June 25, 2023
The long-term decline and decay of the AFL-CIO as the leading national labor body continues on its decades-long course. The most recent evidence is the extraordinarily early and virtually invisible endorsement of President Joe Biden by federation leaders for re-election next year in the November 2024 election.
Commercial news coverage of the endorsement and the campaign event in Philadelphia the next day designed to whoop up the endorsement, was scant. Today this “big” news lies buried in the AFL-CIO web site, safe from anyone curious about how or why this happened a full 17 months before the election. AFL-CIO Votes to Endorse President Biden for Re-Election | AFL-CIO (aflcio.org) Further buried in the initial statement is a link to 11 AFL-CIO union affiliate statements and one state federation statement supporting Biden. AFL-CIO Affiliate President Joe Biden Endorsement Statements – 2024 | AFL-CIO (aflcio.org)
RUSH JOB SUBSTITUTE FOR POLITICAL ACTION
The Biden endorsement vote took place as part of an AFL-CIO General Board meeting, which includes the Executive Council members, a chief officer of each affiliated union, the trade and industrial departments, constituency groups, allied organizations, and eight regional representatives of the state federations and central labor councils. No detail has been released apparently on exactly who participated in this meeting, and who they might have been representing. Only the end result mattered, not the details of how the more than 12 million member labor Federation arrived at this critical decision. Apologists for the process will claim that it was “democratic,” but an examination of some facts is in order first.
In an apparent voice vote held during the June 16 AFL-CIO meeting there was one, possibly two dissenting votes. No information was released identifying who they were, as the proceedings were carefully jiggered to create an atmosphere of inevitability and unanimity. So fearful of dissent or questioning were the AFL-CIO leaders chairing the meeting that there was not even a roll-call vote, which would at least have allowed a member of any of the 60 affiliate unions to find out how their own union president had voted. No other candidates were presumably considered, and there was little discussion, debate or deliberation during the meeting. Any post-meeting postings on the AFL-CIO web page are tiny and difficult to find, leading one to conclude that since the Biden selection has been accomplished the entire affair can quietly be buried out-of-sight.
Owing to the near-secret AFL-CIO endorsement process it is unknown how many unions may have withheld their endorsement or merely remained silent during the voice vote. While several of the unions voting to endorse Biden prior to the June 16 confab made assorted claims that they were taking the action certain that their members supported such action, there was little evidence offered as to how this was done or what the exact results of this polling were. The Machinists Union (IAM) did undertake a detailed and lengthy process to allow for membership input into its political endorsement process, but the results were not announced until one week after the AFL-CIO action. And the statement announcing the endorsement of Biden by IAM President Robert Martinez omitted any reference to Biden’s breaking of the rail strike late last year. This convenient whitewash of Biden’s shameful anti-union actions will be repeated by most other unions. No criticism will be allowed of Biden under any circumstances. The AFL-CIO endorsement meeting was, after all, a carefully scripted Biden campaign event, not a serious Federation endorsement forum.
There was likewise no public discussion of any other course of action. Perhaps a delay in the endorsement to see if other more worthy candidates may emerge, perhaps a candidate forum to allow for newcomers, a serious taking-of-stock of the Federation’s sinking political fortunes? Nothing. Such is the solid lock by the Democratic Party and business union mindset on the “leaders” of the largest labor federation. The time-tested drill where labor’s leaders respond to the needs of the Democrats, hat in hand, checkbook at the ready, was on full display in the recent meeting.
NOTHING NEW HERE
The early and unconditional endorsement of Biden by the AFL-CIO is not a new or remarkable development. It was a foregone conclusion and is only notable for its all-time early granting and for the low point it marks for the political standing of the Federation. For many decades the AFL-CIO leadership has endorsed and promoted the funding of politicians – mostly Democrats – without negotiating any tangible guarantees in return. There also appears here to have been little or no negotiation regarding an expected “return” for labor’s “investment” should Biden win. The business union bargain with the Democrats has been, and continues to be, a failure of colossal proportions, with each successive election cycle costing labor more and more in cash, footwork, and political credibility. With almost 40% of the organized workers in the U.S. belonging to unions not affiliated with the AFL-CIO there is at least a possibility that an alternative process and path may be followed by some of those unions, although all indications are that the bulk of the unaffiliated unions will likewise endorse Biden at some point using similar methods.
Real forward progress for labor and the working class on the political front is no longer even on the AFL-CIO agenda. Political favors from Democrats and support for small incremental legislation that might slow the rate of union decline comprise the bulk of the Federation’s political program. Worse still, the fact of labor’s steep overall decline is not even recognized, leaving politicians like Biden to squeeze more and more precious resources out of the debilitated unions year upon year. It would be unimaginable for any in the Democratic Party leadership to actually contribute financially to labor’s battles and needs, although a case could be made that such support would be in order based on need and after decades of labor’s contributions to Democrats. The presidential endorsement process of the AFL-CIO has also become a rubber-stamping of whoever the leading establishment Democrat candidate may be, not driven in any way by demands from the membership that today’s realities for working people be addressed.
