Reflections on the debate in labor

My Mac is about the size of a soapbox so I thought I would use it as such today (May 29). I just took a look at the home pages for the AFL-CIO and then the four big unions challenging its leadership.

It is clear that the AFL-CIO home page puts a high priority on political action against the Bush administration’s right-wing anti-labor policies. It features a “Bush Watch,” as well as organizing efforts of the federation’s affiliates. It highlights labor law reform that says workers’ voices should be decisive in union recognition.

The other four sites have much less on political action for workers and anti-Bush battles, and focus on their organizing efforts and fight against the AFL-CIO leadership. Of the four, the Laborers appear to me to have the most on political action and the Teamsters the least.

This does not bode well as I see it, especially when the declaration of the four against the AFL-CIO leadership only indirectly refers to political action. (A bigger labor movement will have more power, but don’t we have to fight Bush tooth and nail now?) The declaration does say workers have a right to be part of bigger more effective unions. So one possible scenario is that, as the AFL-CIO is busy fighting Bush, these other unions will leave and try to get many of the remaining AFL-CIO members into their unions. Isn’t that sweet?

The all-out attack of the top leaders of these four big and important unions on the leadership of the AFL-CIO has made me appreciate the historic contribution of that leadership.

In some ways, the attack has brought out the best in it. Listen to how AFL-CIO President John Sweeney talks about the economic, political and ideological problems the workers and people must confront:

“Working people and their unions are under attack from every direction — from a harsh, globalized and corporate-driven economy, and from elected ideologues who put corporate profits over people and embrace the shredding of America’s safety nets to create an ‘ownership society.’ Never has there been a greater need for a strong and unified union movement.”

The four “reform” union leaders’ position paper stresses that having bigger unions is the top priority for the day. The “reform” package does not mention George Bush. Here is what the AFL-CIO leaders’ paper says about Bush:

“When George W. Bush assumed the presidency, he declared war on working families and our unions through crippling executive orders. His tax breaks for the wealthy widened our wage and wealth gap, destroyed our federal budget surplus and decimated programs for working families and the poor. Bush sided with his friends in corporate America, whose policy agenda of labor market ‘flexibility,’ unfair trade and disdain for workers’ rights already was choking working people. Job loss in heavily unionized industries exploded, and America hemorrhaged 2.8 million manufacturing jobs. Key industrial unions suffered large-scale membership declines, and other unions struggled to hold even.”

There is a lot said today on both sides about how the Los Angeles labor movement is a model of what the labor movement can be. Well, political action is one of the hallmarks of the LA County Federation along with organizing, strike and contract support, coalition-bulding and winning public support.

If there was a turning point in the development of the modern LA labor movement, I would say it was the Justice for Janitors Century City battle in the early ’90s. It was against a Scandinavian transnational services corporation. When the county federation headed up a march at the posh West LA high-rise complex supporting the largely Latino immigrant janitors, the LAPD waded in and busted heads as they had been doing for the whole 20th century.

Well, the janitors got that contract, and I happened to be the only reporter who showed up to cover the victory celebration at what was then Mi Ranchito restaurant. With the corporate media defaulting, Sweeney, then the head of SEIU, gave this People’s Weekly World reporter (that was my job then) an exclusive interview. He told me how a videotape of the police attack was shown to the leaders of the New York, Chicago and other SEIU janitors’ unions (and others as well). Sweeney said, at the negotiations with the transnational held in New York, the head of the New York union, after seeing the video, told the company negotiator that if the LA janitors didn’t have a contract the next day, the New York janitors would hit the streets in solidarity. The deal was closed shortly thereafter.

This victory was critical not only for the labor movement. It dealt a serious blow to the racist, anti-labor traditions of the LAPD and their leader, the corporate pit bull Daryl Gates. The Rodney King incident was the turning point in that battle, but the role of the Sweeney-led SEIU international shook the reactionary foundations of that racist institution.

Today, as then, unity is the winning ingredient. I think unions splitting off would be a big mistake for the working people, the trade union movement, and all the unions involved — not to mention all the people of our nation and world.





Rosalio Muñoz (rosalio_munoz@sbcglobal.net) is an organizer for the Southern California district of the Communist Party USA.