Labor's Voice for Change (4) January 15, 2009

How Many Ghosts Have Been Elected
To the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council?

By Harry Kelber

You should feel comforted that you’re being protected by people you’ll probably never see, who are supposed to be looking out for your interests. Surely, you must have heard about the AFL-CIO Executive Council. But who are its members, how do they get elected and what do they actually do?

If you’re curious who these Council members are, you’re not going to find out by going to the AFL-CIO Web site. There are no photographs, no short biographies, no indication of what they think, what they’ve done and what their qualifications are to make them the chief policymakers of the Federation. Most of them feel comfortable remaining incognito.

You can see their names in the upper right corner of the AFL-CIO letterhead, but there is no indication what union each comes from. Moreover, the names are not arranged in alphabetic order, but by their seniority on the Council, which is not especially enlightening.

The most revealing feature of the Council members is the way they are elected. They don’t have to campaign for the position. They can get elected without uttering a word. At the 2008 AFL-CIO Convention, the candidates for the 43 seats on the Council were elected by a nominator repeating their names. Delegates voted for candidates they knew nothing about. There was no debate, no opposition. (The election was over in less than five minutes.)

Most Council members prefer to maintain a low profile. Most of them avoid speaking publicly on issues of concern to working families. Being a well-informed, articulate and persuasive speaker is not a requirement for Council membership. The public relations job is left to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who rarely appears — and is seldom invited — on talk shows, even those that deal directly with labor issues.

The Council meets at least twice a year behind closed doors to discuss and formulate AFL-CIO policies. They spend most of their meetings in listening to reports prepared by staff specialists and agreeing to statements on a wide variety of issues, ranging from promoting the nation’s manufacturing base and denouncing corporate greed to improving health and safety rules and demanding passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.

If Council members disagree on policy issues, they will never discuss their differences publicly. They prefer having as little contact with us as possible. Since they don’t need us to get re-elected, it’s easy and safe to ignore us.

Now Is the Time to Reform the Executive Council

It is suggested that the Executive Council needs to be reformed so that each of its members has a responsible role in building the Council into a major economic and political force. Union members who seek a vice president seat on the Council should announce their candidacy in writing three months before the election, stating their qualifications for the position. All candidates should be treated equally.

It would facilitate a fair election if a photograph and a brief biography of each incumbent and challenging candidate were posted on the Internet, allowing members to comment on their choices. It would be a confidence-builder if representatives of the rank-and-file were permitted to sit in on Council meetings.

For 122 years, no officer or member of either a state federation or a central labor council has ever held a seat on the Executive Council. It is high time to break this glass ceiling within the labor movement.

The title for “Labor’s Voice for Change (5)” will be “What Obama Taught Labor.” It will be posted on Tuesday, January 20, 2009.