American Labor in Crisis (July 30, 2007)

AFL-CIO's Frozen and Mute Leadership
Has No Plan to Rebuild Labor Movement

(The fourth of five articles.)

By Harry Kelber

After a dozen years in office, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and his 44-member Executive Council have failed to come up with a strategic plan to revive a labor movement that continues to lose members and bargaining power.

Hardly any of them have appeared in public this past year to let the nation's unorganized workers, or even their own members, know what they think about the major issues that Americans are heatedly debating: what to do about health care, immigration, the war in Iraq and global warming.

Our labor leaders simply refuse to respond to the many questions that trouble working people: What are they doing about the hundreds of thousands of good jobs that multinational corporations are exporting to countries where labor is cheap and profits are high? How are they defending workers who are fired for pro-union activity? Can they do nothing about stagnant wages? Why won't they issue financial reports on any of their major activities? Why can't we get at least some of the many social benefits that European workers enjoy? Ask any active rank-and-filer and he or she can add to the list.

But the important overall question is: how do our leaders propose to rebuild the labor movement into the powerhouse it once was? No AFL-CIO leader has offered any opinions on that subject or even wants to talk about it. Far too many are time- servers, waiting for the day when they will retire on a fat pension.

Inept Leaders Who Are Out of Step with Union Membersi

If you tune in on television and radio talk shows, surf the Internet or read your local newspaper, you're bound to get the opinions, not only of politicians, but also of doctors, teachers, scientists, movie stars, truck drivers and housewives, among others. But you'll rarely find big-time labor leaders speaking publicly, even on economic issues, where they are supposed to know a lot more than most of the guests on talk shows.

They prefer to be silent, avoiding comments that may be used against them. Many are poor public speakers, who are afraid of embarrassing themselves. But how are American workers going to know what the labor movement stands for if they're not getting a convincing message from its leaders? And meanwhile, the business-controlled media keeps feeding the public with lies and half-truths why unions are bad for American workers.

John Sweeney, AFL-CIO's president and chief spokesman, is a poor communicator, who simply cannot hold the attention (or claim the affection) of a national radio or TV audience. He speaks in a monotone and rarely shows any emotion, even when he talks about the plight of working families. It does not help that Sweeney looks more like an elderly deacon than the savvy, straight-talking, well-informed, accessible personality that all of us would like to see in a national labor leader.

And what about the 44 members of the policy-making AFL-CIO Executive Council? They were elected and re-elected four times without having to say a word about their qualifications. Most union members don't know who they are, what they look like, what their background is or what they've accomplished and what they think. They rarely express their opinions, and function mainly at council meetings that take place behind closed doors. Yet these individuals make decisions that can affect our lives, on and off the job.

Why Didn't Non-Union Workers Support EFCA Campaign?

In the campaign for the Employee Free Choice Act, it would have been helpful if those 44 council members had each spent several days touring the country and explaining why Congress should pass EFCA. But instead, they kept urging us to send still more e-mails to Washington, as though that was the magic formula that would convince Congress to pass the legislation.

And how do our leaders explain why they couldn't persuade masses of unorganized workers to join the campaign for EFCA, legislation that was clearly designed for their benefit? How are they going to get those millions of workers to become a major factor in the fight for the right to join a union?

Finally, will the AFL-CIO postpone major organizing plans until 2009 and beyond, waiting in the hope that Congress will pass the Employee Free Choice Act? Will we get answers to these and related questions when the Executive Council meets in Chicago on August 7?

Article 5, the last of the series on "American Labor in Crisis," will appear on Monday, August 6, 2007. It will be devoted to a presentation of a new strategic approach for rebuilding the labor movement. Also check our Web site: