Date: Mon, 29 Sep 97 22:20:07 CDT
Subject: AFL-CIO CONVENTION LAYS OUT PLAN OF ACTION
Organize for Change: AFL-CIO convention lays out plan of action
By Shelley Ettinger, in Workers World
2 October 1997
"Everything is organizing!"
With that rousing call to action--and with nearly a
hundred rank-and-file organizers lined up behind him--
President John Sweeney opened the AFL-CIO convention here
Sept. 22. In impassioned oratory that returned again and
again to the theme of organizing, Sweeney appealed to the
labor movement to "raise the bar even higher" in the drive
to bring workers into unions.
Sweeney, Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson
and Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka took office 23 months
ago after ousting the old conservative leadership. Since
then, Sweeney said, unions have won some 2,000 organizing
Addressing about 1,100 delegates and guests, he enumerated
labor's accomplishments over the last two years. He said the
convention would "celebrate our victories and lay plans for
For each achievement he cited he added, "But that is not
Sweeney said labor must "set new standards and goals for
ourselves." He called on every union to organize "on a
bigger scale and at a faster pace."
He said the UPS strike "set a new standard for the rest of
us to follow." Thousands of television commercials and
rallies would "still not come close to doing what the UPS
strike did for organizing," Sweeney said.
But in the strike's wake, he noted, "Our enemies in the
political arena are doing everything they can to choke off
our new movement before it has a chance to live and breath."
One key to moving forward, Sweeney said, is to "sink our
roots back deeply into our communities and begin drawing
power and support from ... our allies in the movements for
women's and civil rights, because, in the final analysis, we
must revitalize our movement from the ground up."
Sweeney concluded, "Brothers and sisters, we're organizing
and we have a voice--let's make it heard for good jobs and a
living wage ... for housing and health care, education and a
secure retirement for all, for civil rights and
affirmative action and the right to organize."
NEW CIVIL-RIGHTS MOVEMENT
The priority on organizing was the thread running through
all the events leading up to the convention, including a
Sept. 21 labor teach-in at the University of Pittsburgh.
Several hundred unionists attended a Sept. 20 organizing
conference. They discussed plans and strategies. They heard
from workers fresh from union drives--mostly successful
ones--around the country.
At a huge "Welcome to Steel Town Block Party" the night
before the convention opened, Sweeney, Trumka, Chavez-
Thompson and other officials mingled with rank-and-file
workers and activists. Everyone talked organizing.
On Sept. 22, AFL-CIO Organizing Director Richard Bensinger
briefed reporters on specific plans. They center on a
counter-offensive to push back the corporations' nearly two-
decade-long union-busting assault.
Bensinger announced the imminent start of what he called
"a civil-rights-like movement" to demand the basic right to
organize. Working Women's Department Director Karen Nussbaum
said this movement will focus on women, most of whom are
low-wage workers open to the idea of unions.
In 1995, when the new leadership took over, the AFL-CIO
was spending four percent of its budget on organizing. Now
it spends 30 percent.
With the "Organizing for Change, Changing to Organize"
program, the federation is trying to move member unions to
shift even more in that direction. Other initiatives include
"Union Cities," to build labor-community alliances and
"Street Heat," to mobilize labor action.
UNIONS NEED MORE WOMEN, PEOPLE OF COLOR
There was other evidence of a new day for the AFL-CIO.
For example, before Sweeney spoke to the convention,
nearly a hundred workers strode to the podium and, one by
one, told of their organizing campaigns. They were women and
men, Black, Latino, Asian and white. Some spoke in Spanish
and Linda Chavez-Thompson translated.
It was a moving ceremony. It was also a signal--to a hall
full of delegates who were mostly white male union
In fact, in his speech Sweeney said: "With all that we've
accomplished over the last two years, we haven't [made] the
face of our leadership reflect the faces of our membership
and of the new American work force. And so this morning, I
ask you to join me in a renewed effort to bring more women
and minorities into the leadership of our movement at every
One of the displays in the convention center highlighted
the group Pride At Work, the National Organization of
Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Transgender Labor, along with other AFL-
CIO "constituency groups." This would have been--and was--
unheard of under previous AFL-CIO leaders.
On its first day, the convention unanimously passed a
constitutional amendment, proposed by the Executive Council,
expanding the federation's anti-discrimination position to
cover religion, age, disability and sexual orientation.
Perhaps the most interesting constitutional amendment--also
proposed by the leadership and also passed unanimously
the first day--was one removing every mention of excluding
communists, communism and the Communist Party from the AFL-
The old language was a remnant of the McCarthy period,
during which some of the best unionists were ousted in anti-communist
purges that deeply weakened the labor movement.
While the new, more broadly worded language still has
problems, it is a progressive step to remove the anti-communist
STILL TIED TO DEMS
For all the changes in evidence, there is a holdover. The
speakers' roster at the convention and related events was
heavy with capitalist politicians.
Vice President Al Gore spoke at the organizing conference.
He affected the pose of a pro-labor militant--a pose
strikingly at odds with the reality of NAFTA, welfare repeal
and all the Clinton administration's other anti-worker
Also, Sens. Tod Daschle and Arlen Specter spoke on the
convention's first day, Rep. Dick Gephardt and Labor
Secretary Alexis Herman the second.
President Bill Clinton was set to speak the third day.
On the opening day, Sweeney called for the AFL-CIO to
"come home" and spend money on its own campaigns, including
running union members for office, rather than on
politicians' campaigns. He also challenged elected officials
to meet a specific "litmus test" to win labor's support.
The precise meaning of all this remains to be seen.
Judging by the convention program, labor's ties to the
Democratic Party remain in place.
The final constitutional amendment unanimously passed
Sept. 22 was to extend the officers' terms to four years. So
the Sweeney team, to be re-elected the last day of the
convention, has until 2001 to keep "changing to organize"
and "organizing for change."
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