The Debates in Labor: Danger or Historic Opportunity

December 1, 2004

I want to thank the Labor Commission and the many individual trade union comrades who wrote or called me. Their invaluable input helped to make this a collective report.

Despite our best efforts, and the best efforts of a vast labor-led all people’s coalition, Bush and the most reactionary, right wing sections of US capitalism won the 2004 elections. Objectively, the working class and the labor movement suffered an enormous setback. We have to face the reality and the gravity of the situation. Yet we have to face it with courage, boldness and a fighting attitude!

Over a year ago, in another report to the National Board, then meeting in Chicago, we noted that an intense debate was beginning to emerge in the leadership of the trade union movement. The debate centers on how best to move the labor movement forward to meet the challenges of declining numbers and declining economic and political clout.

We not only talked about the debate, we acknowledged and talked about some of the critical questions being raised. Many of the issues raised then have become even more acute for labor in the face of Bush’s election.

Last year we also made clear our feeling that the 2004 elections struggle was the central battle for labor at the time. We knew that the debate on these issues would continue with sharply held views being expressed. The debate did continue, even expanded, but was by and large held out of public view, as labor fought for maximum unity to defeat Bush. It was clear then that after the election, no matter the outcome, the debate on labor’s future would re-emerge in a big way. And it has.

Some Background and Context

Before we get to the specifics of how the debate has emerged after the elections, bear with me while I repeat for emphasis some of the political context.

Not since the CIO organizing days, have we seen such an aroused, united, energized and mobilized labor movement as we saw in the union efforts to defeat Bush and the rightwing. And our trade union comrades were for the most part right in the thick of all this. Like our fellow workers, we were also pumped and standing in our place in unprecedented ways.

A few of the facts are staggering. A quarter of a million volunteers worked in the Labor 2004 program. 5500 staff and union members worked full time in battleground states. Union members knocked on more than 6 million doors in neighborhood labor walks. This doesn’t count the thousands of union activists and their families who also worked in coalitions like Voices for Working Families, ACT and Move On, or in coalitions with African American, Latino, Asian, Native American, Women, youth, peace, Gay and Lesbian and other advocacy or community based organizations, both local and national.

Union members passed out more than 32 million leaflets at workplaces and in neighborhoods – 6 million in the critical battleground state of Ohio alone. Union phone banks made many millions of calls to union households. For the first time, hundreds of union members in non-battleground states got on buses, got in cars, on trains and in planes to travel to battleground states to campaign.

These were experiences that changed people’s lives. It’s interesting, many comrades and friends I’ve talked to about these experiences note how powerful it was to get to work with rank and file members of other unions this way. For many it was the first time to work with someone from another union or even another local so intensely side-by-side. It built solidarity and friendships that will last far longer than the election results.

I know from my own travels to West Virginia for a week with the steelworkers, that these were transforming, eye-opening experiences. For me it was a great opportunity to see first-hand union work in rural areas greatly influenced by evangelical Christian churches. There are many lessons to be learned.

I attended two District 7-wide steelworker events in the last couple of weeks. District 7 covers most of Indiana and Illinois. Indiana was hit hard – they lost the state house, the senate and the governorship. One meeting was the district Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) convention and the other was a meeting of local union presidents, SOAR leaders and Rapid Response activists to evaluate our election work. What was fascinating about both these meetings was the dogged determination of the rank and file delegates and leaders in the face of four more years of Bush. It wasn’t so much anger as just a stubborn determination that we go back to work to beat back the ultra-right. The big discussion was picking five or six key state house districts to start working in right now to defeat rightwing reps and take back the state house. Their main concern was what do we have to do to keep together the union-community coalitions for the long haul.

My point is that this powerful grassroots genie cannot be put back in the bottle no matter what problems we face with four more years of an ultra-rightwing administration. The work that labor did, the coalitions that labor helped build, the skills and lessons that labor developed, all move us forward. There is no feeling of surrender, but instead a heightened mood of fight back. Another important point is that all of the activity and experience in the elections makes good background for a debate on labor’s future. And it helps bring thousands of new labor activists into the discussions.

A second extremely important part of the political landscape is the stepped up and unprecedented attacks on labor. The economic attack is incredible. Just take a look at the airline industry. Talk about activist judges. With a stroke of a pen they let giant transnational corporations drop pension plans and cut health care, cut wages, violate work rules, including safety rules, for tens of thousands of workers.

While I was in West Virginia I attended a United Mineworkers press conference. Rich Trumka, Cecil Roberts and a group of rank and file Horizon miners told us how a bankruptcy judge had just wiped out their pensions and health care coverage – again with the stroke of a pen. This is out and out theft as sure as if the judges had gone into the miner’s and airline worker’s bank accounts and drained them into the company account. Comrades, the theft of pensions is a national crisis. It’s an all-out attack on the working class and our standard of living. And not just those who have union pensions. Privatizing Social Security and stealing pensions go hand in hand.

