By Chris Townsend

June 24, 2022


The 29th Constitutional Convention of the American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) opened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 12, 2022 delayed by one year owing to pandemic conditions. There was little fanfare, and little advance publicity apparently. Even ordinarily sympathetic observers of AFL-CIO Conventions have been struck by the low profile and energy of the proceedings. Held only every 4 years the Federation Convention is the one minimally public event where union leaders, members, activists, and supporters of the labor movement might be able to look for leadership on the dizzying array of issues facing working people. 

In recent decades as the labor movement has been assaulted from all sides less and less public and media attention is seemingly paid to this otherwise critical council of the leadership of such a primary section of the organized working class. By comparison, the twice-as-large Labor Notes conference convened in Chicago just a week after the AFL-CIO Convention, and it offered a dramatically different and far more energetic approach to solving labor’s crises and problems.

The AFL-CIO is comprised of 57 industrial and craft unions, claiming a combined total of 12.5 million U.S. members. When those only nominally associated with their unions are subtracted – primarily retirees and political campaign enrollees – actual Federation membership is significantly less. And in addition to this membership, more than 7 million workers belong to unions not affiliated with the AFL-CIO.  The stark facts today would be that the unionized section of the U.S. working class remains numerically small, embattled, isolated, and encircled by hostile employers and governments. Activity levels among union members at the workplaces has declined as a result. The total unionized slice of the workforce has also been steadily shrinking as a proportion of the entire workforce for the past 70 years, now well less than 10%. 

While positive anecdotes are always to be found in abundance where unions and workers fight back or try to advance, the overall condition of the labor movement given this imbalance of forces is precarious at best. For my entire working life as a union member – more than 40 years – the situation has been steadily deteriorating as both employers and governments systematically attack the remaining organized union garrisons in the industries. Our growth in new sections of the economy has been virtually stopped, as the employers have adopted an all-out union smashing strategy to prevent the unions from regenerating. The new industries have been nearly impossible to organize, so the unions continue to suffer major losses in established bases that they are unable to replace.

Convention Die Cast on Day One

Given the dire situation we now face as a labor movement one might have imagined a Federation Convention dedicated to intense study and debate regarding our situation. Or, we might have imagined a vigorous pre-Convention process where the disastrous situation we confront would have been dissected in a search for solutions by the leadership. Very little of this apparently happened, however. The Philadelphia Convention opened without the presence of the well-known and outsized figure of Richard Trumka, who died suddenly in August of 2021 after more than 25 years as first the Secretary-Treasurer, then the President of the Federation. Trumka had announced his intention to retire at the Philadelphia Convention, and his sudden death opened-up the possibility of an actual election contest for the leadership spot. 

Trumka’s hand-picked successor was AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, the preferred shoo-in of the conservative elements in the various affiliate unions. Progressive forces scattered in the unions had promoted a possible candidacy by airline Flight Attendants (AFA) union President Sara Nelson, but resistance from the old regime’s supporters and a front-loaded leadership election on day one of the Convention ended any such thought of a challenge. Shuler was elected without debate or discussion. The small progressive forces in the various union leaderships – and the even smaller left elements – were unable to crystallize the needed support for Nelson that might have forced an election challenge and a wide-ranging debate of the many crises faced. The hurried Shuler election on day one ended any hopes for discussion, debate, or any meaningful appraisal of the state of things facing the unions at the Philadelphia meeting.

More Decay and Drift Ahead

With no leadership challenge or debate having materialized, the Convention proceeded to move through its customary standard agenda on a predictable course. The multiple disasters facing the labor federation were at times mentioned, but little urgent action was proposed. Scripted speeches, stage-managed presentations, visiting VIP guests from the Democratic Party – notably President Joe Biden – spoke to the assemblage, and an array of video clips were shown to try to inject enthusiasm into the audience. A trade show theme permeated the Convention as job training, “wellness”, and other HR functions were offered as substitutes for traditional trade union responses. 

Some ongoing struggles and organizing successes were thankfully showcased, although the leaders of the three largest successful NLRB union election campaigns in the past 3 months – Amazon, Starbucks, and MIT – were all barely noted. Ironically, the three unions responsible for those wins – the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), Workers United (SEIU), and the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) – are not affiliates of the AFL-CIO. These unprecedented and successful uprisings of more than 15,000 unorganized workers in previously untouchable anti-union employer fortresses were little noted in the AFL-CIO proceedings.

