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The push to “streamline” and consolidate the structures of the AFL-CIO threatens to diminish the influence of Blacks in the labor movement. “They want bigger unions,” said Bill Lucy, head of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), referring to leaders of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Teamsters and others. “They want power players, big unions in charge. The end result is diminution of community power.”

Blacks make up about 30 percent of organized labor, concentrated in the urban centers, says Lucy, who is also Secretary-Treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). However, the proposed AFL-CIO restructuring would concentrate power and resources in the headquarters of a few large union chiefs, and away from the metropolitan area Central Labor Councils. “Our fortunes lie at the local level. Most of the national leaders are talking about getting a bigger ‘bang for the buck.’ We lose out on this.”

The driving force behind revamping the AFL-CIO is Andrew Stern, president of SEIU, the nation’s largest and fastest growing union, with 1.6 million members. Stern has threatened to pull out of the labor federation if it does not essentially replicate the measures he has taken in his own union, where many locals have been forced to merge and the Washington headquarters maintains tight reins on resources and decision making. Stern’s plan – which many in labor consider to be a kind of ultimatum – would rationalize union activity by grouping members according to trade and, ultimately, eliminate all but 20 of the AFL-CIO’s 60 unions, altogether. “We are divided within industries and employers as union members who do the same work often are divided into multiple unions that do not have a coordinated strategy,” wrote Stern, in a 10-point document titled, Unite To Win. Teamsters union president James P. Hoffa would go further than his ally, Stern, eliminating all but 15 of the federation’s executive council members.

Noting that “there has been very little discussion among the rank and filers” on the sweeping changes demanded by Stern and his allies, CBTU leader Bill Lucy warned that “it would be a serious ‘omission’ for any of the sincere and articulate advocates of reform to assume what is in the best interest of black trade unionists and the coalition partners with whom we work regularly.”

Lucy is the first to point out that “the structure of the AFL-CIO is nonproductive in the areas of political action and community outreach,” but views the Stern-Hoffa alternatives as even more inimical to Black interests. In a position paper titled, The Future of Organized Labor, Lucy writes:

”I would strongly suggest that the Federation leadership resist the call to reduce the size of the Executive Council.  The added size of the Council bears no relationship to the decline in labor fortunes.  Those who suggest that its size affects the ability to have substantive debate, to a degree reflect our overall problem.  I do not believe labor’s problem revolves around structure.  I believe to the extent we have a problem, it is around mission.  If we define our mission, our mission will dictate the necessary structure.  While the composition of the Executive Council may be large, it reflects who we want to organize, mobilize and politicize.”

Black unionists fear that Central Labor Councils, so important to urban organizing and community outreach, will become mere extensions of the Federation’s national headquarters’ campaigns. There is much reason for anxiety. Andrew Stern has made clear that he envisions a streamlined and consolidated labor engine that responds to top union management in much the same way as corporations operate – the better to beat the companies at their own level of play. But white executives’ ideas of efficiency seldom encompass the problems and imperatives of Black America – and are antithetical to any notion of general Black empowerment.

“If you go to Newark, you’ll find plenty of people who want to be organized,” says Bill Lucy, “but who is going to organize them? The Central Labor Councils will. Place [resources] at the local level so that the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists can go out and organize.”

The SEIU’s record of organizing the unorganized is impressive – especially among Latinos. But structures that do not institutionally empower African Americans are unacceptable – including in the House of Labor.

Twelve unions responded to AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney’s call for position papers on restructuring, for discussion at the Federation’s executive council meeting, in March, and action at the Federation’s convention, in July.  “While there have been different positions coming from the international unions, we [Black unionists] aren’t at the table,” says Pat Ford, a former executive vice president of SEIU, now head of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. “What impact does this have on people of color and women?”

There is, literally, nothing in the SEIU-Teamsters proposals or those submitted by any other international union, that establishes formal mechanisms for Blacks – acting as both unionists and African Americans – to effectively participate in shaping the agenda under labor’s proposed new incarnation. The same applies to other constituent components of labor – Latinos, Asian Pacific Americans, women, gays and lesbians – who submitted to Sweeney a joint “Unity Statement”: 

”We are concerned about the continuing lack of diversity among various leadership bodies within the AFL-CIO, affiliated unions, state federations, central labor councils, and local unions. We are also concerned about the proposals to drastically reduce the size of the AFL-CIO executive council without a strong commitment to maintain and increase diversity.  Representation of constituency groups must be ensured.”

The statement was endorsed by the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, A. Philip Randolph Institute, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, Coalition of Labor Union Women, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, and Pride At Work – representing constituencies that decisively outnumber white males among the 13 million members of the AFL-CIO, and in the working population as a whole. In the absence of meaningful participation by the “constituency affiliates” of the Federation, restructuring becomes a white man’s game, and “community outreach” an empty phrase.

”In conclusion, we believe that ‘Full Participation” is more than a worthwhile slogan.  In order to achieve the potential of a strong, unified labor movement, we must all fully participate in governance and the development of labor’s agenda.  The constituency organizations of the AFL-CIO are eager to work side by side with union leaders to organize, educate, and empower all workers.  Building a more powerful and more inclusive labor movement requires labor’s commitment to diversity, and active implementation of full participation.”

Crisis within a crisis

For Black trade unionists, the struggle against racism is paramount, and allows no one a free pass based on otherwise progressive credentials. If organized labor is to be of any real value in the coming battle for democratic development of the cities – the fight against rampant gentrification and minority displacement, and for development that serves the needs of current populations – it must provide more, rather than less, resources and latitude to the Central Labor Councils. It is commendable that SEIU’s Andrew Stern has pledged to commit millions to unionize Wal-Mart, for example, but who will organize the citizens of the inner cities to resist penetration by the corporate “death star” chain that negates all development but itself? That’s a job for the heavily Black and Latino locals, through their Central Labor Councils – not Andrew Stern’s or James Hoffa’s.

Bill Lucy’s Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, founded in 1972, with 50 chapters nationwide and in Canada representing members in 50 international unions, faces marginalization in its own house under the Stern-Hoffa proposals. “From the point of view of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the current debate over the status of the American labor movement fails to focus on some very real and critical issues that must be addressed,” says the CBTU statement.  “Whether it’s organizing, political action, legislative initiatives or effective collective bargaining, none of the goals can be totally achieved without broad support from labor’s allies at every level of our political systems – national, regional, local and down to the community level.”

The CBTU proposes that:

1. In whatever restructuring occurs within the AFL-CIO, there must be a department charged with the responsibility of building formal relationships with community allies and community institutions on behalf of organized labor.  Constituent group leadership and structure should be integrated into this activity.

2. City central labor councils must be structured to play a major support role in organizing and political action, formally engaging with our community allies.

3. These labor council activities should be underwritten by the AFL-CIO with leadership staff assigned or appointed in conjunction with labor council leadership.

In an effort to overcome the crisis in the American labor movement, “reformers” have induced a crisis for Black labor, a subject that will consume much of the CBTU’s 34th International Convention, May 25-30, in Phoenix, Arizona.

“The need to adapt the labor movement for the 21st century has been discussed for years, but previous leaders failed to act, and workers paid the price,” writes the SEIU’s Andrew Stern, in his 10-point proposal. “American workers cannot afford to wait any longer.” But Stern has not paused to consider that his grand plan cannot possibly succeed if it excludes the most active and committed labor constituency: African Americans.


February 3 2005
Issue 124

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