The Trade Union Movement in the USA
by George Meyer — Chairman CPUSA Labor Commission
This article was first published in the October 1997 issue of Political Affairs, the theoretical journal of the CPUSA.
The difference between the AFL-CIO Convention in New York in 1995 and the Pittsburgh Convention was the difference between night and day.
The 1995 Convention, held at a time of continuing decline of the trade union movement both organisationally and politically, was marked by division and tension as centre and left forces launched a successful drive to oust the right-wing gang who had dominated the labour movement for 40 years. A polite resolution recognising their past leadership was adopted, but their influence on the 1997 Convention was absolutely nil.
This Convention was a united convention marked by a spirit of confidence and resurgence, based on a conviction that under the new leadership, a marked turn for the better was being made. At the same time, there was recognition that labour still had a long way to go to regain its strength.
The 900-plus delegates and alternates enthusiastically adopted a comprehensive program whose major thrust was on mass mobilisation beginning at the grass roots — rank-and-file members in the unions and broad coalitions in working-class communities. The message of the Convention was clear, “You Have A Voice — Use It!”
The bankrupt go-it-alone craft mentality of past leaders who contentedly drew their fat salaries while the AFL-CIO was rapidly going down the drain, has been replaced by a policy of mobilising the strength of the entire labour movement behind the economic and political struggles in the unions and in the communities.
The solid victory of the UPS strike by the Teamsters, won with the support of the rest of labour, proved the soundness of this policy of “one for all and all for one”. The victory of the 1O-month Wheeling-Pitt strike, the successful years-long struggle to preserve a union at Firestone-Bridgestone Tire, the international support during General Electric negotiations and the broad campaign to organise the low-paid janitors and strawberry workers, were other examples of the effectiveness of this policy.
The removal of the vicious and illegal “anti-Communist” clause that has befouled the AFL-CIO Constitution since its founding in 1955 is a key to where the “new” AFL-CIO is going. Its elimination by unanimous vote indicates a decisive rejection of the past class collaborationist policies which saw top trade union leaders working hand-in-glove with such notorious anti-labour elements as the House Un-American Activities Committee, the National Association of Manufactures, the Chamber of Commerce and Hoover’s FBI in the firing and blacklisting of thousands of Communists and other left trade unionists by the corporations.
It further indicates a rejection of past policies which saw the AFL-CIO collaborating with the CIA in the bloody destruction of socialist Salvador Allende’s duly elected government in Chile and attempts to smash other governments and unions that did not welcome the US multinational corporations and banks with open arms.
And what was the payoff for labour? Taft-Hartley and a host of anti-labour laws, a “union-free environment”, and global contempt expressed in the scornful label “AFL-CIA”.
Communists welcome this long-overdue action. We seek no special privileges in the trade union movement or any other democratic organisation, but we do insist on our democratic rights. We ask only to be judged on our work as we join with others not yet convinced of the need for socialist solutions in common struggle for the advancement of our working people.
Following the enthusiastic reception of President John Sweeney’s keynote speech, the first day of the Convention was devoted to the decisive question of a massive united AFL-CIO campaign to organise the unorganised. The Convention clearly recognised its success as indispensable to the success of every other undertaking of the trade union movement.
For the first time, the AFL-CIO has set up a Department of Organisation. It is now devoting 30 per cent of its income to organising, compared to a previous five per cent, and is urging all its affiliates to follow suit. It is planning to organise not only individual facilities, but whole regions and industries. For example, it supports the new Steel Workers Organising Committee, (SWOC) in that union’s intensified campaign to organise steelworkers.
The second day was devoted to political action. Emphasis was on the slogan, “Vote as workers”. More trade unionists were urged to run for public office. President Sweeney proposed 2000 candidates by the year 2000.
Renewed emphasis was given to the determination to oust more right-wing members of the House in the next Congressional election.
Opposition was expressed to a bill before Congress which would curtail the rights of third parties. There was a hearty round of applause when Sweeney demanded campaign funding reform and urged public funding for all federal campaigns, with free television and radio time for all candidates.
A dramatic elevation of the role of the state and local central labour councils is an important move in helping to mobilise the rank and file and co-ordinate the work of the unions under their jurisdiction, of their work in both economic and political campaigns.
