Leftwing Leadership in the AFL-CIO: Interview with Bill Fletcher
by David Bacon
LOS ANGELES, CA (12/31/99) - Bill Fletcher is an assistant to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. He was formerly the education director for the AFL-CIO, and led the designing of the Common Sense Economics program, an effort to begin teaching workers about how capitalism works as a system. He comes out of the left, was a principal organizer of the Black Radical Congress, and is a contributor to Monthly Review and other progressive publications.
The AFL-CIO hasn't had an overt left-winger in such a leading position since the 1940s, before the merger of the AFL and CIO. His views reflect the most progressive thinking in the labor movement today, at the level of national leadership, especially on issues of race and class. They give some insight into the new possibilities for leftwing politics in labor, and their limitations.
Q: Tell us a little about your personal history.
A: When I was a child, my great grandparents lived in a famous building in Harlem - 409 Edgecomb Avenue. At various times WEB Dubois, Thurgood Marshall, and Walter White (former executive secretary of the NAACP) all lived in that building. One evening, when I was 6 or 7, there was a family discussion going on around the table. My greatgrandfather, William Stanley Braithwaite, was talking about the very beginnings of US intervention in Laos, when the government was trying to keep the Pathet Lao out of power. This was even before the Vietnam war started - it must have been 1960-1, just after Kennedy took office. My great grandfather turned to me and asked me if I thought we should be interfering in the political life of another country. I had, of course, no idea of where or even what Laos was. But my father turned to my grandfather. Just give me time, he said. He'll figure it out.
I just grew up in that kind of ferment. There was political discussion in my family all the time. Eventually, of course, I did become radicalized, just as my father had predicted. My own politics developed in the anti-war and civil rights movements. When Dr. King came out against the war it really shook me up. I think I was like others at the time, looking at the civil rights movement as though it was something particular to the United States, separate from the war, separate from Vietnam. Dr. King's speech got me thinking in a new way.
I read Muhammad Speaks, the newspaper of the Nation of Islan, although I never got into their mythology [about whites?]. I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X. That really changed my life. I came away from reading it with a new understanding - that we have to fight for African American freedom in a world wide context. And that fight was my own - the struggle was where I needed to be.
Then the Panthers came, carrying out the legacy of Malcolm X. By then, at 14, I was a student activist in my high school in Mt. Vernon, New York, where we were then living. The Black Panthers had a chapter there. My father, who lived through the McCarthy years and remembered the devastating impact that repression had on activists, was uneasy about the idea of my joining the Panthers. I respected his request and therefore didn't join them. But in my high school, we formed a Black student organization, which was very close to the Panthers and the Young Lords. We shut down the high school in October 1970, joining in on national Black Solidarity Day. We were trying to show that we, as Black people, were together, and were part of the Black power movement. We also closed the school down in May 1970 to protest the murders at Kent State and the war.
Q: What did you get out of these early experiences?
A: Well, what I liked most about the Black Panther Party was that it saw that there was a world wide struggle going on - that it wasn't just a fight of Black folk. When I went to Harvard, that understanding grew deeper. I was influenced a lot by Ewart Guinier, who was chair of the African American Studies Department (and father of Lani Guinier). Ewart Guinier had been the national secretary treasurer of the United Public Workers, the union set up by the CIO to organize public workers in the great industrial labor upsurge.
Guinier taught African American studies from a class point of view - that mass struggle was the most important thing for our people. Growing up in New York, you couldn't avoid seeing the importance and power of the labor movement, but his point of view was broader than just that. He taught that Black workers historically had played an important, even a crucial, role in the labor movement. If we were organized, we could change the way the labor movement operated, and change the politics of the African-American community at the same time. I still see that - it became a basic part of my political framework for the rest of my life.
It was in that process that I started thinking of myself as a socialist. I actually started thinking of myself as a socialist in high school, but Guinier helped focus me on integrating that self-conception with what I was going to do after school. That process never stopped. I think my notion of socialism, of what it is or could be, has changed, but this is still at the core of the way I look at the world - the connection between socialism and Black liberation.
Q: Were you aware of the Black movements in Detroit - the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement - and other union-based ones like it?
