Date: Thu, 2 Oct 97 09:33:23 CDT
From: "Workers World" <email@example.com>
Organization: WW Publishers
Subject: New Labor Militancy at AFL-CIO Convention
Via Workers World News Service
Reprinted from the October 9, 1997
issue of Workers World newspaper
AFL-CIO convention: New labor militancy comes through loud and clear
By Shelley Ettinger, in the Workers World
9 October 1997
In its final three days, the AFL-CIO convention remained
focused on organizing. Speaker after speaker said the unions
must reach out to low-wage workers, build labor-community
solidarity, and strengthen the representation of women and
people of color in union leadership.
President John Sweeney, Secretary-Treasurer Richard
Trumka, Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson and
other leaders set a defiant, combative tone. They promised
to keep building labor's new offensive that began in earnest
with the successful Teamsters strike at United Parcel
Service in August.
Meanwhile, however, labor's enemies were also mobilizing.
During and after the convention the government stepped up
its attacks on both the AFL-CIO and Teamsters President Ron
Under the guise of "investigating" supposedly "corrupt"
campaign finance practices, ever more ominous threats to
move against labor emanated from the federal government.
Behind this assault stands the right wing of the capitalist
ruling class--stung by the Teamsters' strike victory at UPS
and determined to quash labor's accelerating mobilization.
Now that the business of the convention is done and the
AFL-CIO officials have been re-elected to four-year terms,
the question is whether Sweeney, Carey and their progressive
leadership team have a plan to counter the attack. How will
they deal with this intensifying assault, and protect and
expand the labor movement's new momentum?
BRING IN WOMEN, PEOPLE OF COLOR
One theme came through loud and clear at the convention:
If new organizing drives are to reverse the decline in union
membership, they must be aimed especially at the low-wage
workers whose numbers have grown during two decades of
That means the unions must reach out more to women and
people of color. That means the unions must make their own
leadership more representative of the work force.
Sweeney said it in his opening-day speech. The next day,
Sept. 23, the message was brought home again in a session
reporting on the Working Women Working Together conference
held two weeks earlier in Washington.
After delegates watched a stirring videotape about the
conference, Elisa Sanchez of the national Latina group MANA
addressed them. She said it is crucial to bring more women
into leadership positions.
Looking at the delegates, mostly white men, she said, "If
you think we are asking you to step aside--we are."
By giving them prominent roles, the convention also
spotlighted several key leaders. These included Coalition of
Black Trade Unionists President Bill Lucy, who is also
secretary-treasurer of the Federation of State, County and
Municipal Employees; Farm Workers President Arturo
Rodriguez; and Screen Actors Guild Vice President Sumi Haru.
On Sept. 24, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume spoke. Saying
"racism and union bashing and gay bashing and immigrant
bashing" are part of a "national scourge of insensitivity
and intolerance," Mfume spoke of the historical alliance of
the labor and civil-rights movements.
"We have marched together, struggled together, suffered
together," he said. "Now it's time to start winning
Mfume said the enemies of working and oppressed people
"are up 24 hours a day. They don't eat. They don't drink.
They don't sleep. They just scheme against us."
The only possible response, he said, is "to fight back."
On Sept. 25, Kent Wong of the Asian Pacific American Labor
Alliance reported on the work of the AFL-CIO's constituency
groups representing specially oppressed workers.
Wong hailed the A. Philip Randolph Institute, Coalition of
Labor Union Women, and Labor Council for Latin American
Advancement. He said, "We stand united ... and we especially
extend a warm welcome to our newest constituency group,
Pride At Work, representing gay and lesbian workers."
Wong's was the most left-wing talk at the convention. He
got a standing ovation at its finish. He called for absolute
unity against racism, sexism and lesbian/gay/bi/trans
oppression, calling this a "battle for the hearts and minds
Wong said the struggle to defend affirmative action must
be deepened. He decried the attacks on welfare recipients,
and even called for solidarity with prisoners, who are
forced into slave labor.
In his speech closing the convention, the Rev. Jesse
Jackson listed the many challenges facing workers and the
poor. He called on labor to "keep standing together, keep
Jackson, who is himself in the Democratic Party, said
"both political parties are locked at the hip, two parties
with one assumption, one party with two names."
The delegates responded more enthusiastically to Jackson
than to any other speaker, interrupting him with repeated
There were many other noteworthy moments.
General Electric workers from South Africa, Brazil, Canada
and the United States told of their struggles for union
rights. Their presentation was part of a session on the need
for global labor unity.
