The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Toward a "Revitalized" AFL-CIO?

Aug 20, 1995

This spring a dissident group, made up of the leaders of 23 unions, including the Teamsters, AFSCME, the UAW, USWA, IAM and SEIU, representing about 60 per cent of the AFL-CIO’s 13 million members, appeared inside the AFL-CIO. This dissident group tried to maneuver Lane Kirkland out as AFL-CIO president. At first the dissidents tried to convince Kirkland to step down at the October convention in favor of his secretary-treasurer, Thomas Donahue. But Kirkland refused. And refusing to run against Kirkland, Donahue stepped down. So the dissidents put together a slate running SEIU President John Sweeney for AFL-CIO president, UMWA President Richard Trumka for secretary-treasurer and AFSCME Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson for executive vice president, a post that would have to be created at the convention.

In the face of this opposition, Kirkland resigned with three months remaining in his term, and turned the reins over to none other than Thomas Donahue, the man the dissidents had originally proposed. Donahue will now face Sweeney in October. Donahue picked Barbara Easterling, Vice President of the CWA, to run for secretary-treasurer.

The Sweeney team says that the AFL-CIO has to face up to the growing problems confronting both the workers and the unions. Their positions are summarized in "Rebuilding the American Labor Movement: A New Voice for American Workers" that appeared on June 28. And they referred to themselves as the New Voice slate.

According to the document, "The crisis facing American workers and their families requires an unprecedented response from America’s unions. American workers are losing ground as never before."

On the one hand, the summary points out that workers are suffering from job and wage cuts. On the other hand, the U.S. labor movement has weakened considerably. "Where American unions once spoke for one worker in three—today’s unions speak for one worker in six.... A right wing avalanche has filled the void left by a weakened labor movement. American workers look about and see no one who speaks on their behalf."

So New Voice calls for, "...a reborn movement of American workers, ready to fight for social and economic justice, ready to meet the challenges of the new global economy in bold and innovative ways."


The first task the New Voice slate says is to organize workers into unions: "The most critical challenge facing unions today is organizing. There is much we can do to strengthen us for today’s battles—but without a massive increase in union membership we cannot prevail in the long run... we cannot wait for a change in the political climate to provide us with the opportunities to grow. We must first organize despite the law if we are ever to organize with the law."

The document then spells out how large a task this is: "We must organize at a pace and scale that is unprecedented. In order to simply stop the decline of the labor movement we need to gain more than a quarter of a million members every year—yet until recently the labor movement has been losing about 100,000 members every year, and despite modest membership gains in the past two years, we are still declining as a portion of the workforce. If we are to regain our position of strength, representing one worker in three, then we must add a million members a year for the next two decades."

In order to "organize at a pace and scale that is unprecedented", the dissidents propose to substantially beef up the forces that are now devoted to organizing, including a new emergency budget for organizing, a bigger Organizing Institute to train 1,000 new organizers, a new Organizing Department inside the AFL-CIO, a program to train and motivate workers to organize the unorganized and local coalitions with "community, religious, civil rights and other organizations".

In other words, these proposals boil down to continuing many of the same kinds of organizing campaigns that now are being carried out. The only difference is that the New Voice slate proposes to devote more energy, organizers and money to the effort.

But neither the lack of money nor the lack of energy explains the current decline of the union movement. The essential reasons for the sharp decline that the dissidents describe are political: the workers’ loss of confidence in their own strength, and therefore the unions. The working class does not have its own perspective, and therefore the workers have lost their consciousness of what the working class needs and what it can do: to organize in order to fight the ruling class and change the situation.

Putting more money and energy into unionizing may result in a few more members joining the unions. But this will hardly constitute the "unprecedented" results, the millions of new union members, that New Voice says is so necessary to revitalize the unions.

The problem is what policy is needed to change—whether in the short or long run—the very unfavorable balance of forces that are arrayed against the workers and the unions.

In the past, when workers formed unions on a massive scale, they also confronted the corporations’ economic power, which was backed up by their investors, banks and other companies, as well as the political support of the state apparatus. In these organizing campaigns, the workers took on a portion of the capitalist class.

