Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #8 May 8, 2001

A Debate with CWA Pres. Bahr:
Time to Reform Vote Process?

By Harry Kelber

In an April 12 letter to members of the AFL-CIO Executive Council, I argued that it’s unfair and undemocratic for each international union to cast thousands of votes at the labor federation’s biennial conventions, while state federations and central labor councils get just one vote each.

Two weeks ago in this column, I again suggested a cure for what ails labor’s decision-making process: a constitutional amendment that would establish a “one delegate, one vote” standard at all future conventions.

Several Executive Council members agree — if only privately — that amending the AFL-CIO constitution in this way is overdue. But one member, Communications Workers President Morton Bahr, strongly objected to my proposal in an April 18 letter that said in part:

“State and local bodies are given one vote for a good reason. The votes that would otherwise be represented by a state and local body would be duplicative of the votes cast by the national unions. Further, the vote of a state body would be duplicative of the votes of all the CLCs in that state. The one vote was originally given to permit the leaders of the councils to have a voice at the convention.

“What surprises me is that you are opposed to the one member-one vote concept. When did you decide to oppose the democratic process? By what logic should the 630,000 per capita vote CWA carries — and pays for — be canceled out by the Football Players Union?”

Bahr concluded: “The reverse of what you claim is wrong is that under your proposal, 33 unions representing perhaps 25 to 30% of the dues payers could set policy. This is the role for the Council, not the convention.”

In an April 21 response to Bahr, I wrote:

“1. Under Article IV, Sec. 4.(a) of the AFL-CIO Constitution, each national or international union is entitled to a number of delegates based on its reported membership. The scale runs from one delegate for unions with fewer than 4,000 members to nine delegates for unions with more than 175,000 members, plus one additional delegate for each 75,000 members above 175,000.

“Thus, CWA, with its 630,000 members, would actually be entitled to 15 delegates, while the Federation of Professional Athletes would still have only one.

“2. I am not suggesting an increase in the number of convention votes for state and central labor councils based on their membership. That, as you correctly note, would indeed be ‘duplicative.’ What ‘one delegate, one vote’ means is that each of the 15 CWA delegates would not have 42,000 votes, but just the same single vote as all delegates. Isn’t that fair?”

Four days later, Bahr offered this rejoinder:

“There are some points I believe you missed…AFL-CIO bodies are creatures of the AFL-CIO. The one vote given was to permit the views of a state or CLC delegate on issues to be heard at conventions. These bodies are not ‘affiliates’ of the AFL-CIO.

“The AFL-CIO is not a ‘union.’ It is an umbrella organization to which affiliates voluntarily belong. Per capita vote is largely used at conventions for elections. And yes, I do believe the example you use of CWA and the Professional Athletes is unfair. I don’t believe you can find any major union whose officers are not elected by per capita vote. It is the most democratic way to operate.

“I have not indicated anything at all about the upcoming elections. If you are a delegate, you can nominate anyone you choose and speak from the floor why you advocate change.

“This may be self-serving leadership to you. I disagree.”

I consider Brother Bahr a friend and I respect his leadership of a great union. This is one of the few issues on which we disagree. I am grateful to him for expressing his views so candidly.

Organized labor would benefit greatly if more union members and leaders took part in this debate. We’d especially like to hear from other Executive Council members who have thus far maintained their customary silence.

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