A: I was aware that those movements were going on, but they were not well-publicized in New York and on the East Coast. I was more aware of things like the Black Panther Party and the Republic of New Africa. Locally, in the city, we had the struggle around Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, and also supported the struggle of workers at Charleston Hospital in Charleston, South Carolina. There were caucus movements in many unions - the post office, the telephone company and others.
Q: So what did you do with these ideas about the connection between race and class once you graduated from college?
A: At first, I did some organizing of unemployed workers and families in Cambridge. Then I got a job as a welder at the Quincy Shipyards, a division of General Dynamics. It was the roughest job I ever had.
I lasted three and a half years in the yard. When I went to work there, our union local was led by a very conservative group of white officials, right wing as hell. They were completely unprepared for the change that was going on in the workforce at the time. I wasn't the only Black person being hired - there were lots of people of color going to work in the yard, as a result of the affirmative action decrees. They didn't know what to do about us.
They were equally unprepared for labor relations in the new era. General Dynamics was on the cutting edge of that change too. Five thousand workers went out on strike at the yard in 1977. General Dynamics was ready for us. Our local, on the other hand, was completely unprepared, and we got our asses kicked. Our leaders believed that General Dynamics would bend once their workforce was in the street. Instead, the company brought in scabs to run the yard. The white scabs were taken in though side gates. But the company also hired African-Americans, Latinos, Cape Verdeans and other people of color. They were taken in through the front gate, right in front of the strikers. It was really inflammatory, designed to divide us.
I was involved in a reform caucus in the union, and we tried to get community support for the strike, and to get rank-and-file members active on the lines. Nowadays, that seems pretty standard for union strike tactics, but at that time, just coming out a period of relative stagnation within the trade union movement, those were pretty radical ideas.
Q: There were a lot of people in the 1970s who did what you did - young leftists who went into plants and factories to do political work. I spent many years myself working in electronics and printing plants. What do you think the net result of it all was? How important was that experience in making you who you are?
A: I absolutely believe that what we did was right. In fact, we still should be doing that. It was the best thing I could have done at the time, and I have no regrets. I eventually had to leave the yard because I have sinus problems, and I couldn't get well while I was working as a welder. But the things I learned there will stay with me for the rest of my life. I'd be a very different person if I'd started off in the labor movement working as a paid staff person.
One of the most important things we learned was that there are real consequences for people when they become involved in struggle - organizing unions or going on strike. These struggles aren't abstract, academic exercises. They have real risks and costs. Today we have many young organizers who have lots of enthusiasm, but no real experience of the workplace. Without that experience, sometimes they don't understand that struggles have consequences. People sometimes suffer as a result, and you can't just have a rah rah attitude, and then walk away if you're not successful. The people in the workplace can't walk away. I think many young people in the labor movement today need to understand work.
Q: Sometimes people who went into the workplace were criticized for not having a longterm commitment - that they were just there for a while.
A: I think the critique was wrong. Historically, there have always been members of other classes who have thrown their lot in with workers - middle class people, intellectuals, students. It's true that sometimes they carry a lot of baggage with them, and some have come with an elitist attitude, and haven't stayed. Some of the words we've used for that kind of thing have been pretty negative, too. I don't like calling people salts, or colonizers, or some of these other names. I look at them as in-shop organizers.
And lots of the people I knew who went into the workplace are still there. Many, if they're not in the factory, are still in the labor movement. I think we should encourage in-shop organizers. Many unions today look at that in-plant idea as too long-term. They're interested in staff-run organizing drives, and in having a staff of organizers they can move around. But in-plant organizing looks at developing leadership in the workplace like a farmer who raises a crop. You have to plant the seeds and then work on them. In-plant organizing means that there is a commitment to a particular workplace and the particular workers who work there. Sometimes I think that unions themselves aren't even the best vehicles to do this, because they have such a strong bias towards organizing activity which meets their own institutional interests.
When you look at big workplaces, like non-union auto plants or the huge high-tech electronics factories, it's clear they aren't going to be organized the way unions run campaigns right now. I think that they won't be organized without this in-plant approach.
Q: Well, if unions aren't going to do this, then who will or can?
