Labor's Voice for Change (3) January 13, 2009

How Our Leaders Gained Monopoly Power
By Using a Clause in AFL-CIO Constitution

By Harry Kelber

The national and international unions that founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886 made sure they would retain total control of the organization and never face an internal challenge from a state or local affiliate. They did this by adopting a constitution that awarded themselves the number of convention delegates based on the size of their membership, while limiting state and local affiliates to one delegate each.

One hundred and nineteen years later, the AFL-CIO Constitution (2005) still contains virtually the same provisions that ensure the dominant power of international unions at conventions, while it limits state federations and central labor councils, no matter what their size, to one delegate and one vote apiece. Here is the evidence:

ARTICLE IV, Sec. 9.(a) states: "The number of members of each national and international union and organizing committee for the purpose of selecting delegates and for roll call votes . . .shall be the average monthly number on which per capita is based..." In plain English, if an international union has, say, 560,000 members, it is entitled to 560,000 convention votes.

ARTICLE IV, Sec. 4(b) states: "Each state area or local central body shall be entitled to one delegate." That means that the California Labor Federation and New York State AFL-CIO, both of them speaking for more than two million members, have one delegate and one convention vote each.

This demonstrates how a handful of the biggest international unions, working in concert, have enough convention votes to elect whomever they choose as AFL-CIO president or as members of the Executive Council. It also explains why state federations and central labor councils have hardly any voice on policy issues at the convention. Here is what happened at the AFL-CIO's 2005 convention:

The six largest international unions (teachers, public employees, auto workers, electrical workers, communication workers and machinists) had considerably more convention votes than the other 39 internationals - combined.

A small international, like the musicians, reported 7,200 members and was therefore given 7,200 convention votes. This was fourteen times the votes of the delegates from the 51 state federations and 453 central labor councils - combined.

As an example, each of the 12 delegates from the Electrical Workers (with 632,711 members) was entitled to cast 52,725 convention votes - nearly 100 times of all the state fed and CLC delegates, combined.

It is no coincidence that in the 124-year existence of the modern labor movement, not even one officer or member of either a state federation or central labor council has ever been elected as a member of the AFL-CIO's policy-making Executive Council. Even worse, no State Fed or CLC officer has ever challenged the monopoly power of the leadership. (I forced them to include me on the ballot in the 1995 election when Sweeney won the presidency, although I was only a rank-and-file member of the Communication Workers.)

This way of structuring a convention is outrageously undemocratic. It deprives union members of a voice in determining the AFL-CIO's policies and practices on issues that are of concern to all working families. It makes a sham of the Federation's elections. It damages labor's image during organizing campaigns.

'One Delegate, One Vote' Is a Fair and Workable Solution

It makes good sense and is demonstrably fair that each delegate at a convention or special meeting should have one - and only one - vote. This is standard practice in civic organizations around the country. In our local and national elections, no individual, no matter how popular or powerful, gets more than one vote. The same principle ought to apply to labor conventions. It's worth noting that at the conventions of the Canadian Labor Congress, the concept of one vote per delegate has been in effect for decades.

Let's face it. Those international presidents have hijacked the AFL-CIO as virtually there own private property. They spend our dues money without telling us why or how. They live in a Valhalla, where they stay as remote as possible from any contact with the rank-and-file. They don't tell us what goes on behind their closed-door meetings, They've done poorly in defending our interests, but they are not going to listen to our complaints or suggestions, why should they?

The same self-serving, self-perpetuating club of international union presidents plan to get re-elected for four more years at the 2009 convention. In past decades, we've let them get away with it. Isn't it time for a change?

The subject for Labor's Voice for Change (4) will be the AFL-CIO Executive Council. It will be posted on Thursday, January 15, 2009.