LAS VEGAS — A campaign to defend Social Security, patterned after labor’s massive 2004 election mobilization, was formulated at the annual winter AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting here Feb. 28–March 3. The campaign plan includes strong media and grass roots components.

This was the council’s last meeting before the federation’s July national convention in Chicago. The council’s meetings are traditionally closed to the press, but a series of press briefings laid out a program of fightback not only for Americans’ retirement security, but also on an array of urgent issues from labor law reform, to the defeat of the CAFTA “free trade” agreement, to state-based initiatives aimed at raising the minimum wage.

However, an uncharacteristic tension marked the gathering, an indication of the sharp and continuing debate about course corrections needed to ensure the future of the labor movement.

John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, said more than 5,000 rank-and-filers, academics and even members of the press have contributed to the ongoing discussion on what to do to reverse the decline in union membership. The drop in membership is not a result of workers voluntarily quitting unions. Rather, runaway shops and productivity related job losses have decimated the nation’s manufacturing work force. Stymied by aggressive union-busting campaigns and pro-employer labor law, unions have not achieved the massive organizing gains needed to make up for these losses.

The council narrowly voted down a proposal advanced by James Hoffa of the Teamsters union, with the support of leaders of SEIU, UNITE-HERE, UFCW and the Laborers, that would have rebated up to 50 percent of an affiliate’s per capita contribution in order to encourage organizing.

At a press conference, leaders of the five unions denied they were de-emphasizing political action in favor of organizing. “We have resources to do both if we structure it right,” said Joe Hansen, president of the UFCW. While the rebate proposal would have forced huge cuts in the federation’s budget, the individual unions would have only seen a minor increase in new funds because their per capita payments only amount to about 1 percent of their overall spending. “The rebate is symbolic,” said Bruce Raynor, president of UNITE-HERE. Raynor insisted most organizing functions are better performed by individual unions than by the AFL-CIO.

Despite the defeat of the Teamster proposal, other rebate plans are still on the table. Stuart Acuff, AFL-CIO organizing director, speaking at a separate press conference, said his department is in the process of developing an extensive system of such incentives to encourage and assist affiliated unions in organizing. The Organizing Department has also taken steps to strengthen the diversity of the pool of organizers trained every year by the Organizing Institute. The OI is now recruiting organizers on the campuses of historically Black colleges. It recently conducted a Spanish language school for organizers.

Larry Cohen, executive vice-president of the Communication Workers Union and a founder of Jobs with Justice, told reporters both political action and organizing were important, but he emphasized activating the AFL-CIO’s 500,000 stewards as the key to progress.

The urgency of preserving labor unity in the face of the Bush anti-labor offensive was highlighted by a presentation by AFL-CIO General Counsel Jon Hiatt, who sounded the alarm about recent actions of the National Labor Relations Board. Dominated by Bush appointees, the NLRB has issued more than 40 decisions overturning longstanding precedents, turning the agency set up to protect workers’ rights into a tool of union-busting employers.

“Social Security is a signature issue for George Bush and a signature issue for American workers and the labor movement,” said State, County and Municipal Employees union President Gerald McEntee. “The day after it is voted down or withdrawn is the day Bush becomes a lame duck,” he said. Over 25,000 AFSCME members have already signed up to distribute workplace fliers and talk to their neighbors, McEntee told reporters, appealing to them to publicize the union’s sign-up web site, The volunteers have made 2 million phone calls in 30 key congressional districts and are setting up field organizations in 14 states. The union has committed $1 million to the campaign, he said.

Steelworkers President Leo Gerard said 18,000 members of that union’s Rapid Response network are engaged in the fight to preserve Social Security. Bush’s attack on the program, he said, is based on “a fabricated crisis. It’s the domestic equivalent of ‘weapons of mass destruction.’”