The fights were very hard. Only through an upsurge of the class struggle that developed over a long enough period of time, could the fight be organized on a sufficient scale for the workers to triumph. This is how unions were built in the past. In 1877, the General Strike that swept over more than a dozen states and involved millions of workers, built the Knights of Labor. In 1886, the movement for the 8 hour day built the AFL. In the 1930s and 40s, the waves of mass strikes, general strikes, factory occupations, etc. built the industrial unions that went on to constitute the unions of the CIO and the AFL that the present union leaders head.

Of course, this does not mean that the mass workers movements of the future will look precisely like those of the past. In each of the large movements of the past, new strategies and tactics were invented to fit the particular circumstances. And this will be true of the movements of the future.

But this means enough workers will have to come together to form a powerful social movement that takes the offensive. This is not impossible, when workers have confidence in the strength and power that their numbers and organization gives them. However in order for the workers to even get to that level, those who aspire to lead them would have to propose a policy which starts changing the expectations and the consciousness of the working class and labor movement, a policy radically different from that of the unions in the last decades, which led to the current situation. But there is nothing of this in the New Voice platform.

"Changing Workers Lives"

Workers form unions in order to defend their interests. How can the unions do this? Says the document, "We must construct a labor movement that can change workers lives. We cannot continue to fight—even successfully—only defensive battles. While we must always struggle to protect the jobs and security of our members, we must recreate a movement that will improve the lives of working people, not just protect them from current assaults. Our members need to see a labor movement that is a powerful voice on behalf of their interests, and unorganized workers need to see a movement that can make their lives better. The Federation must be the fulcrum of a vibrant social movement, not simply a Federation of constituent organizations..."

This text, which discusses the need for workers to "recreate a movement", the need for the Federation to be a "fulcrum of a vibrant social movement, not simply a Federation of constituent organizations" is something of a departure from the usual bread-and-butter, contract-oriented rhetoric that comes from AFL-CIO higher-ups. But what does New Voice propose in order to achieve this?

They propose to create a Center for Strategic Campaigns to coordinate all national contract campaign efforts; a Strategic Campaign Fund to provide grants to unions in important and difficult contract fights; and a Strike Support Team of top people from various unions to be deployed into important strikes in their early hours and to help invigorate long strikes.

Once again, these proposals are merely administrative measures that won’t deliver what these union dissidents promise.

Why have so many strikes gone down to defeat? Once more, it was not because of a lack of money or organizers. It was because the union leaders acted as a brake. Sometimes they consciously tried to prevent any strikes from possibly widening and developing into a bigger movement. More often the union leaders did not give the necessary direction to the struggles. The last thing these union leaders wanted to do was to threaten the capitalists in any way. No, the problem of these strikes has always been at the level of policy.

Since at least the air traffic controllers strike in 1981, strikes have been broken by the bosses running production with scabs or shipping out production to other plants that are not on strike. The union leaders have never come up with an answer to this.

This is the fatal problem with the current Caterpillar strike. The UAW went into that strike flush with money. Their strike fund contains close to one billion dollars, out of which they have been paying the Caterpillar strikers $300 per week. Yet, Caterpillar is still running production, with not only scabs, but UAW workers at plants that had contracts and so were told by the union that they could not walk out. Besides that, parts plants with UAW workers are still building parts for Caterpillar factories. Of course, if the UAW does not even propose to mobilize all its forces in its own strike, why should other unions act any differently. A few months ago, the IAM signed a contract with Caterpillar 6 months early, as "proudly" reported by the AFL-CIO News. Teamsters continue to haul parts in, and finished tractors and engines out of Caterpillar plants.

So, despite the strike, Caterpillar is still running production... and making record profits.

The UAW can hold a rally in Decatur every now and then. Caterpillar workers can travel from city to city trying to drum up support. But the kind of support the Caterpillar workers need does not come in a petition, a letter, cans of food or even money. First, they have to close down Caterpillar, if it takes tens and hundreds of thousands of workers ready to bring the fight to Caterpillar. Besides that, they have to close down, or at least threaten to close down Decatur, Peoria and Chicago, until the Caterpillar workers get some justice. That is what it means to turn a defensive struggle into an offensive struggle. That is what can transform the union movement and give hope to workers everywhere. Of course, there is no guarantee that the workers at other plants are ready to join the struggle at Caterpillar. But it is the union leadership’s duty to propose the only policy that has any hope for success. Even if it did not work, this could prepare the next struggles of the working class.