During the week a variety of other public decisions were made; Fred Redmond from the Steelworkers Union was elected Secretary-Treasurer; the Executive Vice President slot was eliminated by being merged apparently with the Secretary-Treasurer position; a new Executive Council of affiliate union leaders was elected without any challenges or debate; and at the very end of the Convention it was announced that a new organizing initiative would be launched presumably to address the stagnant and sinking membership levels. No details or timelines were announced as to how or when this would be done. So ended the Convention of AFL-CIO, the all-too-rare meeting of the leaders and general staffs of the unions comprising the U.S. labor federation. My now departed and dear friend Harry Kelber – a tireless advocate for an improved democratic and deliberative process at AFL-CIO Conventions – would have been dumbstruck at the proceedings, what they covered, and what they did not cover. 

Crises Will Deepen and Worsen

A “steady as she goes” approach has been the preferred course by the labor leadership for decades. It has proven to be a reliable path to a “rule or ruin” legacy where the singular goal of maintaining complete control crowds out all other considerations. Such is sadly the state in many of the affiliate unions as well. Ignoring problems and crises, delaying real discussion of new and urgently needed solutions, praying child-like for a miracle to save the “the middle class”, hiring outside advertising firms to explore new “messaging” schemes, continued habituation to decline and decay, an unwillingness to question the political strait-jacket of the Federation, substituting non-profits and NGO’s for the development of real trade union capacity, and even overt submissive gestures to enemy political forces and corporations in the vain search for allies have all been standard responses over the decades. Given this historically failed and sterile process no other outcome other than continued decline is to be expected. The Philadelphia Convention has ended, the delegates have drawn their breath and drawn their pay, and that’s that.

Progressives and Militants Demobilized and Scattered

Defenders and apologists of the status-quo alike have always pointed out one fact that is not in question here, which is to correctly observe that “The AFL-CIO is only a sum of its parts.” Meaning, that the Federation itself is merely a reflection of the character of the unions and the union leadership that comprise the leadership of the affiliate unions. Today’s situation within the labor center reflects accurately an overall business union malaise deeply infecting the labor movement. The current untenable and dangerous situation will not correct itself, either. The highly paid leaders of the bulk of the affiliate unions – and their networks of appointees and paid staff completely beholden to them – are customarily insulated and protected from virtually all political challenges in their own unions. 

The progressive and left elements in the unions do exist, but they are precariously scattered and unable or unwilling to bring forward demands for such basic initiatives as the need for internal democratization of the unions, for aggressive bargaining campaigns before the current economic conditions deteriorate, for mass campaigns of new organization, or advocacy towards a new and improved political action program. Some of the more activist and progressive forces within the affiliate unions did emerge as part of the network which pushed for a candidacy by Sara Nelson from the Flight Attendants, but in the end the network was too small, too isolated, opposed by too many, undermined, and unable to pull together a campaign to confront the old guard as personified by Shuler.     

Need for Real Work in the Unions

Over the past 30 years there have been 3 distinct union leadership groupings that have collected around demands that the labor Federation deal more realistically with its problems, deal more decisively with them, organize the unorganized on a wider scale, and exert some degree of independence from the Democratic Party. The union coalition that barely unseated the reactionary Lane Kirkland regime in 1995; the dozen unions that coalesced around the Labor Party movement in the 1990’s, and the unions that came together and ultimately split from the AFL-CIO to form the now moribund rival Change to Win federation in the 2,000’s. Progressives and militants played leading roles in all three efforts, although all three were unable to permanently establish themselves as sustained left alternatives to the ossified status quo.  

In the wake of the failure of these three initiatives – so far as their goal of reinvigorating the overall labor federation – the left forces have dissipated and declined. The Bernie Sanders campaign rejuvenated some of these forces during his bid for the White House but have since scattered again in the wake of the Biden victory. With no pressure being brought to bear from the left, the entrenched conservatives in control of the Federation are unlikely to act on very much coming in the wake of the Convention, as history will attest. And on top of everything else, the apparent impending November election debacle facing the Democratic Party – and the likely return to power of an increasingly reactionary and anti-labor Republican Party – should be cause for alarm. With a Republican Party set to continue and expand its program of liquidating the trade unions one might have imagined the Federation willing to confront at least this singular issue as an emergency, but no such program seems in evidence. 