Steelworkers will remember Wilbur Ross, he’s the one who bought dozens of steel companies at bargain basement prices, extorted hundreds of millions in concessions from the steelworkers and then turned around and sold his steel empire, International Steel Group, to Mittal for a cool $4.5 billion. Mittal is now the largest global steel monopoly and is driving down the working conditions and wages for steelworkers around the world. Well, Wilbur Ross has now started the International Coal Group and bought up Horizon Coal at bargain basement prices with no pensions and no health care responsibilities. He also has an international textile company — you can see where this is all going.

And the list of economic attacks goes on: overtime rule changes that cheat an estimated 6 million workers, contracts that reduce or eliminate healthcare, out and out wage cuts and concessions, etc, etc. This is a sustained economic attack on workers and their families that makes the Reagan years look almost tame.

Now comes the political attack. Just a few examples: Trent Lott and the Tom Delay gang already have National Right-to-Work (for less) legislation sitting in committee ready to go. They want to outlaw card check union organizing also. Already in state legislatures they are targeting prevailing wage laws, workers compensation laws, state right-to-work-laws, unemployment benefits, health and safety laws.. In addition, the National Right to Work foundation, with the full support of the Bush administration I’m sure, is filing suits against several unions and the AFL-CIO for what it calls misuse of union dues for election work. Expect to see legislation aimed at further hamstringing labor’s independent political action.

My point here is that the economic attack on workers and labor is literally life and death. Big capital is out to drive down wages and living conditions for workers. They are pursuing their dream of a ‘union free environment.’ No discussion about the future of labor can be abstracted from this truth. Discussion has to be linked to struggles on the ground, right now.

The Debate

The election of John Sweeney, Linda Chavez-Thompson and Rich Trumka to head the AFL-CIO in 1995 marked an important turning point for US labor. In many ways it was the rejection of past class collaborationist policies beaten into the labor movement by big business in the Red-Scare days of McCarthyism. It was a critical first step in rejection of business unionism. It was the culmination of a struggle inside Labor to change direction. But it was hardly the end of the discussion.

Perhaps the most important change of the Sweeney, Chavez-Thompson, Trumka election was to open the doors in labor for a much bigger debate on direction. And it has not been an Ivory Tower debate.

Union density has been debated in the context of some dramatic efforts and daring experiments in organizing, like the Justice for Janitors campaign or the organizing of Home Healthcare Workers. Labor political clout is debated in the context of dramatic increases in union independent political action such as the Labor 2000 and 2004 campaigns to defeat Bush. Labor’s relationship to the Democratic party has been debated in the context of the AFL-CIO’s campaign to elect 2000 trade unionist to office in the year 2000 (over-fulfilled) and the Target 5000 campaign to more than double that number by 2006.

Labor solidarity has been debated in the concretes of developing labor/community alliances to support all kinds of labor struggles like the Longshore lockout in 2003, the Grocery workers strike this year, the UPS strike in 1997 and the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride last year. Labor’s internationalism has been debated in the context of growing labor opposition to the war in Iraq and basic challenges within labor to blind support for US State Department policies in Venezuela, Cuba, and Columbia.

These are just some quick examples, but they illustrate the point that the debate going on now in labor is rooted in struggle and change. When you remember that the AFL-CIO threatened to lift charters of Central Labor Councils that dared to speak out against the war in Vietnam, you get a perspective on how much the changes in 1995 opened the doors and set the stage for today’s debates.

New Unity Partnership

The New Unity Partnership (NUP) group in the AFL-CIO has become the lightning rod for much of the debate going on now. NUP is made up of the leaders of SEIU, UNITE-HERE, the Laborers and the Carpenters unions. For a couple of years now they have been trying to organize debate around their vision of change. They have issued white papers, written articles and provoked debate wherever possible.

Most attention gets focused on their vision of sweeping reorganization of the unions and AFL-CIO. They propose merging unions down into a dozen or so unions more centered in specific industries and sectors of the economy. For example: all health care union workers into one union. They want more accountability in the AFL-CIO structure so that unions can be counted on to carry out agreed upon policy and programs, etc.

But their program also calls for united labor and community mass campaigns for healthcare and to organize WalMart. They speak of international trade union solidarity and expanding ties. They raise issues of equality and diversity and the need to improve representation at all levels of labor. And they stress organizing the unorganized.

NUP has upped the ante in recent months by raising the possibility of leaving the AFL-CIO if the changes they advocate are not enacted quickly. Andy Stern, president of SEIU, has been particularly outspoken in public. This, in turn, has provoked a response from the Machinist union that passed a resolution at their national convention authorizing the leadership to take the IAM out of the AFL-CIO if unwanted changes are adopted.

