Just one week after the disappointing outcome of the Nov. 2 election to which the American labor movement had committed unprecedented money, troops and passion, leaders of the AFL-CIO gathered in Washington, D.C., for a one-day meeting to draw lessons and plan for the difficult battles ahead.

The council met Nov. 10 with defeated Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, who came to thank labor for its support. To huge applause, Kerry pledged to continue battling. He vowed to raise his profile on workers’ causes such as overtime pay, trade, health care reform, and raising the minimum wage.

While expressing disappointment that Kerry did not win, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney focused most of his attention on the political potential of the network that labor built. “Never before have so many different unions done so much,” he said. “Never have we been so unified, moving forward together. We built a lasting force to continue the fight against attacks on working families, the fight for economic justice.”

The meeting also set up a process and timeline to consider much-discussed changes to the federation’s structure at the next regular meeting of the 54-member executive council in Los Angeles in February. The council is not only faced with the inevitable dismay at the electoral defeat. There is long-simmering frustration at the fact that big membership losses, due to outsourcing and technology-driven productivity gains, especially in the manufacturing sectors, have not been matched by organizing victories. Sweeney appeared to be going to great lengths to preserve unity of the 59-union federation in the face of these challenges.

Sweeney announced the formation of a “committee for change” composed of the federation’s 25-member executive committee, which he will chair. He said the committee will reach out to all unions, state federations, central labor councils and constituent organizations as well as to rank-and-filers for proposals.

One of those pushing most aggressively for structural changes is Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union. Prior to the meeting, Stern issued a 10-point program for major change in the structure of all unions, including merging smaller unions into larger, more powerful ones.

Leo Gerard, president of the Steelworkers Union, put his focus on the continuation of campaigns that could broaden the base of the labor movement. Gerard proposed that a massive campaign for national health care should be used to keep in place the national structure that was constructed for this year’s election campaign.

“In the private sector, we need to have a huge focus on health care to rebuild our manufacturing base,” Gerard said, alluding to the large number of manufacturing workers in the U.S. who lack basic health insurance.

The author can be reached at rwood@pww.org.