The situation in many of the affiliates is even more dire, as internal union polls regularly indicate that large swaths of union membership support Trumpism and its variants at the ballot box and in general. With the Federation unwilling to take on and lead the needed – and necessarily controversial political work of exposing the Right’s agenda – the affiliate unions are unlikely to go it alone and risk angering large sections of their memberships. Union after union refuses to engage their memberships in any meaningful trade union political education, instead abandoning this most urgent of tasks. 

Labor Notes Conference Eclipses AFL Confab

One very bright sign on the horizon besides the youth-led organizing upsets at Amazon, Starbucks, and MIT is the biennial Labor Notes conference which convened in Chicago just days after the AFL-CIO Convention. Run on a shoestring, more than 4,000 unionists gathered at the Labor Notes conference, twice as many as the all-expenses-paid attendance at the AFL confab. The evolving Labor Notes movement took root more than 40 years ago on the left fringes of the labor movement and today has grown to eclipse even the Federation itself in terms of the loyalty shown it by the activist elements across all unions and sectors. 

The emerging younger, progressive, and more militant forces in some of the new organizing movements – as best illustrated by the Amazon, Starbucks, and MIT election wins – run counter to the AFL-CIO drift and decay. In some ways it offers parallels to the divide between new and old generations in the early years of the Committee for Industrial Organization, the predecessor of the eventual Congress of Industrial Organizations.

The recent Labor Notes conference featured addresses by Flight Attendants Union president Sara Nelson, Senator Bernie Sanders, and new Teamster President Sean O’Brien. In addition, union leaders and activists conducted workshops too numerous to count as virtually every aspect of labor’s crisis was debated and examined in the search for some way forward. The meeting stands out for its authentic energy and character, its decentralized structure, and its decidedly left political and militant union bent. Labor Notes has clearly carved-out and earned for itself the left pole of the labor movement and commands wide loyalty among the ranks. All signs point to a continued growth of this left flank. 

William Z. Foster

As far back as 1925 William Z. Foster warned that, “To bring the millions into the unions is necessary not only for the protection of the unorganized workers, and to further class ends in general, but also to safeguard the life of the existing organizations.” Foster implored the progressives, the militants, and left forces within the unions to push, and push harder towards a goal of forcing the established bureaucracies in the labor movement to respond to the crisis as he saw them 100 years ago.  That same counsel describes our collective dilemma today, with both the Federation and scores of union affiliates stumbling towards disaster and forfeiting the momentary improved conditions for aggressive trade union bargaining, strike action, and certainly for the initiation of mass campaigns to organize the many millions of unorganized workers. 

Foster in his era was faced with many of the same business union pathologies as we face today regarding the need to revitalize the labor movement, and all serious participants in the current labor movement are well advised to acquaint themselves with his legacy. Foster correctly observed that, within the labor movement leadership, “The left wing militantly leads, the progressives mildly support, and the right wing opposes…The left wing alone has a realization of the tremendous social significance of the organization of the unorganized…” It should be noted that just 10 years after Foster’s admonition in the trade union low ebb of the Roaring Twenties to organize the unorganized the CIO was born; and just 16 years after the loss of the Great Steel Strike the mass strike waves that established the CIO were spreading like wildfire. 

Things that look impossible today will be possible again, but not unless the left labor forces come together, build their numbers and reach, unify around a basic program of trade union revitalization, and work to compel the union leaderships to carry out the missions of the trade unions – and put an end to the disastrous AFL-CIO and affiliate union wandering in the wilderness. This work in the individual unions is urgent and critical if any progress is to be made at that level, and certainly no future progress will be possible at the Federation level absent these forces. 

For those seeking Foster’s interpretation of the AFL shortcomings in his time frame see, “American Trade Unionism”, a collection of Foster’s writing spanning his career as a labor organizer.  The book is published by International Publishers. 


-Chris Townsend was the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) International Union Organizing and Field Mobilization Director. Previously he was an International Representative and Political Action Director for the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) He has been active in the labor movement for more than 40 years as a member, local organizer, local elected officer, and national and international staff member.