A: That's historically been the role of the left. On campuses, for instance, young people become committed to social justice for workers as a cause, not to a particular union. People become committed to a left project, which sees organizing in the workplace as part of a spectrum of political activity, a project of social transformation.
And I think we in the left need to encourage labor to commit itself to certain industries and workplaces in a much more long-term way. Some unions are starting to look at organizing like this. The building trades have a strategy based on salting - putting union workers into unorganized workplaces. Labor could move much more in the direction of identifying core industries and core sectors of workers it wants to concentrate on. There have been other experiences as well - the Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project and others - where we've tried to form a multi-union commitment to a particular region or city. I think that inevitably has to involve people getting jobs in the shops.
You can't increase the size of the labor movement the way you would blow up a balloon - keep pumping in air and the balloon keeps getting bigger. We have to fundamentally reconstruct the labor movement in this country.
Historically, any kind of large scale organizing has been done in the context of great social movements. In the 1930s, the industrial union upsurge didn't happen in isolation. It was part of the whole opposition to fascism and the fight for democracy in the depression. In the 1960s, public sector and healthcare organizing was tied to the civil rights movement, the women's movement, and the Chicano and Asian movements. Large scale organizing takes place when there's a larger social upsurge, when a lot of things are being questioned.
Today we're still attempting to transform this union movement from one that was very complacent -- willing to accept a slow death because it wasn't facing the horror of an immediate extinction -- into a movement that has vision and hope. That's hard. It's notsimply a matter of changing people at the top. We also have to change the consciousness of workers at the base, to reconstruct a vision of unionism relevant to the twenty-first century.
Q: So what happened to you after you left the yard?
A: Well, I got a job as a community organizer for a short while with the Boston Jobs Coalition, to work on desegregating the building trades. I'm not sure I was a very good community organizer, but it led me to go to work for Greater Boston Legal Services, which had filed a major suit on behalf of Black workers against Local 7 of the Ironworkers Union.
What happened to that union is a kind of metaphor for a change that's taken place throughout the labor movement. People of color didn't even work in that trade until 1968, and Local 7 didn't have a single member of color until 1972. It didn't change voluntarily - only after it lost the suit. Then, over time and through a lot of struggle, it became more integrated, and people of color were elected onto its executive board.
While working at GBLS I met Bobby Haynes, who is now the President of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. He was, at the time, the Financial Secretary for Local 7, Ironworkers, so you can imagine that when we first met it was not under the best of circumstances. Yet, overtime his views changed and our relationship evolved. Today I have the greatest respect for him, and believe that he is has a very broad vision for the trade union movement in Masschusetts.
Also at GBLS, I became vicepresident of our staff union, which was affiliated District 65 of the United Auto Workers. From there, I was recruited by the union to come on staff. I was very nervous at the time, because I was involved in a lot of other activity in the anti-apartheid movement and local electoral campaigns. I didn't know if there would be conflicts, but I decided to throw down and get a job as an organizer, even while I was working on even while i was working on continued efforts to desegregate the Boston building trades at the same time. Later, in the early 1980s, I was active as well in the the Black United Front, Union Members for Jobs and Equality, and taught the history of Black workers at the University of Massachusetts.
Q: The fight over discrimination in unions didn't make you bitter about them?
A: My parents were both very pro-union, but they weren't pollyannaish about it. They taught me from the beginning that there were two wings to the labor movement in this country. One, they said, was real unionism, and they pointed to people like Harry Bridges, the legendary longshore leader in San Francisco. Bridges, they told me, fought for workers and fought to desegregate the docks. He was a courageous, no-bullshit kind of guy. The other kind of unions they said were the ones that were mobbed up, the jim crow unions. So I didn't see that there was any contradiction at all between being pro-union and being against jim crow unionism and mobbed-up unionism..
I've been fighting for a better labor movement since I first joined a union. I don't have any illusions. I've never felt that unions were God's gift to humanity, but a very contradictory social force. My idea has always been to build up their righteous end. That's what's kept me going. These days I tell young organizers that they can't think that unions are a political party, or even a consistently progressive social force, unless we fight to make them that. They're united front style organizations.