A drive is already advanced to involve every Central Labor Council in “Union City” whose thrust is to organise more workers. “When we gain more members, we will have the strength to win better contracts for our current members, build communities in which a living wage is the prevailing wage, and lead a broad movement for social and economic justice,” said one delegate.
A remarkable document, Street Heat, has been produced in order to assist the Central Labor Councils with concrete instructions on how to mobilise the grass roots in the community. Everything from how to put out a press release to organising a mass demonstration is in it.
While the Convention again reaffirmed its support of affirmative action, the composition of the delegates was still largely white and male. Sweeney took critical note of this in remarks to the Convention.
In contrast, well over 100 rank-and-file and lower-level leaders were ushered to the platform with considerable applause, to describe their leading role in organising drives and other campaigns. Among them were a considerable number of women unionists, as well as African Americans, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Asian Americans.
The Central Labor Councils are seen as a key to having the leadership reflect the composition of the membership. A strong resolution to this effect called for “more women and ‘people of color’” as delegates to the CLCs.
In the same vein, attacks on immigrant workers, both with and without papers, was vigorously condemned on a number of occasions.
Repeated opposition to NAFTA and “Fast Track” were sounded throughout the Convention. Vice-President Gore did not dare mention his support for it when he spoke, while his probable coming rival for the presidency, Richard Gephart, received a standing ovation when he blasted it.
President Clinton was given a very brief introduction by Sweeney when he spoke, and was interrupted by cries from the floor when he sought to defend his “Fast Track” trade policy. He received only polite applause at the conclusion of his speech. Wednesday afternoon’s session was the scene of a huge demonstration with the entire delegation marching around the Convention carrying big placards with the demand, “No Fast Track”.
The discussion on foreign policy was far removed from anything in the past. In his opening, Sweeney made it clear that “simply defeating Fast Track won’t be enough to help protect American jobs”, noting that increasingly, policies that affect the lives of US workers “are made in the board rooms of multinational corporations that compete in the global economy”.
He went on to declare, “What we must do is create new alliances with other unions in other nations, global unions, if you will, in key industries and key companies”. During the Convention, General Electric workers from a number of other countries were on stage to dramatically impress this point. GE, one of the first US “multinationals,” has manufacturing facilities in well over 100 countries.
Sweeney called for closer relations with the trade unions in the developed countries and with workers struggling to survive in the “sweatshops of Indonesia, in the shantytowns of Mexico and Brazil”.
He concluded with the need to “reach higher and do more if we are to organise workers in the reality of our cruel new global economy”, and to ”fuse our financial resources with the strength of our old friends here at home and our new friends around the world”. Three resolutions on Cuba, two calling for an end to sanctions and one from Florida favoring tougher sanctions, were tabled for further discussion.
An omnibus resolution on jobs was passed, but with no mention of the Martinez Bill. However, Ron Given, newly-elected secretary-treasurer of IUE, spoke strongly in its support.
Among those who addressed the delegates, Kweisi Mfume, head of the NAACP, made an outstanding speech identifying the NAACP with the goals of organised labour.
The Rev Jessie Jackson led a mass demonstration against privatisation at the Convention’s conclusion. Jackson criticised the emptiness of Clinton’s call for a national dialogue on race. “They say let’s have a dialogue on race, and we say let’s have a dialogue on class,” he said.
The terms of the officers were extended to four years while the conventions will continue to be held every two years.
On Teamster President Carey, the three top officers held a press conference on the Monday before the Convention opened. The first question fired at them dealt with the charges around the Teamster elections. Sweeney’s sharp response in effect was, “The corporations would like to make this the main issue before the Convention and we are not going to let that happen.”
The Convention expressed strong support for Carey. There was a conviction he was being punished for the successful UPS strike. When he gave one of the reports to the Convention he was greeted with a standing ovation.
Efforts to strengthen contacts between organised labour and the intellectual community are continuing. In 1998, the AFL-CIO and the University College Labor Association will jointly sponsor a labour education conference. The goal of the conference is “to bring together union and university labour educators, researchers, and activists committed to revitalising and strengthening the labour movement through developing rank-and-file leadership for the long haul”, according to a paper made available at the Convention.
The spirit that permeated this Convention was one of a militant determination to elevate the status of workers and their trade unions far above present low levels. This provides both the opportunity and responsibility for every individual and organisation on the left to join fully with labour in this endeavor.