But this is not the AFL-CIO’s policy. Their policy is exactly the opposite: each union and local for itself. And as the Caterpillar strike shows, where only a minority were even called out on strike, there is a greater tendency toward ever narrower strikes. This is the strategy of many of the union leaders who claim to represent "progressive forces" in the AFL-CIO. The UAW has banked on such narrow strikes, not just at Caterpillar, but at GM, claiming that they can win something by striking only a few key plants and disrupting production for a few days. Never mind that the company makes the production up quickly. Rich Trumka, who is running on Sweeney’s New Voice slate, originally ran for president of the UMWA saying that industry-wide strikes were no longer necessary, since he was a lawyer and could negotiate better contracts without striking. In fact, in the late 1970s it was the wildcat strikes that spread industry-wide and managed to pulled out the non-union mines, that allowed the miners to successfully beat back concessions. Since Trumka took over, the UMWA targets companies instead of carry out strikes that sweep through union and non-union mines. Meanwhile workers in the UMWA have had to take concessions, and they have seen their union continue to shrink considerably.

No, the unions are becoming more balkanized. Despite all the fine words, the Sweeney team does not address this major problem. And this spells business as usual, with all the consequences of a further decline for the unions and further concessions for the workers.

"Changing the Direction of American Politics"

On the political level, this is what the document says has to be done: "We must build a progressive political movement of working people.... In the political arena as in the workplace we must build power to create a better future for American workers and their families...

"Changing the direction of American politics will not be easy. We cannot borrow other people’s power. We cannot rely upon the power of any political party, or community organizations.... While we must reach out and embrace other progressive forces for change, we must above all build our own power by creating a strong grassroots political voice for working people in this country that speaks to their concerns and promotes a clear agenda for workers’ rights."

In order to do this, the Sweeney team proposes to create a National Labor Political Training Center to develop political campaign organizers and managers, and to recruit and train candidates; a Labor Center for Economic and Public Policy, which would work out policy questions; a restructuring of Central Labor Councils; and a Campaign ’96 fund to supplement COPE.

In this proposal, there is talk of candidates, campaign workers, think tanks, the need to be independent. Everything is there, except for any mention of the workers’ building their own independent party, that is, the most important point. Without proposing the dire necessity to build an independent workers party immediately, they can only leave everything the same. As always, workers will be told to support and contribute to candidates and campaigns in someone else’s party, which is the policy of Gompers and the old AFL a hundred years ago: "reward your friends and punish your enemies."

This is what has gotten the unions to where they are now. Whether or not the union officials are a little independent or are trying to pressure the Democrats by being more independent—as perhaps the opposition unionists are proposing—is immaterial. The problem is not how much the unions can pressure the Democratic Party. Pressure will not change what the party is: the political representative of the bourgeoisie, the workers’ class enemies.

The Democrats prove it every time. In 1992, a Democratic president and a Democratic controlled U.S. Congress were elected with the unions’ support. These politicians repaid union support by refusing to pass the most important items on the unions’ agenda, health care reform and the ban on permanent replacements, while they hurriedly enacted legislation to smash a railroad strike. This is precisely what a bourgeois party does. How often are the union leaders going to tell workers to vote for politicians who are sure to attack them?

In order for the unions to be politically independent, to "change the direction of American politics", they would have to break from the Democrats and every other party and politician who defends the interests of the bourgeoisie; they would have to build a party that consistently represents the workers interests. An independent workers party can do something unique in the political arena: tell the workers the truth. It can also run candidates, elect representatives, etc. But more importantly, it can help organize the workers as a class, that is, unite the workers’ scattered forces into one power to give hope and prospects to all, and carry out struggles on every level, including the political level, given all the attacks coming from the government, the constant rounds of cuts in social programs, layoffs by the government, etc. Through a party, the workers can forge links with other parts of the population, such as farmers, students, engineers and even small business people who are suffering under the same blows of capitalism, with its crises and wars, and who don’t know where to turn, and are therefore today being pulled by demagogues or militias (just as are many workers).

Only a policy whose goal is to mobilize the vast power of the workers as a class can "change the direction of American politics." Unfortunately, this is not what the dissident leaders are proposing.

