BY ROBERT MILLER
NEW YORK - The first contested election for the top posts of the AFL-CIO since its formation in 1955 got prominent media coverage during the federation's convention held here October 23-25. "Militant is elected head of AFL- CIO, signaling sharp turn for labor movement," proclaimed a New York Times headline.
"With the election of John J. Sweeney yesterday as the new president of the AFL-CIO," the Times article began, "the American labor movement took a sharp turn toward militancy, rebuilding union membership, moving women and minorities into policy-making ranks and tackling a hostile Congress." The Wall Street Journal described Sweeney as an "aggressive organizer known for recruiting members of low paid industries."
These characterizations are typical of the favorable coverage in the big-business press. At the root of this shakeup in the upper ranks of the trade union bureaucracy is an effort by the labor tops to defend their privileged positions as discontent and resistance among the ranks of working people continues to mount.
The turn in the top echelons of the AFL-CIO to a more social-democratic facade occurrs at a time when the employers believe they need the trade union official- dom - the labor lieutenants of the capitalist class - less than any time since the end of World War II.
The winning "New Voice" slate led by Sweeney, the president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) for 15 years, also included United Mine Workers president Richard Trumka for secretary-treasurer and Linda Chavez-Thompson, a vice president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, for the new post of executive vice president.
Thomas Donahue, the incumbent president, had served as secretary-treasurer for 16 years under Lane Kirkland, who stepped down in August rather than face a challenge for his post. Sweeney had initially appealed to Donahue to run against Kirkland.
Following his election, Sweeney told the convention, "We will use old-fashioned mass demonstrations as well as sophisticated corporate campaigns to make worker rights the civil rights issue of the 1990s." Sweeney defended what he called "civil disobedience," like blocking bridges in Washington, D.C., this September as part of an SEIU organizing campaign.
One reason for the more radical-sounding talk is the mounting pressure on the union officialdom to protect their dues base from which they derive their privileges. Union membership has declined to 15.5 percent of the workforce in 1994 from 34.7 percent in 1954.
Nevertheless, the total number of union members has stabilized in the past two years and a step-up in union organizing drives can be expected. The "New Voice" slate and their supporters point to opportunities to organize layers of the lowest-paid workers, which often include many women, Blacks, and immigrant workers. They project spending millions on organizing drives.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the period from 1983 to 1994 participation of women in the workforce grew from 40 million to 51 million and of Black and Hispanics from 13.8 to 22.2 million. The 35-member AFL- CIO executive board had included only two Blacks and three women. The convention expanded the board to 54 seats with 10 reserved for women and oppressed nationalities.
The labor battles of today, from the strikes against Boeing and the Detroit Newspaper Agency to the ongoing fight against Caterpillar, often last weeks and months or longer. A layer of union officials sense that these examples of working-class resistance and rank and file initiatives foretell more explosive developments in the future. Union officials who can "talk the language of the workers" become more valuable to the bureaucracy as it prepares to do its best to keep future rank-and-file insurgencies within the bounds of capitalism.
These officials are stepping up their efforts to tap into the restiveness in the unions and draw rank-and-file militants and radical activists into union posts and committee structures. Sweeney announced, for example, a "Union Summer" of corporate and political organizing with 1,000 organizers sent to unionize workplaces and "campaign for labor's friends against its enemies."
The more militant talk by union officials does not come out of a big upturn in workers struggles, but from their belief that it is now the only way to have any influence on the future and maintain their dues base.
The lack of leverage of the trade union bureaucracy in bourgeois politics and the collapse of the liberal-labor coalition in the Democratic Party is a big factor in the officialdom's image makeover. It is the only way they can pull workers behind their strategy of concentrating on the 1996 presidential elections to reelect Clinton and campaign for Democratic control of the now Republican-dominated Congress.
The AFL-CIO convention took no steps toward what working people need most: efforts to mobilize the toilers to fight for jobs for all, protest the capitalist assaults on the social wage, and join workers on the picket lines.
Bob Miller is a member of United Auto Workers Local 980 in Edison, New Jersey.
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