Q: How do you survive as part of the AFL-CIO leadership, especially as an assistant to [AFL-CIO President John] Sweeney saying all this, or do you?
A: Well, I don't always agree with the direction, but I make decisions all the time on when to express differences, and how, and to whom. Mr. and Mrs. Fletcher didn't raise an idiot. You have to decide which battles to fight, and that's never easy. But my experience is that President Sweeney likes having people around him with different points of view, especially people who are thinkers. He doesn't like dummies, and he's willing to be flexible.
Q: After District 65, how did you get to where you are now?
A: I worked next for the Mailhandlers Union, moving to Washington DC. I was in charge of coordinating the negotiation of their national contract. When the then-president of the union sold us out in negotiations, I got purged. I could see that coming, so by then I was already looking for another job. In 1991 I was hired as an assistant education director for SEIU, and it turned into the best working experience I ever had. After John Sweeney was elected AFL-CIO president, I became Education Director for the federation, and now special assistant to the president.
Q: So do you feel pretty secure now?
A: Being an historian, I'm keenly aware of how leftwingers in the labor movement were turned upon in the 1940s by their political allies, people who had praised them to the skies. So it can happen, and people can leave you hanging out there. When I was fired at the Mailhandlers, I was given a letter at 2pm, thanking me for my services, and telling me that at 5pm my job would no longer exist. So I've never felt that any position I've held in the labor movement was secure. But of course, no job today is secure. This is lean and mean capitalism. I know that for people of my parents' generation, this is really hard to understand. They grew up thinking that you could have a job for life.
I don't know how the wind is going to blow, but at the same time, I know how to do my job. No one will ever be able to say they got rid of me because I didn't know how to do it. I'm an unapologistic leftist, and I don't care who doesn't like it. I'm very committed to redeveloping the pole of Black radicalism, and equally committed to transforming the trade union movement into a real labor movement. For some people in the labor movement, union work is all they do. I have multiple lives. For instance, I helped organize the Black Radical Congress. Sometimes I feel like all these different expectations are like worlds colliding.
Q: At the AFL-CIO, you helped put together an educational course for union members called Common Sense Economics, and began setting up workshops, presentations, train-the-trainer programs and study groups in unions and labor councils. Many labor activists call it the first attempt by the federation since the days of the CIO to really teach workers how capitalism really works. Did you get a lot of resistance when you were setting it up?
A: We tried very hard to build a consensus in unions about how to talk to members about the economy. I think the bottom line was that we try to reintroduce dialogue about class into our work, and from that perspective, we did a pretty good job. I was actually astounded by how we devastated the common wisdom on what workers are willing to talk about. I really felt that the limits on how far we can go with this are not those of workers themselves, but the limits of the institution and the imagination of people in many parts of the trade union movement - people who don't get or who oppose educating our members.
It's so outlandish that for years we had a movement that refused to use terms like class or working class, where criticizing capitalism would automatically lead to redbaiting. We have quite a history to live down, and in order now to confront the problems that working people are facing, we have to look at the system, at what capitalism is doing to workers.
Workers turn on the television and what do they see? The economy is great and everything is booming. So when they're not doing so well themselves, they can think the problem is with them, that everyone else is doing fine. Or that they're nuts, that they're perceiving reality in a wrong way. But there's a third conclusion. You're not crazy, and you don't have an individual problem. The problem's in the system - the great disparity of wealth at the same time that the economy is booming. Reaching that conclusion is what we're about.
We don't get as far as the issue of surplus value itself in Common Sense Economics. What we do is explain and critique neoliberal capitalism, especially the attack on the public realm. That's much broader than just public services and the jobs of public sector workers - it's the enshrining of private ownership and the attack on anything public at all. Neoliberalism substitutes the view that the private sector is the source of all wisdom, and has a take-no-prisoners attitude on the accumulation of profit. That's what we take on.
Common Sense Economics does not really discuss the dynamics of the workplace, which is something the left does need to analyze and speak out on. It does discuss the dynamics of the system. It's a good starting point, talking about how to tell who your friends are, and who are your enemies. But it's not the ending point - eventually we need a more thorough analysis. We criticize successfully the avariciousness of capitalism, but the danger is that it leaves open the possibility of an illusion - that it's not the system that's the problem, but bad people running it. Workers understand capitalism in a very different way when they understand the nature of value and where it comes from.