Union leaders from every continent, there as invited
guests, were also introduced.
A group of Frontier Hotel workers from Las Vegas greeted
the convention and reported on their struggle. They have
been on strike for almost seven years.
Leaders of state labor federations and local central labor
councils--more of whom are now women and people of color
than two years ago--told of the Union Cities campaign. Its
aim is to mobilize the unions and link up with community
groups in struggles for workers' rights and social justice.
An approach called Street Heat, aimed at spurring mass and
confrontational tactics, is key to this plan.
In an effort to reach out to young people and turn them on
to the labor movement, the AFL-CIO sponsored a Sept. 24
concert in Pittsburgh's Benedum Center. Headlined by radical
British rocker Billy Bragg, it also featured Chicana folk
singer Tish Hinojosa, Black lesbian singer-songwriter Toshi
Reagon, and a union rock band, the Bones of Contention.
Finally, after Sweeney adjourned the proceedings Sept. 25,
delegates headed outside the convention center to hold a
"rally for a living wage in Pittsburgh"--a city that used to
be the nation's steel capital with tens of thousands of
union jobs. Sweeney, Trumka, Chavez-Thompson and Jackson
joined local union leaders and politicians calling on the
Pittsburgh City Council to pass a living-wage ordinance
forcing city contractors to pay employees substantially more
than the minimum wage.
Over the convention's four days, another message was
conveyed repeatedly: that the labor movement is united.
Two years ago, the Sweeney slate was elected at a divided
convention against the opposition of conservative elements.
This time, leaders from the whole spectrum expressed
solidarity with Sweeney and the direction in which he's
trying to take labor.
They spoke for the growing unions representing service-
sector workers and the struggling industrial unions, most of
which supported the Sweeney slate in 1995--as well as for
the older craft unions, "professional" and other unions that
opposed the change in 1995.
Union leaders who had supported the old leadership two
years ago now praised the Sweeney administration and
endorsed the shift toward organizing. These included Sandra
Feldman of the Teachers, Doug Dorrity of the Communications
Workers and Jay Mazur of UNITE.
During the session when the officers were re-elected,
Robert Georgine of the Construction Trades Department and
Gloria Johnson of the International Union of Electronics
gave strong speeches seconding the nomination of Sweeney.
Both had spoken for the old leadership slate two years ago.
Perhaps the most significant show of unity--and one of the
emotional highlights--came Sept. 24 when Sweeney said,
"Let's honor the fighting workers of UPS and their fighting
president, Ron Carey."
He called Carey and about 100 UPS workers up. They marched
forward. A tumultuous ovation greeted them.
Once at the podium, the UPS workers surrounded their
leader and chanted: "Carey! Carey! Carey!"
The delegates picked up the chant, signaling their
solidarity with the Teamsters president now under siege from
HOW TO COUNTER GOV'T OFFENSIVE?
There was no explicit reference at the convention to the
moves against Carey by the Justice Department and the
courts. No official publicly spoke about the Senate
Governmental Affairs Committee's subpoena of virtually all
internal AFL-CIO documents, and its threats to cite Sweeney
for contempt of Congress if he continues to refuse to turn
over the documents.
Despite the official silence, though, the labor leadership
surely was deeply preoccupied throughout the convention. How
can they counter the assault? This question must have been
foremost on their minds.
In separate press briefings both Sweeney--obliquely--and
Carey--bluntly--acknowledged that the government
"investigations" into labor's finances are part of an
attempt to destroy the newly re-emerging labor movement.
When Workers World asked Sweeney Sept. 22 whether the
government is retaliating for the UPS strike, Sweeney smiled
and said, "I have my own ideas on this, but until we see the
completion of this I really can't comment."
Asked the same question the next day, Ron Carey said:
"I've created a lot of enemies ... Clearly part of this
comes down from the radical right, the Republican Party."
At the same time, however, Carey emphasized that he is
cooperating with the investigation into how his 1996 re-
election campaign was funded. John Sweeney and Rich Trumka
said much the same. All declined to directly challenge the
government's moves against the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO.
The offensive against the Teamsters has several fronts. It
is presided over by a federal judge, David Edelstein. He has
overseen the Justice Department's consent decree inserting
the government into the union's internal affairs since 1989.
