Viewpoint: The AFL-CIO: Short-Term Fix, or Long-Term, Grassroots Strategy?

Recent developments in the AFL-CIO such as outreach to "moderate" congressional Republicans and support for oil exploration in the Alaskan Arctic have caused a ripple of discussion among progressive trade unionists.

But more fundamental in terms of the AFL-CIO's future direction is the decision to shift scores of staff to become "issues coordinators" in 100 key congressional districts. Essentially this will expand the "Labor 2000" electoral efforts (and '96 and '98 versions) from a six-month program to an 18-month program leading up to the 2002 congressional elections.

My international union supported our local in providing District Coordinators for the '96 and '98 campaigns, and it was an effective effort. Instead of sending out last-minute "Vote for the Democrat" cards, the union spent months educating members on the issues and comparing the candidates' records on those issues. The effort not only turned out more union voters; it also left a more educated membership in its wake.

But devoting scores of staff and millions of dollars to the "issues coordinators" will threaten the AFL-CIO's more grassroots and long-range projects--projects that are the Federation's best contributions to the future of the movement. The Union Cities program to rebuild the central labor councils, the Voice at Work campaign, the "2000 in 2000" effort to elect union members to local office, Labor in the Pulpit, and the Street Heat mobilization are all at risk.

We are caught again in the contradiction between the Federation's immediate and traditional goals-like "take back Congress"--and a long-term, bottom-up strategy to change the political climate on issues like single-payer national health insurance, reversing the global race to the bottom, the right to organize-or, put more simply, to begin to change the balance of power in the country.


We're also caught between the centrifugal forces that tend to pull the Federation and its affiliates apart and the efforts that get people working together. Most active union members live their activist life in their own local union. They are shaped by their own union's culture and by its particular interests. But in the central labor councils, in 2000 in 2000 campaigns, in Voice at Work actions, and in Street Heat mobilizations, local leaders and activists interact with members from other unions and begin to think as a movement-or, dare we say, as a class.

These kinds of activities-and other cross-union groupings such as Jobs with Justice-develop the coalitions with other social movements, the activist leaders, the class solidarity, and the elected officials of the present and future.

In the opposite direction, the twin setbacks the Federation experienced in 2000-loss of the Presidential election and the reduction of union density in the workforce-strengthened the centrifugal forces which always pull at the AFL-CIO. And whatever pulls unions apart also pulls them toward adopting a short-term, "what's-in-it-for-me?" outlook rather than long-term solidarity-building.



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Often this is called "being practical." It leads to actions like the UAW's jobs-related lobbying against fuel efficiency for SUVs or the Machinists' lobbying for Star Wars. These actions don't win labor any friends among the environmental or global justice activists that have begun to be our allies. The short-term outlook leads to a growing tendency of the affiliates to go their own way in politics. When the Teamsters led 23 unions to the White House to listen to Vice-President Cheney on drilling in the Arctic, it undermined the Federation's role as labor's political agent on the national scene.


It appears that in the wake of the year 2000 political setbacks, even the "progressive" and "organizing model" international unions would like to see the AFL-CIO retreat to its traditional national political function, that is, to lobby and to concentrate on getting the "right" congresspeople elected. Some of these unions always considered the Federation's interventions into organizing the unorganized to be a bother and the efforts to strengthen the central labor councils to be a diversion. Now, they say, get back to focusing on national politics.

Centrifugal forces undermine organizing too. The Carpenters have left the Federation (at least for now), with the threat of organizing across trades jurisdictions. Manufacturing unions are turning their significant treasuries toward the public sector, leading to more competition and more wrangling among unions.

The movement-wide solidarity built at the local level through the Union Cities and Street Heat programs and the like can be an antidote to these jurisdictional disputes. Strong CLCs have helped resolve local jurisdictional issues based on long-term relationships among local leaders and activists. There tends to be reduced enthusiasm for the Carpenters/AFL-CIO split when you travel outside the Beltway and talk to local leaders on either side.


Ironically, the grassroots, long-term projects of the Federation have been gaining in strength. Over 100 cities held demonstrations for a "Voice at Work" in June this year. The "Labor in the Pulpit" program reaches thousands of faith-based organizations. Hundreds of union members were indeed elected to local office by the year 2000. Scores of central labor councils have been rejuvenated, building cross-union solidarity with Street Heat actions, local coalitions with other social movements, and savvy, precinct-by-precinct political organizations that can impact elections from Congress to the local School Board.

But each forward step brings tough new questions that demand attention. In the "2000 in 2000" campaign to elect union members to public office, for example, labor councils had to figure out what program candidates should run on-and how to deal with union member-candidates who don't support labor's positions. It's clear that the locally based, long-term strategic programs of the AFL-CIO demand more attention and resources as they develop, not less. Perhaps there are those who thought rebuilding the basics of the trade union movement would be easier than it has proved to be. On the basis of improved organizing figures for 1999 we announced over-optimistically that we were "at the corner," even if we had not turned it. It would be more accurate to say that the best of the Federation programs are now in Year 5 of a 10-year effort.

These programs where local activists begin to think as a movement won't turn Congress around in three or four years. But activists outside the Beltway have much broader concerns than the next national election.

Jeff Crosby is president of IUE-CWA Local 201 and of the North Shore Labor Council in Massachusetts. Labor Notes welcomes alternative viewpoints on this issue.