"Labor Around the World"

Finally, the document focuses on the international situation. But here, the Sweeney team admits it has little different to propose from what the AFL-CIO has done and is doing. Says the document, "We must renew and refocus our commitment to labor around the world. We understand the critical role that the American labor movement plays around the globe. We are proud of our accomplishments over the years... We see it as our duty to continue to support the rights of workers everywhere and to help build free trade unions in every nation..."

In other words, according to the document, the AFL-CIO supports workers rights and trade unions around the world.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The AFL-CIO has consistently supported the foreign policy of the U.S. government and U.S. investments all over the world. First of all, this has led the union leaders to support every war: World War II, that is, the U.S. capitalists’ fight for domination of global markets, as well as the wars that followed to impose U.S. domination over entire peoples, Korea, Viet Nam, etc.

Far from fighting for free trade unions, as the document says, the AFL-CIO has participated with the CIA, U.S. State Department and the U.S. multinationals in crushing and purging unions in other countries that tried in any way to be independent or mobilize the workers to better their lives, which of course, endangered U.S. investments. This has been done on every continent on earth.

Of course, says the document, " today’s global economy we need to see our international efforts much more in terms of the self-interests of American workers." Therefore the document proposes to "build on the work that we have done..."

Make no mistake about it: this policy, and everything the AFL-CIO does to implement it, does not serve the interests of U.S. workers. For by working with U.S. imperialism to try to break the resistance of people in other countries, by helping to break their trade unions and other organizations, the AFL-CIO allows U.S. multinationals, along with all the other business interests to extract the maximum profit... and prepare the way for U.S. corporations to move more work overseas.

For the past 25 years, the AFL-CIO has blamed world trade—that is, imports coming into the U.S., as well as jobs exported from the U.S. to other countries—for the loss of jobs and the weakening of the unions. (In reality, speed-up and automation take many more jobs than trade does. The proof is that production continues to grow in this country, even while the number of jobs shrink.) But the AFL-CIO has only itself to blame when jobs leave the U.S., since it supports U.S. policy at every level. And it won’t be false fights against NAFTA or GATT, or the call for greater protectionism, which will stop this, since these jobs were leaving way before those treaties were enacted. This protectionist talk only serves to instill chauvinism in U.S. workers, getting them to identify with their enemies, the U.S. capitalists, and blame workers in other countries for what the U.S. capitalists are really doing.

In the document, the union leaders speak of meeting and learning from unions all over the world at "multinational trade union efforts in Europe, Scandinavia, Latin America, and elsewhere." But all those meetings and conferences amount to window dressing, as long as the AFL-CIO continues to identify U.S. workers’ interests with the interests of U.S. imperialism.

Only one policy serves the interests of U.S. workers. The unions would first have to break completely with U.S. imperialism, and oppose its wars, coups, military adventures. If the U.S. capitalists were no longer able to play U.S. workers off against workers in other countries, this would encourage the workers and the poor everywhere to take up their own fights to better their conditions, increase their wages, fight against repressive dictatorships, etc. And thus the barriers that today separate U.S. workers from workers in other countries would fall away. The fight of U.S. workers could be linked to the fight of workers everywhere.

This would be an internationalist policy. But obviously it is not at all what these union leaders have in mind.


Clearly, the dissidents running Sweeney for AFL-CIO president are not proposing a policy in any way different from that of the old leadership. This is not surprising, since this opposition is part of the old leadership. During their entire careers they have consistently defended and carried out the same policies. And even when they decided to openly oppose Kirkland, they had originally tried to get Kirkland’s lieutenant, Donahue, to be their candidate to preside over what passes for "reform".

At most, what the dissidents are proposing is to do the same things as in the past, but just more energetically. This may win them a few more members. But it will only slightly slow the decline and decomposition that has beset the unions and the working class.

The workers need a new leadership that breaks with this policy, a leadership ready to confront the capitalists and mobilize the workers’ power as a class in every arena: trade union, political and international. But a leadership that proposes to do this cannot accept the old capitalist framework based on the exploitation of the working class. On the contrary it must be ready to prepare the workers to overthrow it.

This is why the only new policy for the workers would be a revolutionary one.