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For the first time since one faction of the AFL-CIO declared
war on the other nearly a year ago, Black trade unionists from
across the U.S. and Canada will gather later this month in an
attempt to force the contenders for control of the labor federation
to recognize the interests of African Americans.
“We…have a responsibility to make our voice heard in the crucial
debate taking place now on how to make the labor movement broader,
more powerful and more relevant to the lives of working families,
especially in communities of color, the fastest growing sector
of the labor force,” said Bill Lucy, President of the Coalition
of Black Trade Unionists. The CBTU, with 50 chapters in 50 unions,
holds its 34th annual convention
in Phoenix, May 25 – 30, under the theme, “Forging a New Vision
for Tough Challenges Ahead.”
With Big Labor getting smaller all the time, and the corporate
regime in Washington bent on, in TransAfrica Forum executive director
Bill Fletcher’s words, the “annihilation” of the union movement,
the term “tough challenges” seems an understatement. “They are
not talking about simply the reduction of our numbers or power,”
Fletcher told a caucus of Black unionists in April, “but our total
The language of apocalypse and fratricide dominates labor discussions,
as Service Employees International Union (SEIU) chief Andrew Stern
and four allied union presidents, representing about 40 percent
of the AFL-CIO’s membership, ratchet up their campaign to drastically
restructure the labor federation – or leave it altogether.
"This is not organized labor. This is disorganized labor,"
exclaimed the SEIU’s Stern on May 10, laying labor’s continuing
decline at the feet of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. The dissidents’
conference, in Las Vegas, hosted by Teamsters chief James Hoffa,
Jr., also included the leaders of the Laborers, United Food and
Commercial Workers (UFCW), and the hotel, restaurant, and laundry
workers' union, Unite Here.
"The American labor movement at the level of the AFL-CIO
has lost its way,” shouted Unite Here president John Wilhelm,
who may be the Stern-Hoffa group’s designated challenger for
Sweeney’s job at the federation’s annual convention, in July.
“It's lost its energy. It's lost its hope. And that's a crime,"
The Teamsters' Hoffa railed against “bottom-feeding unions…like
the Machinists that are out there trying to steal our members
from the Teamsters, with lower, sweetheart contracts." So
vitriolic was the rhetoric in Las Vegas, it sometimes appeared
the dissidents were determined to achieve a “unity” of intra-labor
The week before the verbal pyrotechnics in Las Vegas, four of
the union presidents – minus the UFCW chief – demanded that AFL-CIO
headquarters in Washington delete their members’ names from lists
used to coordinate political campaigns. Off the record, aides
to the union presidents complained that the federation was sharing
the lists with Democrats.
In an attempt to mollify the opposition, AFL-CIO president Sweeney
the jobs of one-third of the headquarters staff – 167 employees.
For them, the Apocalypse had already arrived. But Stern, Hoffa
& Company were unrelenting. Writing in the dissidents’ UniteToWinBlog,
Stern called Sweeney’s firings and other counterproposals “Unite
To Win Lite,” – a pale version of his own 10-point
program – and made plain that he’s out for Sweeney’s head:
”What is crystal clear is that even if unions
representing a majority of members ultimately agree on a new strategy
and structure that will help millions more workers unite with
us, this AFL-CIO leadership team would not be the right group
to carry it out.”
No Labor revival without Blacks
If it sounds like the Sweeney and Stern camps have reduced Black
labor to mere spectators to this very uncivil war – it’s because
that has been both sides' intention.
Sweeney did not consult with labor’s constituency groups before
firing one-third of the federation’s staffers. And it was under
Sweeney that labor’s ethnic and gender constituencies, including
the 33-year-old Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, were utterly
frozen out of participation in the 2004 election cycle – zero-funded,
in favor of 527s and other white-controlled mechanisms.
Structurally, the opposition’s plans were perceived by Black
labor to be a coup de grace, as BC wrote in our
2005 Cover Story, “No Real Labor ‘Reform’ Without Blacks”:
”The SEIU and Teamsters proposals include nothing resembling
formal institutional representation for Blacks, Latinos, other
minorities and women – groups that comprise nearly three out
of five unionized workers. It was specifically to include underrepresented
groups that the AFL-CIO expanded
its Executive Council from 35 to 54 seats in 1995, when John
Sweeney was elected president. A decade later, ‘reformers’ place
part of the blame for labor’s ongoing decline on the size of
the Council, and would centralize power in the hands of consolidated
”The inevitable perception is that Stern, Hoffa & Co. believe
that the institutional inclusion of minority and female voices
on the Council is at least partially to blame for labor’s woes.
