The acknowledgment of Labor's existential crisis and the recognition that something must be done to resolve it is the key issue at the AFL-CIO's four-day quadrennial convention in Los Angeles. The urgency of the situation has compelled Labor's top officials to experiment in a search for solutions.
Most prominent among a variety of proposals is President Richard Trumka's push to bring non-union "Labor allies," such as possibly the NAACP, the Sierra Club and others, into some kind of formal relationship with the AFL-CIO. This has been met with concerns from both the Building and Construction Trades Department and the International Union of Operating Engineers, who have proposed a constitutional amendment that would restrict decision-making votes to "the members of the Executive Committee whose members’ employment opportunities and jobs are directly affected."
Also highlighted at the convention has been the growth of "Alt-Labor" organizations. These groups organize and mobilize workers in defense of their own interests without union recognition. They include among others the Organization United for Respect at Walmart, or OUR Walmart; the SEIU-backed strikes of fast food workers; the National Day Labor Organizing Network, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, all of whom have already signed partnerships with the AFL-CIO.
While these Alt-Labor groups do not have the legal protections of union organizing campaigns, they are also not subject to the legal restrictions that favor the employers of officially recognized efforts.
Indicating a dramatic fault-line in Labor just days before the convention, International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) President Robert McEllrath sent a letter to Richard Trumka announcing the union's disaffiliation from the AFL-CIO.
Because of its militant history, the role it has played in supporting working class issues and its power on the docks that are a key choke point for commerce, ILWU's disaffiliation draws into question whether the AFL-CIO has its house in order enough to reverse Labors decline.
In his letter, McEllrath notes how in 2008, an AFL-CIO affiliate filed unfair labor practice (ULP) charges against the ILWU, "...to try again to sabotage our bargaining." McEllrath continues:
"Since then, we have seen a growing surge of attacks from various affiliates. A particularly outrageous raid occurred in 2011, when one affiliate slipped in to fill longshore jobs at the new EGT grain facility in the port of Longview, Washington, and then walked through ILWU picket lines for six months until we were able to secure this critical longshore jurisdiction.
"Your office added insult to injury by issuing a directive to the Oregon State Federation to rescind its support of the ILWU fight at EGT, which threatened to be the first marine terminal on the West Coast to go non-ILWU. The attacks by affiliates against the ILWU have only increased."
The "affiliates" cited by McEllrath include the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). Significantly, both of these are known as craft unions, which organize workers according to a given trade. The ILWU, by contrast, is an industrial union, meaning that it organizes workers according a particular industry rather than a trade.
It now appears that the East Coast-based International Longshore Association (ILA) may follow the ILWU's example and disaffiliate from the AFL-CIO. In response to the ILWU's decision, leaders of the AFL-CIO have retaliated by refusing to extend "solidarity charters" and ousting the ILWU from local and state labor councils.
Because of their greater ability to completely shut down the production of an employer in the event of a strike, industrial unionism is seen as a more effective form of organizing workers against corporate interests. It was the growth of industrial unionism under the CIO in the 1930s that led to the greatest jump in union membership in U.S. history.
In addition, it compelled the political establishment to create reforms like Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act and other measures that have benefited workers for decades.
By siding with the IUOE and the IBEW in their raids of jobs that had traditionally belonged to the ILWU, the leadership of the AFL-CIO signaled its willingness to undercut the union movement’s strength in raising a fight against giant corporations like EGT and Goldman Sachs.
But without a commitment to strengthen the AFL-CIO's ability to wage such fights, it seems less and less likely that Labor will be able to reverse its decline, regardless of the experiments being promoted at its convention.
McEllrath's letter, significantly, brought up other disagreements with the leadership of the AFL-CIO that may be finding wider resonance among organized Labor.
"The ILWU has also become increasingly frustrated with the Federation's moderate overly compromising policy positions on such important matters as immigration, labor law reform, health care reform, and international labor issues," McEllrath writes. "We feel the Federation has done a great disservice to the labor movement and all working people by going along to get along. The Federation has not stood its ground on issues that are most important to our members.
