Spin to Win: Missed Opportunities


This article is from the September/October 2005 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org

issue 261 cover

This article is from the September/October 2005 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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The AFL-CIO's 50th anniversary convention this summer offered a historic opportunity to debate the future of the U.S. labor movement--but the debate never materialized. Given the urgent problems working people face, that lost opportunity for a national dialogue is tragic. The labor movement is the primary institution that stands in the way of the corporate elite's unilateral control over our lives and life prospects. So it is under severe attack. Union membership has steadily declined as a percentage of the workforce, and outsourcing is ravaging the industrial sector and its unions.

No one doubts that the labor movement must re-energize to survive. Had the principals of the Change to Win Coalition (CTW) genuinely wanted to debate how to make it happen, we might have captured the imagination of a press that was riveted on the prospect of the labor movement falling apart. We could have debated, openly and publicly, solutions that address the destruction of the labor movement, including methods to limit capital mobility, slow the steady onslaught of the substitution of capital for labor, push back the ravages of the "neoliberalization" of work, with all that entails, reinvigorate labor and public activism, and develop from this new activism the strength and vision to actually work toward achieving true collective goals.

All this was lost in CTW hype and meaningless bureaucracy-speak.

Here is our assessment of the failure of CTW, the media, and the vast majority of labor pundits and labor academics to bring about substantive discussion within and about the labor movement:

1. There were no real ideological disputes before or during the convention, in part because the AFL-CIO leadership and programs were, mostly, put in place by those who challenged them. The split appeared more to be about egos and an effort by some unions to anoint themselves the new leaders of the AFL-CIO.

2. No workers or rank-and-file union members were involved, no local or national forums took place, no rank-and-file members cast any ballots. The discussion was shaped instead by the recommendations of consultants and Madison Avenue brand-meisters, by polling, focus groups, and scripted blogs. The whole thing was an inside-baseball discussion that ignored the insights and collective decision-making of the rank and file--and after all, it is their labor movement.

3. No issues affecting the majority of working Americans--declining real wages, the health care crisis, the continued erosion of democracy in the workplace, outsourcing of jobs across the skill and pay spectrum, a deteriorating social safety net, declining support for public education, environmental degradation, persistent racial and gender inequality, alienation and disaffection from the political process--were debated.

4. No real solutions to these problems--for example, curbs on corporate power, single-payer universal health care, a progressive tax code, campaign finance reform, new industrial and trade policies, conversion to a peace economy, labor law reform--were proposed.

5. The specific proposals the Change to Win group did offer were structural and bureaucratic, not programmatic. Rebating union dues, forcing unions to merge, limiting representation on the AFL-CIO executive council to the largest unions, claiming sovereignty for unions by industry or sector--there is no evidence any of these changes would solve labor's problems.

6. The notion that the salvation of the labor movement lies solely in "density as manifest destiny" is historically false, analytically shallow, and, for the unions that are proposing it, seemingly self-serving. Some unions that have achieved density have been decimated by corporate-sponsored political, economic, and social policies. There have been organizing successes under a variety of structures. But the most resounding victories have always come when unions willingly cooperate with one another and when they unite with communities. The CTW program mirrors the corporate sector, where control resides in the hands of a few giant organizations and where the unique qualities of smaller organizations that may allow them to build power and cohesion are ignored.

7. If a lack of funds were the only obstacle to organizing, we could all rest easy--a dues rebate would be a quick fix. But that notion is painfully oversimplified. Some unions both in and out of the Change to Win group are organizing within the current structure; others have not organized for years. Even if the AFL-CIO rebated dues to some of these unions, they still would not or could not organize. In addition, forcing mergers is not synonymous with organizing, and in fact could silence the voices of the most active and militant unions and union leaders.

8. Some progressive analysts have portrayed mergers and dues rebates as core issues. Typically, these writers merely restate the problem: that the labor movement is in trouble. Then they congratulate CTW for opening up a discussion. Writers and political pundits from whom we have a right to expect sharp political assessments, like Arianna Huffington, instead merely fawn. When conservative magazines wrote glowingly about CTW's embrace of labor-management partnerships--with their corporate-friendly cost savings schemes, worker speed-up programs, and explicit endorsement of globalization, deskilling, outsourcing, and privatization--progressive writers failed to re-examine their perspectives. When a key CTW leader appeared on the cover of Human Resource Outsourcing Today magazine embracing globalization and endorsing proposals that would only further alienate U.S. workers from the labor movement and further erode labor's power, they failed to sound an alarm. These commentators committed a journalistic and political travesty, writing about the labor movement as outsiders believing that some insiders had the solutions. Perhaps it is that simple, wrong assumption--that labor stands apart from the public--that should have been examined first. Academics and pundits should have asked the hard questions, challenged the assertions, and proposed frameworks for discussion that could meet labor's opponents with a unified approach.

9. Limiting the AFL-CIO executive council to the largest unions would have further reduced the influence and voice of women and people of color in labor leadership. This, in turn, would have been likely to weaken the participation of the overwhelming majority of working Americans who are not white men and thus cut into the labor movement's potential power.

10. It's just as important to discuss strategy as it is to outline policy solutions. But the discussion of strategy this past year was fatally narrow. No non-bureaucratic strategies were on the table: for example, expanding coalitions with nonlabor community, religious, and environmental groups; building active grassroots education and mobilization campaigns that challenge the corporate/far right agenda; moving toward genuine political independence and holding the Democratic Party accountable to worker and public interests; and seriously considering--imagine--a labor party for a labor movement.

Let us hope that the remaining AFL-CIO unions recast the lost historical moment and create their own opportunity for the democratic national discussion so necessary for the rejuvenation of our labor movement--and our nation's future.

Rose Ann DeMoro is executive director of the 65,000-member California Nurses Association and the National Nurses Organizing Committee.