Issue 192 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
The AFL-CIO, the main union federation in the US, held its annual convention in October--one which was quite different from any other in the AFL-CIO's 40 year history. For one thing, there was more than one candidate running for president. Until this year the AFL-CIO has never held a contested election. It has had only two presidents, George Meany from 1955-1979, and Lane Kirkland from 1979 until he was pressured into early retirement last summer. Hitherto AFL-CIO conventions have offered the convention delegates--who are made up of the top and middle layers of the union bureaucracy--a week of banquets and back slapping, unmarred by conflict or debate.
But this year change was in the air. And much of it emanated from the fiery rhetoric of the new AFL-CIO president, John Sweeney, who was elected on 25 October after days of heated debate. The new president pledged to break the law if necessary to rebuild the labour movement. The new secretary-treasurer, United Mine Workers' leader Richard Trumka, echoed those sentiments when he promised, 'Something historic is about to happen. You are about to see corporate America's worst nightmare!'
Even at the rhetorical level, this marks a sharp break with the past. The AFL-CIO's first president, George Meany, was proud that he'd managed to sidestep the class struggle. 'I never went on strike in my life, never ran a strike in my life, never ordered anyone else to run a strike in my life, never had anything to do with a picket line,' he once bragged. Lane Kirkland, while less demagogic than Meany, was virtually invisible during the 16 years of his presidency.
But just how much change Sweeney actually wants remains to be seen. He beat Kirkland's right hand man, Thomas Donahue, by a margin of 56 percent, rightly arguing that Donahue would continue Kirkland's tradition of complacency. But Sweeney's own record is not so different. In fact, Sweeney sat quite contentedly on the AFL-CIO's executive council throughout most of Kirkland's tenure.
As president of the Service Employees' International Union (SEIU) for the last 15 years, Sweeney is well versed in the self serving ways of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy. For example, although he is already over-paid as president of SEIU (raking in $210,000 last year alone), he has continued to draw a pay cheque from his old New York City union local for 'consultant's fees'--which earned him an additional $450,000 over the last 13 years. He opposes the right of rank and file union members to vote for top union officials. And when a group of rank and file dissidents were elected into the leadership of a Los Angeles SEIU local earlier this year, Sweeney revoked the election and took over the local.
Like Donahue, Sweeney has already pledged the AFL-CIO's continued support to the Democratic Party and to Clinton's 1996 presidential campaign--even before it has begun. 'We firmly believe that President Clinton has done a great job as president,' said Sweeney recently. Clinton, who received a standing ovation at the AFL-CIO convention, wasn't even questioned as to why he didn't fulfil the two promises he made to US workers in the last campaign: to raise the minimum wage and to pass a bill banning the union busting tactic of permanently replacing workers who go on strike.
But John Sweeney is different in one important respect. He understands that the labour movement is in a crisis that has been decades in the making. Union membership has declined to dangerous levels, failing from 35 percent of the workforce in the mid-1950s to only 15.5 percent today--and to only 10.8 percent of workers in the private sector. The election of the Sweeney slate represents the first attempt by union leaders to face up to this problem. As Sweeney put it, 'I think it's time we did some things exceedingly big before we become exceedingly small.'
As SEIU president, Sweeney devoted 30 percent of the union's operating budget to organising, especially among the lowest paid service workers, like janitors and healthcare workers, with a great deal of success. And he has proposed that the AFL-CIO launches a major organising effort, starting with 1,000 new organisers in a 'Union Summer' in 1996, and a union organising drive in the traditionally non-union Southern states.
But whether or not Sweeney intends to make good on his promise to rebuild a fighting labour movement, his rhetoric fits the mood among rank and file unionists--at a time when both employers and workers have dug in their heels in a number of bitter, protracted disputes.
It certainly fits the mood of workers in Decatur, Illinois, where one in four families now have someone who is either on strike or locked out. or who was permanently replaced after being on strike. In Decatur, more than 750 workers at Staley, the corn processing plant owned by the British multinational Tate & Lyle, have been locked out of their jobs for two and a half years. Another 1,800 workers have been on strike against Caterpillar, the farm equipment manufacturer, for more than a year and a half. And rubber workers at Bridgestone/Firestone ended a ten month strike in May, but only 376 of the 1,250 union members have been allowed back to work--the rest have been permanently replaced by scabs.
Likewise, the mood is bitter among the 2,600 workers on strike since July against Detroit's two main newspapers. The bosses have openly declared their intent to bust the unions. In September a series of all night mass pickets involving thousands of strikers and supporters nearly prevented the paper from getting through the plant gates. The police force, which had received a $400,000 'donation' from the bosses, just watched when scab trucks drove into the pickets, injuring five. Then a judge granted the paper owners what they'd been seeking: an injunction limiting pickets to five.
And 32,500 machinists have been on strike against the airplane manufacturer, Boeing, since 6 October. As Stephan Wright, a striking machinist and union steward from Wichita, Kansas, argued, 'In the past ten years, labour's suffered some losses, but now we've learned. [The bosses] say we've got to make sacrifices. We've made sacrifices for ten years now... Boeing is carrying out a class war.'
The employers have carried out a class war against US workers for decades. Workers will expect more than words from Sweeney and the new AFL-CIO leadership.