The AFL-CIO seeks new models or new ways, but the only option is class struggle

In March 2013, Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO, spoke at a conference held in Chicago. His remarks were on the plight of working people in the USA and the continued inability of the labor movement to gain new members and reverse its downward trend.

In preparation for the AFL-CIO convention in September 2013, the top leadership has issued a call for a discussion on what they have termed, "new models and new ways to gain representation and represent workers." Trumka detailed some of the major problems facing unions and working people which included a declining membership, reduced retirement security, and an increase in income inequality.

He stated that unions need to tell a story that they are not the problem, but the solution to the problems facing all working people and the labor movement remains the largest force for progressive change in America. Fair enough but is this anything new? How should communists and others on the left respond to this "call" for new ways and new ideas?

First, the economic conditions for the vast majority of working people continue to deteriorate. Big business, with support in both major political parties continues its one sided class war of austerity and brazenly moves on all fronts to destroy all of labor’s gains.

Yet the top leaders of the AFL-CIO are either unable or unwilling to mount any serious alternative program that publicly challenges this assault. The first and foremost discussion Brother Trumka needs to hear is an honest debate in all union locals about what labor stands for and how it will fight to achieve its goals.

Labor’s problems go much deeper than a shallow debate that focuses on labor’s organizational forms and technical discussions of rearranging union bodies through mergers and consolidations.

A critical evaluation of Labor’s overall mission and how to fight the corporate/political onslaught is what’s desperately needed. The current situation provides an opportunity for Communists and honest forces on the left to revitalize the labor movement through class struggle trade unionism. Left formations around concrete issues and demands should be on the agenda for honest forces in the labor movement.

Our role is to move an agenda with concrete proposals in all levels of the labor movement that challenges the prerogatives of capital and mobilizes an action plan for its implementation. Will labor mobilize its ranks and begin to lead a mass movement against concessions in the workplaces and austerity for the working class? Is one of the "new ideas" putting resources into a labor-led coalition and in the streets to save Social Security/ Medicare?

What about fighting for a mass jobs program that rebuilds the nation’s crumbling infrastructure at union wages?

Or mobilizing the working poor around a campaign to raise the minimum wage?

Or mounting a campaign to win a six-hour day, which would create millions of jobs?

Why not a debate on the destruction of civil liberties, its impact on labor and the need to cut the war economy?

Single payer healthcare could be a magnet that gives labor another opportunity to unite union members and the general public.

Both major parties worship at the altar of big money and have adopted austerity for working people and corporate coddling as their main political plan. Will labor offer an independent challenge to this morally bankrupt and rotted political system? These and many other crucial issues need to be addressed by an independent labor movement that mobilizes and advocates for all.

The example of the visceral anger and readiness of sizable sections of the rank and file labor to fight and mobilize during the recent battle in Wisconsin is a good example of energy that can be replicated throughout the country.

Other examples abound. The possibilities for moving to higher levels of struggle must be nurtured in local unions, workplaces, and wherever workers gather. A conscious class-struggle presence in the rank and file is necessary to channel this anger and energy to move forward. The constant attacks against labor by business and the corporate media can lead to confusion, cynicism, disillusionment, and hopelessness.

At this particular juncture, the lack of a progressive ideology has disabled and disoriented the union movement. The current top leadership is not capable of mounting the necessary fight back in the workplace, communities, and political arena. It’s simply not in their DNA.

Their reliance on labor-management partnerships and obedience to the Democrats as a political strategy has confused and disarmed workers. It constitutes the fundamental weakness of the labor movement today. Labor cannot win the hearts and minds of its own members or the general public if it appears as special interest group whose leaders just want to maintain a dues income for a section of top bureaucrats.

The current attacks on working people call out for a radical alternative response that breaks with passivity and pursues independent action in the interests of workers and the public in general.

Only a shift toward class struggle unionism can begin to offer the necessary strategy and tactics that will challenge capitals plundering. Because most of the top leaders have bought into class-collaboration trade unionism and are sorely deficient in principles, standards or ideology, the struggle to interject a militant program will be viewed with skepticism and even ridicule by many at the highest levels in labor.

However, it is only by having a conscious foundation built at the lower levels will a real movement take hold and prosper. We must be convinced of this. It represents the hope of the future for working people. Working people are getting a raw deal.

Let us give conscious political direction to the latent anger and energy now permeating our land and give it an organized voice in our unions and communities.

Let’s use the call for "new ideas" as an opportunity to rebuild labor on popular independent foundation that that galvanizes working people in the workplaces, streets and at the polls. Labor has still has the capacity to step up and provide this new alternative direction.

Let us work to make it a reality.

May 24, 2013

E. J. Dewey is a labor and political activist with over 35 years of experience in the labor and political arenas.  He served 15 years as a central labor council president.