other internationals have placed it on the agenda. A broad spectrum of union locals have endorsed the idea.

To fight the bosses at the workplace, working people need their own independent organizations: trade unions. To fight the lackeys of the bosses - the Republocrats in city halls, state houses, the Congress, and the White House - working people must build their own political party, a Labor Party.

The sleeping giant of rank-and-file labor is awakening. We're on our feet. Now is the time to march forward at an ever-quickening pace.

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