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Date: Mon, 29 Sep 97 22:20:07 CDT
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Article: 18921

Organize for Change: AFL-CIO convention lays out plan of action

By Shelley Ettinger, in Workers World
2 October 1997

Pittsburgh --

"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 drives.

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 more."

For each achievement he cited he added, "But that is not enough."

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."


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.


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 officials.

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 level."

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- CIO.

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 ban.


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 attacks.

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."

(Copyright Workers World Service: Permission to reprint granted if source is cited. For more information contact Workers World, 55 W. 17 St., NY, NY 10011; via e-mail: ww@workers.org. For subscription info send message to: info@workers.org. Web: http://workers.org)

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