Recently the NUP folks launched a web site: SEIU most recently put forward a ten point program ‘Unite to Win,’ available on the website. They not only introduced it at the last meeting of the AFL-CIO but have mailed it to all Central Labor Councils (CLC’s) and national unions.

Also on the ‘Unite to Win’ website you will find a position paper by a prominent group of CLC leaders, including the Cleveland, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Central New York and Denver CLC’s, titled ‘Uniting Locally, Growing Nationally.’ And a response by the Oregon state CLC. They advocate a four-point program for CLC’s that is in substantial agreement with the issues and program raised by NUP.


While the NUP initiatives have received the most attention in the mainstream press, the discussion and debate is much broader. Again much of the current debate is rooted in the changes made in 1995 with the election of Sweeney. Nor did the Sweeney team just make a few changes and then sit back. These last ten years have seen a multitude of initiatives and experiments from political mobilization to reorganizing CLC’s (‘Union Cities’ & ‘New Directions’) to Working America, a project to recruit union members at-large, not based on a union contract in a workplace, to name a few of the bigger ones.

At last August’s AFL-CIO executive council meeting, when the beat Bush mobilization was in high gear, Sweeney nevertheless announced that the federation would launch a comprehensive discussion of change after the elections. Then in early November, in their first council meeting after the elections, Sweeney outlined a plan and a timeline for a comprehensive dialogue on change.

In a memo about his proposals sent to the unions and CLC’s, Sweeney makes the point that what is needed is not a narrow internal debate in a small section of the leadership. He says, ‘Rather we need to open up this discussion to all levels of the movement and hear everyone’s voice. We need to examine all ideas and debate all recommendations.’ Sweeney asks all unions, all CLC’s, constituency groups (CLUW, CBTU etc), and allied organizations to submit a list of issues they feel must be addressed by the end of the year. He said that the executive council will establish vehicles for input from rank and file members and union activists and also conduct similar outreach for ‘friends of labor.’

The AFL-CIO plan is comprehensive and inclusive, inviting a great deal of activism and debate leading up to the July convention.

What is our Role?

We have to be in the thick of this discussion and debate. Already comrades and friends around the country are wanting to know what we think. Both the Party and the YCL have relations with labor on a whole new footing. And while our good work in the recent elections has greatly enhanced our standing – our relations are built on much hard work over a long period of time.

In the last few years we can point to the excellent work of the PWW. Many union activists see the paper as indispensable for their work. We have labor coverage like no other and we link all aspects of the class struggle and the people’s struggles to labor.

Though we have fewer trade union comrades than we did just ten years ago, those we have are much more deeply embedded in the work of their unions, many in leadership positions. And we as the Party and YCL have been in the thick of struggles, side by side with unions: anti-(capitalist) globalization and trade issues, strike support and solidarity movements, student labor activism, labor peace initiatives, immigrants rights, organizing the unorganized, labor legislation issues, just to name some key areas.

Our new standing means that activists, left and center, in labor want to know what we think.

I think that this may be the opportunity of a lifetime to participate in a historic discussion about the basic program and future of labor. A bunch of things are coming together in a unique way:

Labor is at a crossroads and must change and adapt to the new situation. Capitalist globalization is reshaping world production and economic patterns in ways that threaten the living standards of all workers, everywhere. Ultra-right political control of all three branches of the US government mean stepped up attacks on workers, their unions, their communities, and their families. US Imperialist aggression and domination in the world aggravate the points above and threaten the very lives and future livelihood of working class youth. The decline in union membership, especially in the vital private and manufacturing sectors, have critically weakened labor’s political and economic clout.

Our principles

But how we engage in the discussion and debate is most important. While it is way beyond the scope of this report to get into all the programmatic issues being debated, I do want to raise what I think are some points of principle about our contribution.

Number one is that working class unity and trade union unity are bedrock principles for us. No way can we support any proposals that split or divide the labor movement. Especially now, it the face of four more years of an ultra-right administration bent on destroying labor, any dividing or weakening of labor unity would be the height of self-defeating folly. Threats to leave serve no one but labor’s enemies. And the changes that need to be made cannot be ‘hot-housed’ or rammed through.

Comparing this period to the period when the CIO was formed is superficial at best, and delusional at worst. Just for starters, when the CIO was formed, the government was not dominated by ultra-right, anti-union zealots out to destroy labor. Instead the Wagner act was passed, finally recognizing labor’s right to organize. FDR used his bully pulpit to proclaim that if he were a worker he would join a union. And while the CIO had some of the most committed and forward looking labor leaders, it was based on mass organizing committees like Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) made up of thousands of rank and file activists in the key shops.

This point about unity is so critical that I think we have to explore concrete steps to fight for unity in the heat of this debate. One idea is ‘unity and change’ resolutions from local and national unions, allied and related organizations and even groups of rank and file workers who reject any splits and call for unity building measures and common struggle for change.

One last point on unity. Working class unity is first and foremost about multiracial, multinational unity. Black, Brown and white unity is not just about diversity and representation. It is about fighting racism and for equality. To unite all of labor requires an affirmative program and action for equality on all fronts.

Number two is that labor does have to change to meet the challenges ahead. No one seriously disputes this idea. But what is missing in much of the discussion is a fundamental answer to the question, ‘What are the challenges ahead for labor.’ Much of the debate seems to center on structural or organizational changes. Well and good, but not all the problems facing labor are internal. Changes also have to flow from a vision of where labor is going and what kind of fight it’s up against a bit down the road.

Take for example all the struggles around health care. Unions are constantly losing ground in their individual battles and contract struggles on this issue. As the Autoworkers put it in their last negotiations with the Big Three car makers, there are no solutions to the health care crisis company by company and union by union. Solving this crisis for workers requires a confrontation with the medical and insurance companies and the medical establishment and a head on legislative fight for a comprehensive national health care system that covers all.

Number three is closely related to number two. Only class struggle trade unionism will win for the working class in the end. Or to put it another way – where is the class struggle in this debate? Efficiency, and organization, and leverage are important considerations to be sure, but so are militancy, solidarity, coalition building and winning advances. After all workers don’t join unions to take pay cuts, and lose healthcare and pensions. With all the money in the world spent on organizing, unions can’t attract new members if we can’t show a way to win concessions from capital and the corporations. ‘Go along, to get along,’ strategy won’t get the job done.

Besides merging unions and increasing accountability we have to talk about a whole range of issues. A couple quick examples: We need national contracts with common expiration dates in industries and sectors. We need to rebuild the shop steward system in the workplace in a way that goes way beyond ‘legal’ policing of the contracts, to mass mobilization in the workplace to win grievances and stop company abuses. We need to return the union ‘center of gravity’ to the rank and file in the workplace. We need to strengthen union democracy and diversity at all levels.

Class struggle trade unionism also means working class internationalism. It means increasing contact and alliances with unions and workers around the world. It means fighting government policies that promote transnational capital’s globalization goals. It also means opposing military adventures like Iraq. Not only do our member and workers get killed for no good reason, but vast resources get wasted. How can we win the battle for healthcare, social security, pensions etc while wasting billions overseas in hot and cold military action that only serves the interests of companies like Halliburton?

And principle number four is that this debate and discussion has to become the property of the rank and file. It is also a practical question. The only change that really matters and really transforms things is change that is embraced by the vast majority of trade union members. Getting this debate into the workplaces, union halls and central labor councils is central to any real change.

Some Cautions

Already there is a tendency to demonize those you disagree with in this debate. That won’t get us anywhere and besides it is unfair in the house of labor. We should not question the motives of labor leaders who are frustrated and anxious for change. Andy Stern, and the SEIU have come in for some bashing. I don’t agree with that approach. Disagree on issues and methods, but also recognize the outstanding contributions individual unions have made to labor. Look at the many innovative and winning organizing drives SEIU has built, look at their commitment to defeating Bush. Look at the labor community coalitions of UNITE-HERE, their initiating role in the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. And agree or not with specific proposals, these unions have helped foster what could be a historical debate in labor.

I also think we have to avoid ‘slicing and dicing’ the labor movement. Some say it’s a struggle between the public unions and the industrial unions. Some say it’s just a power struggle at the top between the young hotheads and the current leadership. Some want to characterize it as a struggle between left and right, or ultra left versus the center forces. I don’t see any light in such characterizations. Let’s deal with the substance of the issues being raised, not get caught up in speculation and ‘intrigue.’

Last caution. It’s very good and important that everyone feels a sense of urgency for change. The corporate attacks and four more years of a dangerous anti-labor administration should drive us all to seek solutions. But obviously the answers are not simple. The problems labor faces did not develop just yesterday. I think we have to be the voice of patience and measured response. We have to base our approach on confidence in the rank and file union membership.

In Conclusion

I think we have to enter into these discussions with an open mind and great anticipation for important developments ahead for labor. We have a lot to contribute. I recently re-read some of the Party Labor programs. Rereading the ‘Fresh Winds’ program and the updating that we did at our last convention in 2000, I think we are in a unique position to be helpful and constructive.

The debate is happening and will continue to happen. It is necessity and it is natural historical development. We have to be in the thick of it and we have to ‘stand in our place.’


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