Or is it a case of the key constituents getting thrown out with
the Executive Council bathwater? The CBTU’s William Lucy would
like to know, but he’s not getting answers. ‘Given the fact
that we’ve got millions of workers to organize, how will our
concerns be put on the table? How will our views be shared in
terms of our politicization and organizing in our communities?’
asked Lucy, who estimates that close to 30 percent of organized
labor is Black.
An early March
meeting of the federation’s Executive Council produced informal
assurances to Blacks that labor’s constituency organizations would
not be shunted aside, and that local structures would be strengthened,
should Sweeney survive the July convention, in Chicago. But the
Stern-Hoffa camp offered no structural mechanisms to non-whites,
only the promise that workers of color would benefit most from
the remake in the long run – the same message that the SEIU’s
Black vice president, Gerald Hudson, conveyed in his February
24 letter to
BC, “Rebuilding the Union Movement to Empower
Communities of Color.”
“We need leaders and activists at all levels of the union movement
who reflect the membership in terms of race, gender, and other
factors,” Hudson wrote – but not a word about institutional Black
and brown representation in the corridors of union power.
Questions in Stern’s ‘own house’
In the second week of April, the Black caucus of Andrew Stern’s
own union held a conference in Las Vegas – the first opportunity
full leadership to discuss the implications of “reform” since
June of 2004, when the SEIU’s annual convention gave Stern authority
to withdraw from the AFL-CIO if he chose.
A number of papers circulated among the 400 Black caucus delegates,
including BC’s March
3, 2005 Cover Story, a paper
by a group that included TransAfrica’s Bill Fletcher, and Black
labor consultant Dwight Kirk’s February
24, 2005 BC article, “Can Labor Go Beyond
Diversity Lite.” Kirk’s article revealed that “55 percent (or
168,000) of the union jobs lost in 2004 were held by black workers”
and “African American women accounted for 70 percent of the union
jobs lost by women in 2004.” Nevertheless, voters of color remain
the most likely to support the AFL-CIO’s “Take Back America” agenda.
Yet “a decade after black trade unionists successfully thrust
color and gender into labor’s last major leadership ‘makeover’
they and their allies are now on the defensive, fighting
to protect past diversity gains from the knives of some new ‘reformers.’”
Bill Fletcher, paired as a Sunday speaker with SEIU executive
vice president Tom Woodruff, delivered a stark analysis: “Our
opponents in business and on the political Right wish our annihilation.
They are not talking about simply the reduction of our numbers
or power, but our total elimination” In the face of such dangers,
the split in labor amounts to “a train wreck,” said Fletcher,
a former AFL-CIO operative:
“The debate has largely taken place on Mount
Olympus as a battle among the gods. There has been little attempt
to engage the membership in a discussion regarding the
future of the union movement. There has been little attempt to
solicit from their members their own ideas…. From my visits around
the country, I have found that local activists feel both alienated
from and scared of this debate. They feel that it is not about
them and does not include them. I would go further and say that
for union members of color, this is especially the case.”
Fletcher received a standing ovation from most of the delegates,
while Woodruff, who kept largely to Stern’s 10-point program,
got polite applause.
Stern did not attend the meeting of his union’s Black caucus,
but emissaries of both warring camps circulated among the members.
Stern’s lobbyists pressed AFRAM to hold back on any resolution,
since the Black caucus could be expected to express grave concerns
about Black constituent clout in the “reformed” AFL-CIO. Representatives
of SEIU leadership passed the word that elimination of constituent
representation and funding was “off the table” – but this is a
war of positioning, and it remains unclear what “off the table”
On the morning of Monday, April 11, while the AFRAM conference
was still underway in Las Vegas, Andrew Stern, Woodruff and other
senior SEIU officers posted a letter on the UnitedToWinBlog, in
to Dwight Kirk’s research on the decimation of Black union workers:
”Brother Kirk finds facts like these missing
from the debate over labor’s future. ‘Diversity,’ he writes, ‘has
become a flabby catch-all term, no longer a form of empowering
people who have been disenfranchised in this society.’
