Labor's Voice for Change (29) April 23, 2009

How the AFL-CIO Hierarchy Shows
Its Open Contempt for Union Members

By Harry Kelber

The AFL-CIO convention in July 2005 created an Executive Committee of 19 members, including representatives of the 10 largest unions, to serve as the “governing body of this Federation between [twice a year] meetings of the Executive Council.”

The constitutional amendment, approved by a voice vote of the delegates, authorized the Executive Committee to prepare the AFL-CIO’s annual budget and engage in other Federation functions, reporting its activities and recommendations to the Executive Council.

The amendment also required the Executive Committee to meet “at least four times a year.” Yet in the nearly four years of its existence, its members have never uttered a word or issued a statement about what they discussed in the more than 15 meetings they were required to have. What policy decisions affecting union members did they reach in their closed-door meetings that they won’t tell us about? What was discussed and agreed upon or rejected? Why was there no mention of it on the AFL-CIO web site? Couldn’t they have issued even a brief summary of the decisions they made?

The Executive Committee won’t even give us a clue about the contents of the AFL-CIO’s latest annual budget, which it recently prepared. It has been rumored that the Federation suffered heavy financial losses because of bad investments and a decline in the per capita revenue it has received from hard-pressed international unions.

Like most institutions, the AFL-CIO has been forced to make cuts in its expenditures,

But shouldn’t interested union members have a right to know where and to what degree those cuts were made, since they impact on policy decisions? For example, were there any cuts in the hiring of outside consultants? Were the perks of officers and staff trimmed? And what about the budgets for union organizing, education and health and safety departments?

It is quite evident that our top leaders see no need to keep us informed about what they are doing. They can ignore the opinions of union members, who are important solely because they pay their union dues, which the AFL-CIO (and Change to Win) hierarchies spend as they wish.

How Much Longer Will Rights of Union Members Be Ignored?

In the 1930s, I and other labor reporters were allowed to sit in on the monthly meetings of the New York City Central Trades and Labor Council, where we got a first-hand view of labor leaders and how they were openly debating the issues of the day. We could then communicate our knowledge to union members through stories in the labor press. There were also dozens of volunteer reporters (like our bloggers) who supplied valuable information about union activity around the country. And labor leaders in those years were more readily accessible to union members.

Keeping members informed and involved in the struggles of the 1930s paid off handsomely. Millions of workers joined unions. Organized labor played an important role in the enactment of the National Labor Relations Act, giving workers the right to join unions; we also gained Social Security, unemployment insurance and the 40-hour workweek. One of the lessons we learned from the Great Depression is that if you want to build a bigger and stronger labor movement, it can be done only with the active participation of union members.

* * * * *

Let’s begin a campaign to establish transparency and members’ rights within the labor movement.

• Why not allow reporters to sit in on all major AFL-CIO meetings, including those of the Executive Committee, and require Change to Win also to make their top-level meetings open to reporters?

• Why not have two national labor leaders per week to be interviewed on the Internet by a select committee of union members?

• Why not have the top officers of the AFL-CIO and CTW answer a series of questions submitted each week by members of each labor federation?

• Why not have a public debate on the Internet on some controversial issue, to be followed by a poll of union members?

• Why not have an Oversight Committee to check on the expenditures of the AFL-CIO, and a similar one for Change to Win?

Viewers can come up with other suggestions. It’s high time that we restored the rights of union members.

Article 30 of “Labor’s Voice for Change” will be posted on Tuesday, April 28.