Backstage at the AFL-CIO Convention
Any large national convention attracting over 1000 delegates and 2000 guests like the 11.5 million-member AFL-CIO gathering in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on September 13-17, is necessarily well-scripted and choreographed. This is to be expected.
Scheduled appearances by President Barack Obama and other luminaries generally add enough adrenalin to keep people awake for the day’s remaining important plenary debates and workshops.
But other parts of the agenda not so center stage are, nonetheless, just as notable and even, sometimes, quite remarkable in themselves. Even before the pounding of the gavel signaled the convention opening, you could detect charged enthusiasm in the room. You could see it in the faces of the delegates.
They represented a modern day makeover very different from what many have come to expect from the older and grayer traditional leadership of American labor. For the first time, an impressive 43% of delegates were women and people of color. They travelled from all 50 states sent by hundreds of local area Central Labor Councils and State Labor Federations.
This show of new blood was no accident. Since the passage of the much-acclaimed Resolution Two at the 2005 convention, the Federation set lofty goals of equality regarding race, gender, age and disability that aimed to go beyond empty sentiments.
But, just like any other genuine labor movement production, there was lots happening behind the scenes at the grassroots before these new convention delegates even took their seats.
Efforts to include women and minorities were largely shepherded years ago by Linda Chavez-Thompson, who became Executive Vice President in 1995 as the first woman, first of Latin heritage and first person of color to be elected as an officer of the national AFL-CIO.
Retired in 2007, Chavez-Thompson must be given major credit for the big advances made since her initial ground-breaking rise to leadership.
Recognizing that more than 40% of union members in 2005 were women and nearly one-third people of color, Resolution Two reads: “America’s union movement must stand as a model of inclusion…. In our hiring, organizing, representation, outreach and leadership….[Labor] must act decisively to ensure diversity at every level and to hold union organizations accountable to diversity standards. We must…move into full and committed action.”
Outgoing President John Sweeney strongly emphasized these points in his farewell speech by declaring loudly that “We are for inclusion, no one has to knock at our back door again.”
To further stress the seriousness of this point, the charismatic chair of the Credentials Committee, President Cecil Roberts of the United Mineworkers of America (UMWA), distinctly and clearly instructed delegates of their rights to challenge any delegation not complying with Resolution Two. No challenges were made.
Young Maggie Priebe, Program Director of the three-million member AFL-CIO affiliate, Working America, commented to me that the “diversity workshop was flooded with people, maybe 400 plus and overwhelmingly diverse. For me, it was the highlight of the week. I was so proud to know that the older movement ‘got it.’ We have to learn from our history but we have to also listen to new ideas and bring us into the movement as well.”
Encouraged by success, delegates renewed their commitment toward young people. Noting that workers under 34 years of age account for 25% of union membership, Resolution Seven states that “we will recruit, train and include young workers in all activities and programs, and provide opportunities for access to leadership.”
The election of 39-year old Liz Shuler as both the first woman and youngest-ever Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO was heralded by her running mate, newly-elected President Richard Trumka, as just such an opportunity “to make the idea of joining a union relevant to workers whose views of organized labor are based on stereotypes from the 1960s.”
Shuler, who will head up youth outreach, said, “They don’t hate us, they don’t like us; they just don’t know us.” It will be interesting to observe how aggressively local areas implement these programs, unquestionably one of the keys to rejuvenating labor at the base.
Convention Stage Front
There was, of course, the usual parade of prominent Democratic Party officials, most taking the time to describe someone in their family who actually worked a job and assuring us how they, as our representatives, work hard for us all.
It’s no secret the labor officials everywhere retain their decades-long reliance on the Democratic Party and particularly their great hopes for the Obama administration. As a result, politics remains defined almost exclusively by how labor can help Democrats get elected rather than by how labor can help working people get mobilized independently around issues affecting their daily lives.
Clearly, the Democratic Party remains the political voice of organized labor at a time when millions of unemployed, millions losing their homes and millions lacking adequate medical care desperately want to hear more. As a result of our own inaction, one could argue that conservative right-wingers have taken the initiative from us.
Going beyond decrying the racism and vulgarity of the reactionary protests, some activists call for labor to be on the offensive, organizing our own protests for health care and jobs.
While the convention accomplished much, nothing was done to challenge this disconnect.
Nonetheless, with thousands of delegates anxiously awaiting his arrival, President Obama’s speech was enthusiastically greeted by several wildly-enthusiastic standing ovations. The loudest when he declared that “Labor is part of the solution” and again, speaking of healthcare reform, when he proclaimed that “One of the options…should be a public option.”
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis had the stage the previous day, another real crowd favorite because of her roots as the daughter of immigrant trade unionists. Solis herself also has a long public record of supporting labor struggles in Los Angeles which she represented in Congress.
To great applause, Solis announced she was hiring over 600 more workplace inspectors which would bring them back to 2001 levels after Bush administration cuts. She cited examples of employers not paying workers accurately and flagrantly cutting back on safety standards.
There was also the emotional tribute complete with video delivered by Caroline Kennedy on behalf of her deceased uncle, Senator Ted Kennedy.
Senator Arlen Specter received a polite but less enthusiastic response because most everyone is aware that his propensity to change parties mirrors his vacillation towards the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), labor’s number one legislative goal.
Over 1, 500,000 union members sent messages to Congress supporting changes to labor law that would greatly reduce employer interference with the free choice to select a union and, at the convention, three international unions pledged over one million dollars to continue the fight despite many press reports suggesting EFCA is dead.
