New Orleans: As many measure the wake of the hurricane of Chicago splitting the AFL-CIO, there have been several articles about the impact on the “field troops” at the grassroots level in the Central Labor Councils. The quotes in the news have focused on a lot of hand wringing about budget shortfalls and diminished capacities, all of which are certainly true, but for most CLC’s this is a storm that will pass through virtually unnoticed, no matter what you have heard.
The voices in the news are those of the rare elite who might have had a little capacity. The vast majority had no real capacity before the breakup and now it is simply same ‘ol, same ‘ol. There are more than 500 central labor councils in the AFL-CIO. Maybe 50 of them have any real staffing, and in many of those cases staffing means a secretary and maybe a paid officer on some basis.
There are few in the labor movements who have not looked at this problem for years and either shrugged that it was hopeless or turned their head the other way. One of the major recommendations of the AFL-CIO’s special study commission on the changing labor movement under Lane Kirkland had been mandatory affiliation of all union members to state and central bodies, but it did not happen then, and has not come any closer since. When John Sweeney came in there was a lot of hope and energy about CLC’s through the “union cities” program which seemed to offer the hope of additional capacity and real support. The later “alliance” program which sought to merge more of the weaker CLC’s into some of the stronger was equally unsuccessful — while managing to somehow be even more controversial — and in many cases simply aggregated resources and stretched limited capacity across more geography.
It is hard to imagine how one builds or re-builds a labor movement without a huge local movement and capacity at the grassroots level. Joel Rogers and I wrote quite a bit about this some years ago. I spent six years as Secretary-Treasurer of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO trying to see if it were really possible. They are important because they define the labor movement on the local level in literally hundreds of communities. They act as the critical political bridge favoring or denying endorsements to thousands and thousands of electeds and wannabes by applying the litmus test of the labor movement’s ideology as they understand it. They are the messenger and deliver the message on issues. They define the existence of solidarity, if it exists at all of the local level. They are the strength of the weakest link and for many, if not most, they define what the labor movement means.
It may be sad and pathetic, but that does not make it any less true. Mostly around the country the CLC’s are just horribly weak and in terms of organizing, virtually irrelevant, not because they want to be, but because they are. Partly this is because they are relics of the past, rather than vessels of the future. The role of the building trade unions is inordinately strong, even though this has not been where the labor movement has grown for 30 years nor does it reflect the future, but the trades understand that local relationships and leverage get them work, and too many other unions, including my own Service Employees and certainly the Teamsters, have refused to understand that local leverage is essential even in sectoral organizing, so disdain the CLC’s in most cases, rather than using them to deepen geographical strength to force sectoral recognition.
So after the split for more than 85% of the CLC’s they may notice that there is a little less per capita money, but they really didn’t spend the local dues on much other than any other “club” would — refreshments, the labor day picnic, small officers’ stipends, or whatever. In many of these cases the disaffiliated union delegates or leaders will still be welcomed to meetings and allowed to speak. The number of times there is a vote in these bodies outside of political endorsements is reminiscent of hens’ teeth — very infrequent. The Teamsters are a good example — most of them have not reaffiliated on the local level since the last time they were outside of the AFL-CIO — it’s all place to place. The national AFL-CIO offered to create a fund of $5-6,000,000 to support the local bodies, but that is all “play” money, since these funds would only exist if the disaffiliating unions paid their past due per capita, and the chances of a good snow in July are better than seeing that money any time soon.
So, the real truth hiding behind the illusion is that the local labor movement has shriveled and shrunk to little more than local clubs of activists meeting regularly in our caves and dark spaces around the country trying to keep the flames alive for the future. The split will be irrelevant to virtually all of the CLC’s, because it is simply another one of those things which prove their weakness compared to the local unions and their national parent bodies, who really call the shots anyway, as this situation proves so clearly.
The voices crying in the press in pain are important. These were the elite few with some — though mostly not enough — resources. I read quotes from leaders in Atlanta and Denver for example who were bemoaning the loss of huge percentages of members, but both of these bodies were already being marginalized before the split as well. Denver is an excellent CLC with an excellent and activist president in Leslie Moody, but they had little capacity outside of her individual talent. There was no great depth there in staff or resources. Their strategy had been, like many other top tier CLC’s, to build capacity by raising unsustainable money from non-membership sources like foundations using 501c3’s on the model of the South Bay Labor Council under its former leader Amy Dean to create parallel operations. No one wants to turn down money if it might be there, but none of this was sustainable and it certainly did not offer real capacity for the future or for organizing. At the best if there was organizing being
paid and run by other unions in their geography, it might help such bodies to prove their worth, but none of this was a replicable model despite their great energy and leadership.
Unfortunately the damage being sustained by CLC’s from this storm is just another blow to an institution already crippled and hobbling. They will still have a breath of life when this is over, and that’s about the best most of them had before this current storm came through.