Under the consent decree, an "independent review board"
intervenes in every aspect of Teamsters business. The head
of the review board is William Webster--former head of both
the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central
So the government's chief of spying and dirty tricks
against the working-class movement in this country and
worldwide has the final say at the Teamsters, over and above
the elected president. Furthermore, the union has to pay his
Last year Judge Edelstein appointed an "independent"
monitor to conduct the December 1996 Teamster election.
After Ron Carey won re-election against challenger James P.
Hoffa, election monitor Barbara Zack Quindel began an
investigation into the Carey campaign.
Three days after the Teamsters won their strike victory at
UPS, Quindel announced that she was invalidating Carey's re-
election and ordered a new election to be held.
Quindel first exonerated Carey from any wrongdoing. Then
she hinted he might be barred from running in the election.
Now she herself has resigned.
On Sept. 29 Edelstein replaced her with Kenneth Conboy, a
former federal judge. Edelstein also announced that a new
election would be held Jan. 9.
Meanwhile, three former Carey aides have pleaded guilty to
federal charges in Boston. A federal grand jury in New York
is reportedly looking to implicate Trumka--and, according to
the Oct. 6 issue of Time magazine, is even targeting
CAN THEY BREAK AWAY FROM DEMS?
To hear the media tell it, the issue at hand is union
So far few labor leaders have demurred. Off the public
stage, however, many say supposed irregularities in campaign
fundraising are only an excuse for the government to try to
push back the labor movement.
Some point out that not only did Carey lead the biggest
successful strike in decades, but his support was key to
Sweeney's 1995 election and therefore to the current
flowering of organizing drives.
Yet the union officialdom remains stymied in terms of
their relationship to the capitalist government.
The convention welcomed a series of speakers from the
government, including President Bill Clinton. The president
endured a curt introduction from Sweeney and met a cool
reception from the delegates.
Others, like Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. Dick Gephardt,
were much more warmly received--especially when they
denounced Clinton's moves to expand NAFTA and ram it through
on a fast track.
But whether they played to the crowd or not, objectively
these politicians all represent the class that exploits and
oppresses workers. Their presence at the convention--
juxtaposed with the energy of rank-and-file organizers fresh
from the fields of battle and the optimism of union
officials embarking on a new workers' offensive--showed the
dilemma facing the AFL-CIO leadership as it seeks to chart a
new course of labor struggle.
There are now two contradictory impulses at play in the
President Sweeney's keynote address to the convention, for
example, contained mixed messages.
He said, "What we must do is to create new alliances with
other unions in other nations, global unions, if you will,
in key industries and key companies." He called on the U.S.
labor movement to "work even harder and closer with our
sisters and our brothers around the world."
This call for global unions is right on target.
International working-class solidarity is an absolute
necessity as corporations roam the globe impoverishing
workers and busting unions.
But Sweeney also said "one of our paramount goals is ...
to work with our employers to creatively increase
productivity and quality and to help American companies
compete effectively in the new world economy." This
contradicts his other statement and can only confuse and
Politically, the progressive impulse now at play in the
AFL-CIO--toward intensifying battles with the bosses and
deepening solidarity with all workers--is exciting. It's
long overdue. And it holds the promise of reviving the class
struggle in this country.
The other impulse--to maintain ties to the Democratic
Party-- is at cross-purposes with labor's forward direction.
The "friend-of-labor" politicians actually represent the
other side, in fact the side that right now is mounting a
major assault on the new labor leadership.
One approach moves labor forward. The other holds it back.
In his speech, Sweeney did say labor "must stop giving
money to political parties who won't give unions the respect
we deserve." This may mean the AFL-CIO is evaluating its
relationship with the Democratic Party.
The AFL-CIO donated at least $35 million to Democratic
politicians in the 1996 election campaigns. What did labor
get for its money?
More NAFTA? Witch hunts against militant union leaders
like Ron Carey?
Are the labor leaders ready to take a hard look at whether
it was worth it?
INTO THE MILLENNIUM
On Sept. 24 Sweeney, Trumka, Chavez-Thompson and the entire
Executive Council were re-elected to four-year terms. They
will lead the AFL-CIO into the 21st century.
They are not revolutionaries. But they could make a great
contribution to the class struggle by escalating the effort
to mobilize the workers.
They have already led the labor movement out of the trough
of defeat and despair in which it was mired for decades. The
coming period will show what else they can do.
Great struggles are coming for the working-class movement.
Everyone who wants to fight the bosses should leap in.
(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:
firstname.lastname@example.org. For subscription info send message to:
email@example.com. Web: http://workers.org)