We were helped by the fact that some unions already had an economics education program for their members. We tried to build on that work and go further. This education requires a commitment that we're going to have a real dialogue with our own members, not simply give them the message. That can be threatening, since it means people can speak back, or may not agree with what we're saying. But we have to be open.
Education is critical for unions because we will never get the commitment of our own members for the long haul if they don't understand the source of our problems. Without that commitment, we'll never be able to engage people in a real struggle for power. We'll be stuck mobilizing people around immediate actions and issues, without a longer range perspective.
The purpose of Common Sense Economics is to get people thinking about the direction we should be going. What is the alternative to neoliberalism? The U.S. labor movement is not anti-capitalist. We're not like COSATU in South Africa, or the CUT in Brazil. We're not even as radical as the Canadian Labour Congress. So we need to have a struggle and a discussion about the alternative, and rebuild that section of our movement which is committed to one. This discussion has to take place inside unions - we don't want it to go on just in universities, and have it brought to us.
Q: That seems pretty far in front of the current thinking of the staff and leadership of the AFL-CIO. Is this a discussion they're prepared to have?
A: It's not really a question of the top leaders or staff in the building in Washington. It's really about the movement and its overall leadership, where they are at, and the consensus which exists. But I'll tell you, at the base people are champing at the bit. Look at what happened at the WTO in Seattle. People are dying to talk about the global economy. We can get to a discussion of the alternative by talking about the world we live in today.
To many of our leaders, capitalism today is not recognizable any longer. In the past, sections of capital were open to labor as a junior partner in a corporate/government/labor alliance. That's no long the case.
Q: Yet sometimes I hear in Sweeney's speeches what sounds almost like a nostalgia for that past - the idea that capital should take the high wage "high road" rather than seeking to cut labor costs by any means necessary, the idea of the missing partnership for higher productivity, or even just mutual respect.
A: I don't think capitalism has ever been a moral system. It's always been amoral. But even the idea of the high road depends on our winning much greater power. It's not inconsistent with rebuilding our movement - we certainly can't ever get respect from the system by begging on our knees. I don't think that these views are inconsistent with those of President Sweeney.
There's really a larger issue out there, however. What is the economic program of the trade union movement? Is it possible for us to win significant concessions short of socialism, and if so, in what direction? That's the notion of the high road - that there are reforms which we should fight for and can win. But in the end, reforms won't solve the fundamental contradictions of the system, so we shouldn't fall prey to illusions.
Q: You say that you're committed to rebuilding a radical pole among Black people. How big and effective do you think the Black left is today?
A: There's certainly a Black left, but it's weaker than it was 20 years ago, and ideologically, it's very diverse, with communists and socialists of various stripes, feminists, revolutionary nationalists, liberation theologians, and others. Part of what we've tried to do in the Black Radical Congress is to rebuild the Black left on a national scale, around the immediate issues in our communities - police brutality, prisons, the struggle of the poor and homeless. The left among Black people isn't represented by a single organization, and no organization has hegemony in our community. The Black Radical Congress isn't attempting to build one. We're just saying that we can do better if we work together.
There's a labor component to the BRC as well, and one question we try to keep on the agenda is the organizing of the South. We're trying to rebuild the relationship between Black people and unions. Our community has a rich labor history, and African Americans have been involved in unions since the first ones were organized. As early as the Civil War, even though African Americans were excluded from many of the official, or white, unions, that didn't stop us from organizing. We organized unions in the South during the Reconstruction period. We embraced the Knights of Labor. We even accepted horrible conditions in the American Federation of Labor. But we wanted unions. We joined the Industrial Workers of the World and helped to build it, and set up independent unions. And then in the 1930s, along with Chicanos and Asians, we contributed to the victory of the Congress of Industrial Organization in the organizing of the mass production industries.
Today there's a greater need than ever for African American involvement. We have a greater proportion of our people - about 18-20% -- in unions than any other racial or national group.
Q: Even unionbusters commonly tell employers to avoid hiring African Americans during union drives because statistically they're more likely to vote in favor during union elections.
