Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #12 June 5, 2001

Union Leader of 2.2 Million Tells
Why ‘New Alliance’ Is Essential

By Harry Kelber

Denis M. Hughes has been president of the New York State AFL-CIO since March 1999. This interview took place on May 10 at his Manhattan office.

First, tell us about your background. How did you become the president of the largest state labor federation?

I started out as an apprentice electrician in Local 3 of the IBEW about 32 years ago. I soon became active in the union’s organizing and political campaigns. In 1985, while working on a construction job, Ed Cleary, then president of the New York State AFL-CIO, offered me a job as political director and as his assistant. Seven years later, I became his chief of staff. When he retired, I ran for president and was elected. I’m 50 years old, married 22 years and have a 19-year-old daughter.

What is the New Alliance and why was it created at this time?

There was a feeling that the AFL-CIO had to be restructured to consolidate and revitalize the state federations and hundreds of central labor councils so that they could play a more effective role in organizing and political campaigns. Two years ago, the AFL-CIO began an extensive review of the state and local bodies with drafts of proposed changes offered by local leaders and members. The restructuring process is continuing.

Our own state AFL-CIO is a good example of why restructuring was necessary. Twenty of our central labor councils were chartered about a century ago. With the passage of time. their importance has dwindled. Jamestown used to have a thriving furniture industry, which has disappeared. The same thing happened in Troy to its shirt factories. Other cities in the state also underwent dramatic changes, reflected in their economy, population and other factors. It is essential that affiliated organizations transform themselves to meet the changing times and conditions.

How are you applying the New Alliance concept in New York State?

As the largest state federation, with 2.2 million members, we were the first to volunteer to initiate the New Alliance process. We will merge our 31 central labor councils, many of which had not changed for decades, into five regional federations designed to maximize our current strength and density and to take advantage of the opportunities for growth.

We conducted a detailed discussion, of the new structure for more than a year, involving local leaders and rank-and-filers around the state. After a series of drafts and numerous meetings, we worked out a program that would provide the financial and human resources for a stronger labor movement in our state.

Our New Alliance will be ratified on June 5 and implemented within six months. In January 2002, our regional federations will begin to function with a new set of officers and a concrete plan for organizing and political action. Initially, the officers will be appointed by consensus, but the following year, there will be an open election of officers for three-year terms.

Ideally, how do you see the restructured regional federations functioning?

Well, the pooling of funds and resources into the regional federations should make a big difference for starters. The old CLCs were limited to non-controversial roles in their cities because they didn’t have the money or personnel to act aggressively in situations that required it. The New Alliance will be able to act more militantly in our economic struggles where aggressive action is the only way to achieve a fair and just outcome. We will be focusing on organizing, giving local unions whatever assistance they need. We will also set up programs to train organizers

While our union density (in New York State) is around 30%, compared to 13.5% nationwide, we’re aiming to boost it closer to 40%. We organized 50,000 workers last year, but that’s not good enough. There are lots of opportunities out there that we should take advantage of. We’ll be setting up a research division to survey all major non-union companies in the state, including hotels and health-care institutions, so that we can select the best possible organizing targets.

In our political activity, we will be more demanding of the state’s politicians. It won’t be enough that they vote favorably in the Legislature. We’ll want them to support our economic struggles, particularly against unfair employers who deny their workers the right to join a union.

Does what you are doing supersede the “Union Cities” program that the AFL-CIO set up several years ago?

“Union Cities” conducts educational activities to give leaders and members of central labor councils a number of guidelines on how they can build their communities into “union towns.” Our activities provide the actual implementation. A major problem is that only about 30% of the unions are affiliates of central labor councils, a basic reason why they have been so weak. Our aim is to get 100% affiliation, and we are making significant progress.

How much latitude has the national AFL-CIO given you in your restructuring efforts?

We have been encouraged to do a lot on our own, rather than being restricted. What John Sweeney did — and this is why I admire Sweeney — was to establish the climate for change. He allowed us to make the innovations that our members believed would strengthen our organization. Before Sweeney became president, especially during the Cold War years, the national AFL-CIO tended to stifle initiatives from state and local affiliates. And Sweeney made organizing a mainstream labor activity, for which I will always be grateful to him.

What causes you the most frustration in your position?

I enjoy my job immensely, but the most frustrating thing I have to deal with is getting everyone to move in the same direction. The basic problem is not the egos and strong personalities that you might normally meet at conferences, committee meetings or other forums. It’s that people are distinct human beings with different needs and wants and they’re often in conflict with each other. To spend a lot of time getting a certain level of common understanding can be frustrating, exhausting and not always successful.

And what do you find gratifying?

The thing that’s gratifying is that I actually have an opportunity to make changes. Last year, we succeeded in passing a bill to raise the state’s minimum wage for farm workers that brought them up to the national level. These workers are not our members and may not join our ranks for many years. I’m proud of what we did. I get a chance to do some good things, and help people and build the movement that has been so good to me.

What’s an average working day for you?

I have a vigorous workout in the morning before going to my office. I find it gives me the energy to carry on for the rest of the day. I usually meet with staff members and then get to the computer to check my e-mail and to read news digests of what’s happening throughout the state. During the day, there are plenty of phone calls to answer and I talk to visitors needing advice or assistance on a range of problems. I also spend time in mapping out strategy with labor leaders and executive board members to make this a more mobile, active and aggressive movement. Many evenings are spent attending rallies and special events of unions and allied organizations.

I spend Mondays and Tuesdays at my Albany office, meeting with upstate labor leaders and lawmakers, when the Legislature is in session. Wednesdays is a day for traveling, when I may stop in at some central labor council headquarters for a conversation or meeting. Thursdays and Fridays, I’m back in New York City.

You say reading is your main hobby. What sort of books do you read?

I read biographies, non-fiction almost exclusively. I just finished a biography of Joe DiMaggio. I read Seymour Lipset’s “It Didn’t Happen Here,” an explanation of socialism’s failure in the United States. I’ve also read Professor Josh Friedman’s “Working Class New York,” and a biography of former New York Governor Al Smith. I read the biography of Walter Reuther, “The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit.” Reuther was a brilliant man, but interpersonal relations was not his strong suit.

Anything you care to add?

No thanks, Brother Kelber. I think I’ve said enough for now.

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