Labor moves to offense

Free Choice Act victory lays out bolder agenda on trade, health care and worker solidarity

LAS VEGAS — The main focus of this week’s AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting was moving forward from the March 1 passage of HR 800, the Employee Free Choice Act, in the U.S. House of Representatives, federation President John Sweeney told reporters here.

But it was hard to ignore the impact on labor’s agenda of what Sweeney called “a turning point victory.” A tidal wave of confidence and enthusiasm engendered by that 241-185 vote engulfed every point on the meeting’s agenda. One by one, the issues of organizing, politics, health care, the Iraq war, global solidarity and trade rose to the surface, steeped in a new boldness and fighting spirit.

Health care, Iraq

One unexpected development was a health care resolution, passed without dissent by the 47-member council. It called for universal coverage, with the government playing “the central role in regulating, financing and providing health care.” It singled out Medicare as a system that could be “updated and expanded to fit the needs of the working population and children.”

Some observers noted the contrast with the last meeting, in August 2006, at which federation leaders called for universal coverage but did not reach consensus on the key question of a government role. This time, pressures of the crisis coupled with confidence in labor’s ability to promote its own solution resulted in unanimity.

A resolution on Iraq moved beyond the position adopted at the federation’s 2005 convention. At that time the federation called for bringing the troops home rapidly. Now the council issued a call to Congress to insist on a timetable for disengagement.

‘Fair trade not “free” trade’

Steelworker President Leo Gerard presented the trade resolution in unvarnished class solidarity terms. Labor is not against trade, he said, but opposes “exploitive trade that pits worker against worker and country against country.”

The AFL-CIO’s trade program calls for a halt in negotiation of trade agreements until all existing pacts — NAFTA, CAFTA and those that came after — can be reviewed and evaluated for their effect on workers, jobs, communities and the environment in all countries involved.

“We need international standards so no corporation can gain advantage by violating workers’ rights,” said Gerard.

The resolution prioritizes ending the president’s “fast track” authority. Fast track allows the president to bypass Congress in negotiating trade deals.

Filibuster or veto?

The Employee Free Choice Act still faces significant hurdles: a threatened filibuster in the Senate and Bush’s firm promise of a veto. Nevertheless, AFL-CIO Organizing Director Stewart Acuff predicted Senate passage of the bill this year.

“There is much discomfort on Capitol Hill about some of the things being said by the Republican leadership,” Acuff explained. “When the president of the United States says he is going to do everything in his power to block a measure that will strengthen and expand the middle class,” there is pressure on moderate Republicans to get off the bandwagon. Not one of the bill’s 241 House supporters, including 13 Republicans, reneged on their commitment to the bill despite an all-out campaign by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Sweeney added that if it’s necessary to elect a new president in 2008 to enact the bill into law, “it would be done.”

2008 plans

The council unanimously adopted a process for participation in the run up to the 2008 presidential nomination. It emphasizes membership involvement, said Gerald McEntee, president of AFSCME and head of the federation’s political action committee. It will include a six-month series of events in which union members will discuss issues and where candidates will hear directly from union members.

The AFL-CIO is asking national unions to refrain from making a primary endorsement until its General Board acts in September, following an August candidates’ forum in Chicago.

Organizing and winning

The wave of popular support for workers’ rights seems to have energized organizing campaigns across the country. Acuff presented a two-page report listing dozens of “large scale” organizing campaigns that he said unions have been running and winning, mostly outside the flawed National Labor Relations Board processes which EFCA seeks to remedy.

Two of the biggest successes are the 65,000 home child care workers organized in five states by AFSCME, and 11,000 Cingular workers unionized under an employer-agreed-to card-check arrangement. EFCA advocates point to the massive Cingular campaign as an example of how the card-check process expedites the realization of worker organizing rights.

“We are ramping up our ability to organize on a greater scale and at a greater pace,” said Acuff. While many recent victories have been in public sector organizing, the federation is now focusing resources on “tough targets” in the private sector, such as Verizon Business and Verizon Wireless, he added. The Verizon campaign is based on a partnership of former rival unions CWA and IBEW.

Larry Cohen, CWA president and head of the federation’s organizing committee, said the House passage of the Employee Free Choice Act should be seen broadly, not as just a victory for unions. “It’s about working families more than about unions,” he said.

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