It was recently announced that John Sweeney, AFL-CIO President Emeritus (a ridiculous and pretentious title for a labor leader I note) is being awarded the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Among the other recipients announced are finance capitalist Warren Buffet and former President and CIA chief George H.W. Bush. Being from the labor movement myself, one might assume that I would be thrilled with this news, as current AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has stated he is in his glowing announcement to the press about this award.

However, I am not thrilled. Indeed, my first reaction, and my reaction now, is to be incensed – incensed at the cynicism Obama evidences in giving this award, and in the shameless obsequiousness Sweeney and Trumka demonstrate in accepting it.

Let’s be clear. Obama and the Democrats, despite great expectations which came with the 2008 election victory, have done little to nothing for labor and working people. The much anticipated and promised Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it easier for unions to organize, was dead on arrival and never even proposed as legislation at a time the Democrats controlled the Presidency and both houses of Congress.

The Obama Administration, despite warnings from economists such as Paul Krugman, proposed a stimulus which was half the size it needed to be, thus allowing the economy to languish in this long drawn-out recession. While labor for years has wanted health care reform with at least a public option, if not a single payer plan altogether, Obama did not even propose such measures. Rather, he proposed, and the Democrats passed, a health care bill which further holds our failed health care system captive to the inefficient and costly insurance companies.

In addition, while labor has been shamefully silent on this issue, Obama has not only continued, but in fact has doubled-down on the war in Afghanistan, begun a war with Pakistan and passed a "defense" spending bill larger than any other in history – all measures which further sap the ability of the government to provide much-needed social programs for working people and the poor (who these days tend to be one and the same). Indeed, instead of proposing cuts to "defense" spending, members of Obama’s own "deficit commission" have proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

And so, after all of these betrayals, Obama has decided to award former AFL-CIO President Sweeney a medal. While most union leaders will applaud this move as a showing of the Administration’s support for the labor movement, it is in fact its opposite. Rather, this is a demonstration of the Administration’s absolute contempt for the labor movement.

What Obama is saying is: "I know we have done nothing for you, and we certainly won’t do anything for you now, but, in return for all of the money and foot soldiers you have given to help Democrats like myself get elected, here is a medal to one of your former leaders." Obama believes that such hollow gestures, like the pat on the head of a small child, will be sufficient to pacify at least the officialdom of big labor. And, sadly, he is absolutely correct in this assumption, and herein lies the problem.

For the most part, the leadership of the U.S. labor movement craves access to the halls of power, including the White House, at any cost. When they talk about wanting a "seat at the table," they literally mean a seat or two at a table in the White House where the chosen few leaders of U.S. unions can dine with the President. Whether anything real comes out of such "access" or not for real working people is inconsequential. Rather, the "access" is, as the Medal of Freedom, reward enough.

And, it is for this reason that the AFL-CIO took the seemingly unfathomable action it did in siding with big business in supporting unlimited corporate spending in the brief it filed in the Supreme Court case of Citizens United – the case in which the Court held that corporations (and, by extension, unions) have the unlimited right to spend as much money as they please on certain kinds of election campaigning.

While the AFL of course realized that this decision would mean that its real political impact, as seen in the recent mid-term elections, would ultimately be dwarfed by corporate interests which can outspend labor one hundred fold, the ability of unions to spend vast amounts of money on campaigns in any case assures union officialdom the continued access at the literal (rather than proverbial) table they so desire. And, this bargain paid off big time in the awarding of the Medal of Freedom for the aging John Sweeney. However, nothing will come of this bargain for real workers. And, this is the tragedy and indeed the outrage.

As some commentators, such as Christopher Hedges, have recently opined, big labor has all but given up on waging a real class struggle on behalf of working people. Instead, labor, feeling weak and small (though still much bigger and much wealthier than many, much more militant unions in the Third World), has decided to hitch its wagon to the Democratic Party in the hopes of receiving the small crumbs which the Democrats may throw their way. The idea of marching, protesting or striking to put pressure on the corporations and the U.S. government, whichever capitalist party may be in control, to advance the interests of workers has all but been abandoned in exchange for a fool’s bargain with the Democrats.

This conservative course is motivated both by the desire of labor leaders to maintain some semblance of power while also protecting the good-paying staff jobs for those working for unions. In short, most labor leaders, believing they still have something to lose in terms of status and cushy sinecures, do not want to do anything to upset the apple cart, as rotten as it may be. And, this is much to the detriment of millions of working people and the unemployed who could benefit from a militant union movement advocating on their behalf.

For the same reasons, big labor has largely given up on real international solidarity. Instead, unions like the United Steelworkers has embarked on a course of bashing China — rather than trying to join and support the struggle of Chinese workers who are engaged in an unprecedented strike wave in support of workers’ rights and better pay and working conditions – even to the extent of lobbying and filing trade petitions against China’s subsidization of green energy. So much for the Blue/Green Alliance so touted by the USW!

Again, too fearful of taking on its own government and its own capitalists – many of whom are engaged in the oppression of the workers in China – and instead of calling on the Obama Administration to better fund green energy jobs, the USW has decided that the safe course is simply to complain (largely in vain) about the ostensible foreign threat of China. Sadly, such anti-China campaigning has only served to fuel the growing xenophobic and racist sentiment in this country.

I write this piece because I believe that unions still represent the best potential means of social change in this country, especially given the general collapse of other leftist organizations in the U.S. However, to make good on this potential, unions must be pushed by their rank and file members – and by those of us still considering ourselves communists — to stop playing it "safe" and to agitate for real political change outside the confines of either party of war and big business. Such a move could start by John Sweeney telling President Obama that he doesn’t need a medal – he needs real protections and social benefits for workers and the unemployed.

Alberto C. Ruiz is a long-time union and peace activist.
December 15, 2010