"When President Obama ran on a platform that he would not tax medical plans at the 2009 AFL-CIO Convention, you stated that labor would not stand for a tax on our benefits. Yet the Federation later lobbied affiliates to support a bill that taxed our health care plans.
Similarly, the AFL-CIO and the ILWU have historically supported comprehensive immigration reform with a clear path to citizenship that protects undocumented workers from firings, deportations, and the denial of their rights. However, the immigration bill you recently asked us to support imposes extremely long waiting periods on the path to citizenship and favors workers with higher education and profitability to corporations, as opposed to the undocumented workers such as janitors and farm workers who would greatly benefit from the protections granted by legalization.
"As a labor movement, we need to stand up and be the voice for our members and working people," he adds. "We cannot continue to compromise on issues that benefit and protect the working men and women of America."
Supporters of McEllrath's position may have wished for a different course to be taken rather than the ILWU's disaffiliation. The argument, for many, is that the ILWU would be better situated to push its views by staying within the AFL-CIO and building partnerships to oppose the compromising positions of its leadership.
Still, what McEllrath is pointing out represents the key fault-line in Labor's foundation, one that is hampering its ability to turn the union movement around. The message is this: if unions are to reverse their current course and speak on behalf of the interests of all working people, its leadership must change its political approach.
Currently, Labor's top officials see their chief task as getting a seat at the political table. From this position they aim to push back against the most egregious examples of corporate greed, and advocate for reforms that benefit workers. Using their official positions to maintain class peace, they keep the political machine running smoothly.
However, as wealth has become more concentrated in fewer hands and corporations have consolidated their control over both major parties, the old arrangement is no longer necessary. From the point of view of the 1%, the structure of organized Labor is a relic from the days when there were militant mass movements that challenged their control and profit making. Today, the elites have no more use for Labor’s political support than a once-broken, now-healed arm has for a sling.
Ignored and rebuffed by the corporate parties, Labor's top leaders today have compromised the interests of their membership and all workers in the hope of appearing to be reasonable statesmen and not losing their minority seats at the political table. In doing so, they have exposed their own weakness to the corporations and become increasingly removed from their own members' interests.
If the unions’ direction is to be reversed, it will require a leadership that is not beholden to maintaining ties to powerful corporate politicians who dominate the Democrat and Republican parties. Rather, it will require an independent workers’ movement committed to building a social movement to challenge corporate political power in the streets and at the ballot box.
Political independence for Labor does not mean we reward our friends and punish our enemies in the corporate political establishment. It means we mobilize on a continuing basis, in the largest numbers possible, with our own demands that we do not water down according to what politicians like Obama say is possible. If the CIO had not done this in the 1930s, and instead focused its resources on lobbying campaigns such as they are done today, it never would have risen as a force in American society.
The lack of good jobs remains the overriding concern for the vast majority of working people. President Trumka and the AFL-CIO is on record supporting the creation of a federal jobs program paid for by taxing the rich. If Labor were to commit its resources towards building an independent social movement, there is no doubt it would draw in union and non-union workers in great numbers.
When it is only Trumka talking, it is easy for Obama to dismiss him. But when millions are in the streets demanding a jobs program, the people's call cannot be so easily overlooked. In addition, such a movement would help ease the competition between workers that is the underlying cause of the IUOE and IBEW raids on the ILWU.
Without the commitment to build a social movement, all the innovative ideas coming out of the AFL-CIO convention may come to little, if anything. Even union efforts to support low-wage workers at Walmart and in the fast food industry cannot, on their own, reverse the decline of workers' living standards. A politically independent workers movement for jobs, on the other hand, would seize this moment of political change and raise the possibility of workers' victories everywhere. It would move the vast majority's needs to the center stage at the expense of corporate greed, strengthening campaigns for a $15 minimum wage, amnesty for immigrants, health care for all and many other demands that workers need.
Mark Vorpahl is a union steward, social justice activist and a writer for Workers Action and Occupy.com. He can be reached at Portland@workerscompass.org.