An interview: Stewart Acuff, AFL-CIO organizing director (see below for related story)

In a recent issue of Work in Progress, the AFL-CIO announced that its 66 affiliated unions had added 216,585 new members since Jan. 1, far short of the 400,000 needed to counter membership declines due to retirements and job losses. Add to that the decline in union density – the number of workers who belong to unions as a percent of those eligible for union membership – and it is easy to see why the AFL-CIO is organizing a conference to discuss past experience and examine new organizing strategies. To that end, some 150 union organizers will be coming to Washington on Jan. 10-11.

In a telephone interview on Dec. 13, Stewart Acuff, AFL-CIO organizing director, said the experience of the last several years is mixed. ‘But,’ he added, ‘that’s the way it is with all organizing efforts. Given the stakes and the extent of employer opposition, there are bound to be setbacks. You might even say that some efforts have failed. But the real failure would be a failure to make the effort – to try to organize.’

Acuff said there has been enough experimentation with different organizing strategies to make it possible for the labor movement ‘to find its way out of the swamp. That’s the purpose of the January conference – to help the process along by looking at ways we can work together to push back against employer opposition and, second, to examine what we have to do to change our unions to enhance our organizing capabilities.’

‘We can’t wait for the law to change before we start organizing the millions of unorganized workers,’ Acuff continued. ‘The January meeting has the challenge of figuring out how to work in a hostile environment in order to achieve the level of success that will create and maintain the political will to do the hard, slow work of organizing. That’s not easy but more and more unions are taking up the challenge.’ He added that the organizing climate has become ‘even more hostile’ under the Bush administration.

He does not think, however, that Bush’s anti-labor actions – ranging from denying 100,000 government workers the right to belong to unions to open intervention on the side of employers in the recent contract battle of West Coast dockers – has ‘chilled’ the desire of workers to join unions. ‘True, the administration has made it harder for workers to achieve their desire for respect and dignity and a quality future for their families, but that doesn’t chill the desire. Given half a chance – and workers don’t get even half a chance very often – workers are ready and willing to fight to organize a union. Given a choice, they will always choose dignity and hope over fear and despair. A union gives them that choice.’

Acuff sees the process of building a stronger labor movement culminating in a situation where the right to belong to a union is recognized as a human right and is protected by law. ‘And that will only come when we have the power to make it happen. Power,’ he emphasized, ‘that’s what organizing is all about. Power at the bargaining table and in the legislative/electoral arena.’

Acuff said the first stage in that process is developing organizing strategies that will enable unions to organize ‘in spite of the law and, where possible, outside the law. It just doesn’t make sense that we get 70 or 80 percent of the workers to sign authorization cards, petition the National Labor Relations Board for an election and then get our brains beat out.’

He said there are a number of possible strategies, among them ‘card check recognition’ where employers agree to recognize the union once 51 percent of the workers sign union cards. ‘They can sign a card on their kitchen table at home or in the union hall or at church, as in the case of immigrant meatpacking workers in Omaha.’

Acuff pointed to card- check organizing as an example of the ‘reciprocal relationship’ between organizing to win union representation at the work place and organizing for political/legislative objectives. ‘In many instances local government agencies are involved in offering incentives – say a loan or tax breaks – to an employer for locating in their jurisdiction. So the central labor council steps in and asks, ‘What about the right of workers to have a union?’ When we demonstrate the power at the polls that we’ve demonstrated in the last 10 years, worker-friendly public officials can see they have an interest in unions being successful in organizing at the workplace. They understand that’s where our power at the ballot box comes from. And they can use the power of their office to help us organize.’

Acuff said there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to organizing and pointed to the several successful ‘recognition’ strikes, including among industrial laundry workers in Chicago. ‘To be successful, these strikes take determination on the part of the workers involved and support from the rest of the labor movement and community. But it can be done and sometimes it’s the only weapon we have.’

Acuff said state and local labor bodies can play a central role in creating a climate within the labor movement that encourages organizing, that builds union and community support for organizing campaigns and mobilizes union activists and allies to show their support with demonstrations and ‘do not patronize’ campaigns. ‘There’s no better morale booster than when strikers see a delegation of other union members join their picket line.’

Stewart Acuff, the son of a minister, grew up in West Tennessee. He burst on the national scene when, as president of the Atlanta Central Labor Council, he and a delegation of several hundred union members staged a sit-in in Newt Gingrich’s home office. ‘I still remember that day; it was in March 1993,’ Acuff says. ‘Newt had been elected Speaker of the House of Representatives after leading a campaign that brought 73 newly-elected Republicans to the House, thus making it possible for the Republicans to take control for the first time since the early post-war days. He was riding high with his ‘Contract on America’ and we decided to take some of the wind out of his sails. To say the least, he was surprised.’

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Some food for thought

The labor movement in every country is structured differently. In most European countries unions are structured in such a way that one union represents all workers in a given sector of the economy. For instance, IG Metall, the German Metal Workers Federation, unites steelworkers, autoworkers, machinists and other manufacturing workers in a single union of more than two million members. Some 15 such federations make up the DGB, the German counterpart to the AFL-CIO, with 66 affiliates and a total membership of 13 million.

The U.S. labor movement is further weakened by virtue of the fact that several unions – as many as a dozen in construction, transportation and government – represent workers in these sectors. This has led to a situation where unions have become ‘general worker unions,’ and creating a situation where jurisdictional lines are blurred, thus complicating united organizational drives and making coordinated and industry-wide negotiations more difficult.

Statistics on union density – the proportion of eligible workers who belong to unions – which ranges from less than half a percent in mining to 16 percent in durable manufacturing and 35 percent among educational workers – and 13.9 percent overall – tell the story.

There are other numbers worth pondering:

* The 15 largest unions represent 10 million of the AFL-CIO’s 13 million members while the nine largest represent 8 million workers;

* Only 18 affiliates have more than 200,000 members, while 40 have fewer than 100,000;

* The average membership of the 50 smallest affiliates is 58,000.

Although size is not the sole determinate of power – as proven by the recent struggle of 10,500 West Coast dock workers – it is an age-old truism that in numbers there is strength.

– Fred Gaboury


Fred Gaboury
Fred Gaboury

Fred Gaboury was a member of the Editorial Board of the print edition of  People’s Weekly World/Nuestro Mundo and wrote frequently on economic, labor and political issues. Gaboury died in 2004. Here is a small selection of Fred’s significant writings: Eight days in May Birmingham and the struggle for civil rights; Remembering the Rev. James Orange; Memphis 1968: We remember; June 19, 1953: The murder of the Rosenbergs; World Bank and International Monetary Fund strangle economies of Third World countries