”We agree. And that’s one reason why our union is so committed
to real change to give working people new strength and unity so
that we can win real raises, health care, and dignity on the job.”
The letter descends further into what is now SEIU boilerplate:
“A deliberate policy promoting real empowerment, not just symbolic
diversity, has changed our [SEIU] International Executive Board
so that it is 40 percent female (compared to 56% of our membership)
and 33 percent people of color (compared to 34% of our membership)
– no cause to rest on our laurels, but real progress.”
In other words, trust our example (and our numbers), but don’t
expect structural inclusion in the New AFL-CIO.
Wall of White Noise
“Let me say that it would be a serious ‘omission’ for any of
the sincere and articulate advocates of reform to assume what
is in the best interest of black trade unionists and the coalition
partners with whom we work regularly,” said CBTU president Bill
Lucy, as he prepared for the organization’s May 25 – 30 convention,
in Phoenix. Embattled AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney and Rev. Jesse
Jackson are scheduled to speak at the affair.
Blacks confront an environment in which elements of both
white male-dominated labor camps appear to believe that minority
constituency representation, and empowerment of largely Black
and brown big city labor councils, is something the New AFL-CIO
can do without. At times, this attitude is manifested in pure
racial arrogance, immediately recognizable to all African Americans.
In early May, the SEIU’s white Secretary-Treasurer, Ann Burger,
shot off a letter that must rank among the worst racial indiscretions
committed by union officials in recent years.
“The SEIU is expressing our displeasure that the Congressional
Black Caucus is giving Wal-Mart an opportunity to fashion a false
image that they are friends of African Americans and working people
generally,” wrote Burger. Wal-Mart is currently on a public relations
and lobbying offensive, courting constituencies all over Capitol
Hill, including the Black Caucus. It is true that a growing minority
in the Caucus is open to contributions and propaganda from Wal-Mart,
the evil engine of America’s – and the world’s – race to the bottom.
(See BC, April
28, 2005 and May
12, 2005.) But the SEIU’s broadside at the Caucus as a whole
was so ill-aimed, it was inevitably perceived as racist or incompetent
– or both, as the newspaper The
“It’s really an attempt to put CBC members in
their place,” said Lanier Avant, chief of staff to Rep. Bennie
“No group of members of Congress has a stronger labor record than
the CBC and for this kind of letter to go strictly to black lawmakers
is a slap in the face,” he said, noting that four CBCers have
perfect voting records with the AFL-CIO and another 21 are above
the 95 percent mark.
In other words, the white leadership of the SEIU doesn’t know
how to talk to Black people. It is such arrogance, almost as much
as the depredations of the Bush regime, that may be the death
of organized labor in America.
Labor’s color line
Even as unions struggle to respond to forces bent on their annihilation,
they remain deformed by racism – the same plague that has crippled
the U.S. labor movement at every stage in its history. Black workers,
the most enthusiastic “joiners” and activists, also face the most
dire consequences of labor’s historical weaknesses. Yet, too often,
their white comrades – including those who proudly consider themselves
“progressives” – seek “solutions” to labor’s problems at Black
workers’ institutional expense. Labor, not so big anymore, has
to get its mission straight, as the CBTU’s Bill Lucy pointed out,
“We would strongly suggest that the Federation
leadership resist the call to reduce the size of the Executive
Council. The added size of the Council bears no relationship to
the decline in labor fortunes. Those who suggest that its size
affects the ability to have substantive debate, to a degree reflect
our overall problem. We do not believe labor’s problem revolves
around structure. We believe to the extent we have a problem,
it is around mission.
”If we define our mission, our mission will dictate the necessary
structure. While the composition of the Executive Council may
be large, it reflects who we want to organize, mobilize and politicize.
As we talk about these issues as well as global solidarity, to
turn inward and return to the structure that existed when the
movement went into decline strikes me as unwise and unworkable
in terms of our fundamental goals.”
Three principles should guide labor’s deliberations: The Big
should not dictate to the Small. White men should not dictate
to people of color and women. And local struggles should not be
subordinated to top-down union management.
In the New AFL-CIO envisioned by some, top-down union management
will also be near lilly-white. That’s what got us into this mess,
in the first place.