Labor's Voice for Change (30) April 28, 2009

Shame on Everyone Who Has Flunked
The Math Test on Union Democracy

By Harry Kelber

It is a preposterous fact that violates not only union democracy, but common sense, that at an AFL-CIO national convention, a delegate from an international union can have as many as 50,000 convention votes, while a delegate from a central labor council, sitting beside him or her, can have only one vote. Mirabile dictu, there has been neither shock nor anger — or even notice — of this revelation and the harm it is inflicting on the present and future of the labor movement. Understandably, there has been no criticism from the AFL-CIO’s top leadership, because they are the beneficiaries of a lop-sided convention voting process that helps them get automatically elected and re-elected.

But you would expect indignation from every State Federation and Central Labor Council with a demand for fair representation, especially since for the past 123 years, no officer of any State Fed or CLC has ever been elected to the policy-making Executive Council — or even been a candidate. Yet, hardly any of these AFL-CIO affiliated bodies has voiced support, or even mentioned the idea of adopting a “One Delegate, One Vote,” resolution that called for an equitable convention voting system, now in use by almost all organizations in the United States.

Many progressive leaders and labor activists, who regard themselves as reformers and advocates of union democracy, have not considered a change in the convention voting system and the automatic re-election of a badly-flawed leadership as worthy of their attention. The labor media also has remained largely silent on the issue for reasons that their editors and reporters have never explained.

The Math Explains Why We Have a Frozen Leadership

Let’s take a closer look at the math. At the 2005 AFL-CIO convention, one small union, the Federation of Professional Athletes, with 1,706 members, was entitled to 1,706 convention votes. That was more than three times the combined 537 votes of all State Feds and CLCs! I defy any AFL-CIO officer or member to defend this convention voting system — except by shame-faced silence.

Morty Bahr, former CWA president, whose union had 665,000 convention votes, tried to defend the system, by arguing that since the international unions provided financial support to the AFL-CIO, while the state and local bodies did not, the current voting system was justified.

But Morty omitted one important fact: international unions get their money through dues payments by union members, and they are entitled to broad and fair representation. There is no question that State Feds and CLCs are closer to the rank-and-file than international unions. And finally. Morty liked the odds: 665,000 to I — in his favor.

Here are the rules for distributing convention delegates, as provided by Article 4, Sec. 4(a) of the AFL-CIO Constitution:

Up to 4,000 members: 1 delegate
Over 4,000 members: 2 delegates
Over 8,000 members: 3 delegates
Over 12,000 members: 4 delegates
Over 25,000 delegates: 5 delegates
Over 50,000 members 6: delegates
Over 75,000 members 7: delegates
Over 125,000 members 8: delegates
Over 175,000 members 9: delegates

Plus one additional delegate for each 75,000 members over 175,000.

It’s easy to figure out how many delegates each international union is entitled to. For example, a union of 100,000 members is entitled to 7 delegates; a union of 500,000. members, to 13 delegates, And the largest unions would have the largest number of delegates. By actual count at the 2005 convention, international unions had a total of 380 delegates; State Feds: 51, and CLCs: 486. But under the convention rules, each international union delegate possessed hundreds of votes for use during elections and policy debates.

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The next four years will be crucial for both unions and working families. There are more than 13 million Americans who are still unemployed and are desperate for the jobs that have been promised but not yet delivered. We need leaders who will speak up for us and who will command attention in Washington. We need leaders who can inspire members to become active in their unions and communities.

We will be facing a crucial test at the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh. Do we have enough leaders who are willing to challenge the status quo, do-nothing policies of the Sweeney brand of leadership? Are there enough activists in the State Feds and CLCs who are outraged enough to run for seats on the Executive Council? Will the labor media become involved in the campaign to reform the AFL-CIO’s convention voting rules?

Unless we have a free and honest election where each candidate is treated fairly, there is a distinct probability that the current hierarchy of AFL-CIO leaders, or their appointees, will be elected by default, as they were in the last three elections since 1995.

Is there enough fight left in the labor movement to prevent that from happening?

Article 31 of “Labor’s Voice for Change” will be posted on Thursday, April 30.