Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #6 April 24, 2001

Needed: ‘One Delegate, One Vote,’
Not a Self-Selected Union Oligarchy

By Harry Kelber

At the AFL-CIO convention in 1997, 51 vice presidents, all incumbents, were re-elected by voice vote to the Executive Council. All were unopposed and there was no debate. The whole desultory ritual consisted of reading the names of the candidates and their nominators.

The candidates, assured of automatic re-election, didn’t have to defend their records. In fact, they never appeared before the delegates, most of whom did not know who they were voting for.

Unless the AFL-CIO Constitution is revised, this sham election process for the federation’s highest policymaking positions will be repeated at the biennial convention on Dec. 4-7 in Las Vegas.

A clause in the constitution, unchanged since the American Federation of Labor was founded in 1886, allows international unions to cast as many convention votes as they have members, based on their per capita payments to the federation. But state federations and central labor councils get only one delegate and one vote each.

Thus, a small union like the Federation of Professional Athletes, with 1,700 members, has nearly three times as many convention votes as all 50 state federations and all 575 central labor councils combined.

The hundreds of delegates from state and local affiliates who attend the conventions are little more than window-dressing. Their votes are nearly meaningless in election contests and roll- call balloting on policy resolutions, since the largest internationals will cast hundreds of thousands of votes.

Because the presidents of international unions on the Council control about 11 million of the 13 million convention votes, it is futile for any state or local union leader, no matter how talented and accomplished, to run for a Council seat. State and local affiliates that provide the frontline troops for most of the AFL-CIO’s economic and political campaigns are completely unrepresented. Since the founding of the AFL-CIO in 1955, no state or local labor leader has ever been elected to the Council.

This egregiously unfair and discriminatory voting system does incalculable harm to unions and the working people they represent. It freezes the Council into a self-perpetuating oligarchy, unaccountable to the rank-and-file. The Council meets behind closed doors. It does not publish minutes. Differences of opinion are never disclosed publicly.

Even local union leaders don’t know most of the Council members — where they’re from or what they stand for — and the Council does nothing to enlighten them. News about costly policy blunders and badly-run organizing campaigns stays “within the family.” The Council, which includes President John Sweeney, Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka and Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson, refuses to entertain fresh initiatives unless they originate within its own ranks.

The Executive Council has an opportunity to redeem itself at its April 30-May 1 meeting in Boston. It could approve a pre-convention resolution to change the voting rules by giving each delegate one vote. With the convention only seven months away, the Council should take the lead in proposing a “one delegate, one vote” resolution. Failure to act will signal its intention to maintain an iron grip on the AFL-CIO.

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