A: That's absolutely true. There are remarkable stories during the 1930s and 40s of white organizers in the South who were confronted by this dilemma. Black workers would respond to the union and white workers wouldn't. Today the role of Black workers is even more important, especially in terms of influencing change within the labor movement. We're not just supporting what someone else is doing. We need to be at the table. African Americans, Latinos, Asians, gays and lesbians, women - we allneed to be at the table when decisions are being made, because we need to reshape the labor movement. We need a cultural change, where unions not only accept new people, but embrace change itself, including new constituencies. When you're talking about organizing 20 million workers -- what we're really up against -- you have to talk about changing the way unions operate.
A lot of people are going to be shaken by this. Many leaders are comfortable with the idea of more people of color coming into their movement. But they're not so comfortable with the idea that maybe we're going to reorganize things.
Q: So are you happy with how the labor movement is dealing with issues of race, especially in terms of how they go about educating or talking to members about it?
A: The manner in which organized labor handles issues of race is very uneven. There is a recognition that there needs to be more diversity in staffs, and even, among some unions, diversity within the leadership. But dealing with race is more than dealing with diversity. It is also about issues; it is about the role of the membership; it is about who is at the table when key decisions are being made. On this, the record is definitely mixed.
At the political level, unions are raising important issues, like the question of prisons and their social cost. But the real disconnect is between what's said at the upper echelons and what's going on among our own members. If you look at the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a racist ballot measure directed against young people of color in California, the big question isn't what position is being taken by Art Pulaski, head of the state labor federations, or other state labor leaders, although their stand is important. It's what do our members think. Do they know about the initiative? Are they engaged in discussion of it? Do they understand what it will mean to them? That's why I get worried when people in labor start to downplay member education.
Look at what happened in California with Proposition 226, which would have ended our ability to support political candidates. We did educate our members, and they did what was necessary to defeat it as a result.
Q: But we also had Proposition 227 on the same ballot, which was directed at Latino and Asian immigrants, and abolished bilingual education for their children. Labor didn't speak out in the same way on that.
A: Yes, the question of race and class keeps coming up. We desperately need a dialogue on race, sex and class. We're members of unions, but we're also members of the human race. And on this I hold the leadership of our movement responsible. Do our leaders have the political will to meake this discussion happen on race and gender, and also on international solidarity? Fundamentally, it takes the courage and vision of our leaders to step out and call things as they are, and talk with our members. There are leaders who can give very radical speeches outside of their unions, but say little to their own members. On 227, I know there were leaders who were afraid to have a discussion of bilingual education because they were afraid they might lose. But we have to be prepared to take that chance. We won't change anything if we don't do it.
Q: Do you see more willingness in unions to talk about immigration now? There was just a big debate at the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles, and union leaders who said on the record that they were wrong in supporting anti-immigrant measures like employer sanctions.
A: I definitely see more willingness to talk about immigration than has been true for years. But we need more than just political statements around employer sanctions. What's really necessary is a longterm discussion about immigration itself, and not seeing it in isolation but in terms of its connection to other issues. Why do people immigrate to this country to begin with? What's happening in the countries from which they come, and what do the policies of our government have to do with enforcing the poverty which pushes people out?
Then there are even harder issues, like those of competition between national and racial groups over ethnic niches in the labor market - the issues of building unity among workers. That problem - immigrant vs. non-immigrant - is very explosive. At a recent building trades conference, one of the participants told me they were making great progress in dealing with race by talking about the importance of organizing immigrants. This is a very important question, especially in southern California, given the large number of Latino workers. But there's another aspect of this problem we can't ignore. For 40 years, non-immigrant African American, Latino and Asian workers have been fighting to get into the building trades. What are we going to do about that? For years, in the African American community, we discouraged people from working non-union, emphasizing the importance of getting into the union. Well, the doors of the union are opening, but still not to all. We won't accomplish this just by organizing immigrants. We have to look at the rest of the workforce that's been excluded too. At the same time, I'm very upset by some anti-immigrant sentiment among African Americans. We have to encourage alliance-building among our communities.
