The Danger of “Trickle down” Change.

by Street Heat

The challenge facing the 2013 AFLCIO convention is not acknowledging the crisis or being willing to discuss solutions. The preconvention discussion has been exceptionally open and steered towards finding ambitious solutions to the myriad problems labor faces (even some frank discussion of the peril of failing to organize the south). I couldn’t help be disappointed with how little of the discussion was geared toward breaking employer resistance to organizing, but in general most people’s contributions came from a place of an acknowledgment of the depth of the crisis and deep anxiety over how to make changes that would lead to labor’s revitalization.

Fundamentally, the AFL-CIO’s main challenge lies in driving titanic changes in the way it and it’s affiliates operates to ensure any changes decided upon don’t end up in an unused powerpoint on a jumpdrive somewhere or only bought into by a minority of exceptional affiliates. Without a well thought out approach to implementing the decisions made at the convention and ensuring the buy in of the maximum number of affiliates, the impact of any change that is accomplished will be stunted and limited once again to a far too narrow group of affiliates, labor councils and state feds.

This year’s AFL-CIO convention opens on what could only be considered a high note considering the crisis of labor. The struggle against a low wage economy took center stage last week beginning with a strike by Port Truckers protesting being paid poverty wages for transporting goods out of the ports of Long Beach, and ended with a strike by fast food workers in over 60 cities around the country. This week Wal-Mart workers took actions in 15 cities with over one hundred people being arrested across the country after issuing them an ultimatum to stop retaliating against workers for organizing and to increase pay to a living wage.

While two of the three campaigns are sponsored by Change to Win affiliated unions and one by another that just re affiliated to the AFL (UFCW), these campaigns all had critical characteristics that are essential to the revitalization of our movement and are thus are worthy of more than a thought by those attending the convention next week:

 Organizing to Scale – The campaigns are all large sale in conception and seek to transform entire markets or industries that are critical to breaking into historically anti-union strongholds.

Comprehensive Strategic campaigns – The Campaigns were based on a well thought out strategy based on mobilizing a multi prong attack on a given target using public opinion, political pressure, community mobilization, and most of all direct action to exert pressure on the targeted company/sector.

Militancy and Boldness – The direct action in the campaigns rested on the willingness of groups of workers (of various size) to boldly confront the employer or group of employers themselves through varying forms of direct action such as strikes, marches on the boss, flash mobs and other creative tactics. A break from the past corporate campaign approach that exerted almost exclusively outside pressure.

The convention is an ideal opportunity for the rest of the labor movement and its allies to take stock of these events and incorporate the positive lessons into this weeks discussions of how labor can turn around its fortunes. The proposed convention resolutions are ambitious and clearly aim having a rich discussion on substantive changes to how the AFL-CIO and it’s affiliates operate in today’s reality.

Regardless of how rich the discussion is and how many solutions are developed, the chief weakness that the AFL-CIO must grapple with and overcome in order for its week of deliberations to have any meaningful impact on our future is how to move its program among affiliates. Historically, programs rolled out at AFL conventions are adopted in practice by the state affiliates and labor councils to greater or lesser degrees along with a minority of forward-thinking, progressive minded unions that are the ones influencing the direction of the discussion in the first place. This was true when the Sweeney program rolled out the focus on organizing that the AFL-CIO enacted in the mid to late 90’s and the adoption of comprehensive immigration reform as a strategic goal since 2000.  Compelling affiliates to buy into and move a transformative program within its own top-heavy structures will be critical to ensuring that whatever plans that are adopted at this years convention become a true program for the vast majority of the labor movement that resides within the AFL to act upon.

The federal and voluntaristic nature of the AFL has been a longstanding impediment to the mobilizing capacity of the member organization and was one of the points of contention that were part of the debate that led to the split in the AFL that formed Change to Win. Certain key affiliates have built dynamic organizing programs that were supported, re enforced, and in many cases driven by AFL labor councils and state Federations, these efforts have more times than not failed to gain traction among the leaders or members of the majority of the affiliated unions. The result has been that labor councils and State Feds are loose federated bodies that mirror the structure at the top and are reliant on a minority of dynamic and visionary affiliated unions for capacity and resources with participation of other affiliates being sporadic at best.

Even into the lead-up to the convention, support has inconsistent at best among affiliates for all of the campaigns mentioned earlier and participation in street mobilizations continue to have the sense of a routine with the “usual suspects” showing up. In conversations with leaders of local affiliates you still get the feeling they still haven’t fully wrapped their heads around the fact that they are truly fight for the lives of their organizations

The convention is unlikely to be able to overcome the historic shortcomings of the entire labor movement, no matter how high the stakes and under even the best conditions. With that being said, the possibility of a larger groups of leaders coming out of this convention feeling compelled to take decisive action is a real possibility. It will be up to the most forward thinking leaders to take the momentum of this years convention to cajole, push, pull, and where necessary, demand that other leaders step up to the plate mobilize their memberships and throw themselves and the full resources of their respectable organizations into saving the American Labor movement and themselves in the process.

Street Heat is a union activist in the south, He blogs at It’s About Power Stupid! Thinking Strategically About Labor’s Survival, where this post originally appeared.

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