As a result, Specter’s remarks fell flat when he sought to reassure skeptical delegates of the various “watered-down” compromises being considered in Congress, especially after lamely repeating several times that “I’m sure we’ll come up with something that will make Labor happy.”
Of course, another major highlight of the convention was the much-anticipated and undisputed election of former UMWA strike leader Trumka as President, electrical workers union (IBEW) member Shuler as Secretary-Treasurer and city, county and state workers’ union (AFSCME) member Arlen Holt Baker as Executive Vice President.
No surprises here but that does not mean it was insignificant. The central leadership set a vivid example of diversity with a young woman and a Black woman holding two of the three top spots. Both made history by their respective elections.
But it was the unrehearsed portions of the agenda that actually produced some of the most energetic and exciting floor debates. Issues of immigration, healthcare, the war in Iraq and urgent pleas to unify the now fractured labor movement all elicited impassioned comments visible from giant video screens mounted on both sides of the auditorium.
Those who continue to urge the labor movement to come out strongly on many of the hot-button issues of our day should be greatly encouraged by the debates that occurred on the convention floor or, more to the point, by the localized discussions among the broad ranks of labor and its allies that preceded the convention.
Several resolutions were discussed and approved by the delegates that greatly enhanced original texts prepared only a few months ago by the AFL-CIO Executive Council. Several of these documents originated from local area Central Labor Councils and incorporated more clearly the sentiments of labor’s base.
This was especially true in the discussion on healthcare. Outgoing President John Sweeney set the tone by declaring that the AFL-CIO views “Healthcare as a right, not a privilege.” But there was some concern that Resolution 4 issued several months ago by the Executive Council was too vague in limiting itself to supporting “legislation with a strong, effective, comprehensive plan for guaranteeing quality, affordable health care for all.”
The same resolution also pledged support to “the president and congressional leaders in putting forward” this type of open-ended legislation.
As a supplement to Resolution 4, Resolution 34 was offered by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), California Nurses Association (CNA), Alameda County Labor Council and the National Nurses Organizing Committee. It specifically called for expanding government health care for all as spelled out definitively in pending HR 676 Congressional legislation.
Throwing his support behind both resolutions, Greg Junemann, President of the International Federation of Technical and Professional Engineers (IFPTE) said to the resounding cheers of the delegates that “We are not satisfied with affordable insurance, we want necessary health care.”
Rose Ann DeMoro from CNA predicted that if we had government health care “maybe we would be in the top ten in the world instead of at number 37 like we are today.”
This was immediately followed by AFSCME delegate Sal Luciano who probably gave the most impassioned speech and elicited the most applause when he ended by declaring, “We don’t have a health care system, we have a health care industry.”
The whole discussion was given an extra boost the previous day when Michael Moore agreed, with only a few days notice, to hold the U.S. premiere of his new film “Capitalism: A Love Story,” a few blocks from the convention center. Previously scheduled for a Hollywood premier, Moore told us that “I would rather be right here with working people and standing up for health care now.”
Moore was hosted by the CNA, IFPTE and the United Steelworkers (USWA). Over 1,000 marched to the theatre chanting “Health Care is a Right” and “Single-Payer Now.”
One of many memorable film scenes exposing the greed of the capitalist system featured pioneering scientist Dr. Jonas Salk staring incredulously at an interviewer who asked why “Dr. Salk, did you not ever patent the polio vaccine?” In other words, why are you not trying to make a buck off illnesses like everyone else? To his everlasting honor, Dr. Salk honestly and directly responded with a far more compelling question, “Would you patent the sun?”
Even before Moore’s electrifying presence, voices of dissent were clearly evident when resolutions for Single-Payer were submitted by 67 Central Labor Councils, seven State Federations and five International Unions. This is the most on one issue ever in the history of the AFL-CIO. The unanimous approval of both Resolution 4 and 34 will only further strengthen efforts to educate and organize around what is essentially improved Medicare for All.
Several other important resolutions were approved. One called for an end to targeting immigrants. It proposed an alternative humane immigration policy that would open a path toward legalization and citizenship for undocumented workers. The resolution described how unfair imbalances in world trade and exploitation of labor results in forced migrations of millions of workers.
President Baldemar Velasquez of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) offered solidarity as the alternative to the racism currently directed at immigrant labor. To sustained applause, Velasquez reminded delegates of how the militant founders of our trade union movement related to immigrants coming to America for their salvation: “Our Founders didn’t ask ‘what country you are from?’ They only asked ‘what side are you on?’”
Another important resolution passed on the last day of the convention called for “ceasing all repression of Iraqi unions, union leaders and activists.” A related antiwar resolution reaffirmed the Federation’s “opposition to the continuing military occupation of Iraq.”
Also on the last day, in one grand finale reminiscent of the very best Broadway production, everything seemed to come together, literally. President John Wilhelm of the UNITE-HERE union, rejoined the Federation, leaving the 2005 split-off Change to Win coalition in shattered disarray. As he was handed a charter by President Trumka, Wilhelm said, “Our 265,000 members belong back in the House of Labor.”
All in all, this convention better prepared the AFL-CIO to take on the tough tasks ahead. Though nothing in the convention was ever expected to alter the basic, fundamental and troublesome political reliance on the Democratic Party, many of the actions of the delegates provided grass roots labor activists and their allies an opportunity to continue organizing independently on the job and in their communities around important social issues of our day.
Herein lies, in my opinion, the essence of those four days in Pittsburgh.
Carl Finamore is former President (ret), Air Transport Employees, Local Lodge 1781, IAMAW. He attended the AFL-CIO convention with press credentials from his union. He can be reached in San Francisco at firstname.lastname@example.org