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Sender: owner-imap@webmap.missouri.edu
Date: Thu, 2 Oct 97 09:33:23 CDT
From: "Workers World" <ww@wwpublish.com>
Organization: WW Publishers
Subject: New Labor Militancy at AFL-CIO Convention
Article: 19064

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

Pittsburgh -- 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 Carey.

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?


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 corporate restructuring.

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 together."

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 of workers."

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 fighting back."

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 standing ovations.


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 labor's enemies.


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 Intelligence Agency.

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 salary.

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 Sweeney.


To hear the media tell it, the issue at hand is union corruption.

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. y 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 labor movement.

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 disarm workers.

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?


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: ww@workers.org. For subscription info send message to: info@workers.org. Web: http://workers.org)

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