As a labor movement, how do we fight for better job opportunities? What kind of economic development strategy is going to create job opportunities for workers at the low end? It's not just African Americans against immigrants. Competition affects non-immigrant Latinos and Asians too. That's the story of capitalism - it fosters competition between workers. So we can't afford just to wait for things to shake out, as we've so often done in the past. We have to fight for real jobs, for economic development that benefits those on the bottom. And we have to be unionizing those people - unions are the greatest anti-poverty program going. If we want to fight for jobs, we have to fight for the legitimacy of the public realm. I'm very confident that ordinary people can get this connection. Look at the way people get the whole notion of corporate welfare - it's just a matter of understanding this in class terms.
Q: What do you think are the main areas where the Sweeney administration has made a change from Kirkland and the old regime at the AFL-CIO?
A: I think the most important has been changing the whole atmosphere around organizing, and fighting to give it greater resources. In the political arena, we've paid more attention to education on the issues our members care about, and we've received better press and media attention. Unions have won some key strikes, although they're not the victories of the federation itself, but of affiliate unions - UPS, and the steel workers strike at Ravenswood have certainly been a good change from before. Our executive council is more diverse in terms of race and sex, although there's still a long ways to go. We set up an education program, Common Sense Economics, and are starting to rejuvenate local labor councils and state federations. And certainly a major change has been coalition building, both domestically and internationally, reaching out to groups we previously ignored. I think we're putting the cold war into its crypt. That's a major advance - turning away from the cold war, and developing new relations with labor centers in other countries that were treated as pariahs only five or six years ago.
Q: What about electoral politics? With the early endorsement of Al Gore, it seems like there's less change there than in most other areas of the AFL-CIO's activity.
A: The AFL-CIO and most of its affiliates, believed that the stakes are very high in the 2000 election and that labor could not afford to wait on the side lines during this period. It was felt that mobilizing now around the Presidential and Congressional races is critical in terms of defining the issues facing working class people.
We still have a movement that has not really decided that it's in a struggle for political power, and we act often instead like a movement struggling for political influence. Our movement has to decide if we really want power, and if we want it, then I think the implication is that we have to be more independent.
I think we've accomplished some important things electorally. We're paying more attention to getting labor people to run for office, and I think programs like Labor Neighbor are very effective. But even when we elect people, we still face the question of whether they will represent a labor platform. What is that platform? How do we hold people accountable to it? So we're basically still really divided over our reliance on the Democratic Party.
Q: What about the Labor Party or the New Party, or other independent formations? Do you think that unions are likely to make a much greater commitment to them?
A: I think it's going to take a lot more struggle and discussion at the base before there's substantially greater support for the Labor Party or New Party. The leadership of most unions are very comfortable with the old way of doing politics, and if there's no demand, why should we think they'll change? If there's a lack of demand at the bottom, you get what you get.
Look at what happened in Seattle. There was certainly a great outpouring of support for the demonstration, and people are definitely up in arms. But it's not enough to come back from Seattle fired up, without a program at the local level. If people want independent political action, they have to organize at the base. We don't need abstract slogans. We need to know what independent political action really looks like, that's not opportunistic. We shouldn't take cover under Gompers old slogan that labor has no permanent friends.
Q: So looking at your own situation, do you feel isolated? What can a single individual like yourself accomplish in the position you find yourself in?
A: When I look around, I see people of various political stripes around me. I don't feel isolated, but I don't always think I'm surrounded by kindred spirits. There are a lot of good people here, and I'm glad to work with them.
But there are very real limits on what I as an individual can do. Fundamentally, I think political change happens when people organize at the base. People like me can help, speak to folks, encourage them, but we can't replace movement at the bottom. When people start believing their own personal publicity, they're on the road to hell. That doesn't mean we can't fight for important changes. It just means that at the base, we need an organized left movement, which pushes beyond the boundaries of traditional trade unionism.
Even in terms of the changes that have already taken place, and the important contributions from the top in the AFL-CIO - in the absence of an organized left, they're going to be short-lived and stagnate.
We need a working-class left in this country. That could alter the way unions operate, it could help labor build coalitions and embrace other social movements, and encourage many different forms of resistance to neoliberalism. If I can help make that happen, I'll do it. That's how I see my role.
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