GHOST OF MONDALE HAUNTS AFL-CIO
The AFL-CIO decision to resort to the early endorsement gimmick has also been tried before, with disastrous results. In the 1984 presidential election the Federation was determined to avoid the disastrous humiliation of 1980, when a dozen unions broke ranks and endorsed the arch-reactionary Ronald Reagan. This contributed to the defeat of the hapless Jimmy Carter in the 1980 Reagan landslide. In a frantic effort to promote and “market” Walter Mondale – Carter’s Vice President – as labor’s preferred inside pick in 1984, the AFL-CIO leadership proceeded to orchestrate what was up until then the earliest-ever AFL-CIO endorsement. The Federation leadership at that time believed that if a real debate could be stopped, headed-off at the pass, that labor’s pick Mondale would naturally proceed without challenge and sweep the Democrats back into office. The mostly old, highly paid, white men who comprised the AFL-CIO leaders of that era were certain that they knew better.
Hoping to avoid any serious debate among union members or the public at large, and guarantee a smooth Mondale nomination, the rush-job scheme steadily unraveled when both civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and Colorado Senator Gary Hart both emerged as candidates with large and active followings. Mondale and his campaign faltered badly under the pressure of an actual competitive race, and despite winning the nomination he was crushed in the 1984 election as Reagan sailed to re-election. AFL-CIO maneuvering to launch Mondale, and completely control and dominate the ordinary primary election process was rejected by voters, and seen as just another insider power-grab. The 1984 electorate instead sought a freewheeling debate, as the first years of Reagan had shaken the labor establishment and membership alike.
As the 1984 election season unfolded, the Republican Reagan coasted to victory in his own primary election. On the Democrat side, the three-way political melee involving Mondale, Hart, and Jackson unfolded. The Democratic Party establishment – with Mondale and the AFL-CIO at its head – all worked furiously to motivate and even browbeat voters who would not support Mondale. But millions of working-class voters were well aware of the disastrous policies and missteps of the Carter presidency just a few years earlier, and that Mondale had been his loyal Vice President. These efforts to generate a top-down wave for Mondale failed miserably. By identifying so closely and uncritically with Mondale the bulk of the labor leadership merely found themselves out-of-step with the masses of voters as was Mondale himself. Mondale was seen correctly as offering only warmed-over leftovers from the Carter years, and voters rejected it.
LABOR ROYALS IGNORE MONDALE MEMORY
While union backing and resources gave Mondale the deciding margin to eventually win the bruising 1984 party primary, he was damaged and worn beyond repair and in the November election won only the District of Columbia and his own state of Minnesota. After Reagan’s knockout win over Mondale he rocketed to what became his destructive political zenith, and Mondale disappeared into lifetime political obscurity. Ever since, the AFL-CIO has assumed an increasingly uncritical and subordinate posture to the Democratic Party establishment. In many ways the labor movement and the AFL-CIO have never recovered from the 1984 miscalculation and disaster, and certainly they have not learned any lessons from it. It is a bitter fact, but a fact nonetheless, that in the past 50 years the political high marks reached by the labor movement were accomplished under the Nixon regime, and that the entire five decades since have been a painful and steady slide downwards.
BUSINESS UNION MINDSET LEADING TO DISASTER
In order to understand the business union leadership and much of its mindset today it must be recognized that most of the AFL-CIO unions today are dominated by one-person rule, frequently unchallenged rule, and leaders who face few contested elections. The business union ideology that dominates most of the labor unions allows for little serious internal dissent or debate over basic issues. The slip-it-by-in-a-hurry endorsement of Biden is a reflection of this business union contempt for debate and discussion. And while such business union cultures may be – for the time being anyway – what many union members must deal with in their own unions, to try to impose those same methods onto a gigantic national political process like the presidential election process is absurd. Individual union leaders may be able to stifle debate and dissent, and control outcomes within a relatively small union setting in spite of the facts, but to imagine that such control
might likewise be exercised on a national scale is delusional.
The AFL-CIO business union consensus that Joe Biden is somehow the best candidate – despite his obviously deteriorating physical condition, sinking approval ratings, breaking of the railroad strike, disastrous embrace of war threats and military expansion as his primary foreign policy tools, and his unholy alliance with the Federal Reserve’s attempts to induce a deep recession in the country – none of these factors bode well for Biden’s fortunes in the 2024 election.
But despite these facts the AFL-CIO leadership continues down the path of unconditional subscription to an increasingly unproductive relationship to the Democratic Party. While not a new problem, the Biden endorsement stampede is an illustration of several deeper-seated pathologies afflicting the unions today. The question asked by many, “What is wrong with labor’s political action?” can only be answered by diagnosing the corrosive effects of business unionism. There is a clear difference between political action and playing politics, although such a distinction seems unknown to today’s AFL-CIO leadership. There are certainly many differences between the presidential contests of 1984 and 2024. But let there be no doubt about the fact that to unconditionally embrace Biden at this extraordinarily early point, and to do so with no reflection on the real nature of his regime, and to refuse to consider any alternatives to the current course of repeated defeats is to court discredit and disaster once again.
-Chris Townsend was the Political Action Director and Washington Representative of the United Electrical Workers Union (UE), and was the International Union Organizing Director for the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU). Townsend was also the “Capitol Hill Shop Steward” columnist for the Labor Party Press, newspaper of the Labor Party. He has been a union member for 44 years and continues to work as a union organizer today. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org