Lowest Common Denominator Unionism

Amazon Labor Organizing Starbucks Unions

            Montreal         If you’re looking for leadership from the AFL-CIO to meet the challenge of this movement moment among workers, you may have to keep looking.  When newly elected AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler was elected to a full four-year term in the AFL-CIO convention, she declared a one-million new member goal.  Reportedly, there was a standing ovation, and she said, “How’s that for a goal?!?”  Having been to several AFL-CIO conventions in the past, I imagine some of the brothers – and a few of the sisters – had to be nudged awake in order to rise.  Once they were fully alert, they may have started doing the math in their heads and realized that one-million sounded good, but Shuler was saying the goals was over ten years.  That’s only 100,000 per year, a growth rate of hardly 1%.  Given how employment is rising, she just announced a goal that was so small that it would guarantee that union density would fall under the current 10% of the US workforce, even while claiming to grow.  How do you put lipstick on that pig?

According to a report in The Guardian by veteran labor scribe, Steve Greenhouse, a number of labor leaders tried their best to put a spin on what in reality seems more like a funeral elegy than an exhortation to fight for the future or meet the challenges of the present.  The general defense by those making the effort to defend the goal, seemed to be that a fixed goal is better than nothing.  Shuler herself seemed to defend the low-ball by intimating that such a low goal was what it took to get agreement from all of the affiliates in the federation, but maybe I’m wrong, but that seems to be an implicit indictment of the terrible problems within the federation, or what another leader, more critically, called “lowest common denominator” unionism.  No one said this, but it also doesn’t sound like leadership of the body, but more like followership.  The head of the Flight Attendants union who is having quite a moment in the media sun right now, finding herself featured in everything from The New Yorker to Jacobin, indicated that it was now clear that we shouldn’t look to the AFL-CIO to lead on organizing.  Truthfully, it’s been clear for quite a while, but this goal certainly makes it unquestionable.

Another labor leader was quoted complaining why no one from Starbucks Workers United or the Amazon Labor Union was invited to the convention to speak.  Well, one is part of SEIU and the other is an independent union, so both are not members of the federation, underscoring that even in this rare moment of opportunity, labor unions – especially their leaders – are still unable to forge the unity needed to meet the times.

The suggestion was made that labor needed to come together to support those doing the organizing.  It wouldn’t take much of a lift to make a difference.  A recent piece in the Washington Post profiling Chris Smalls, the leader of the ALU, as he and his team faced their second, and ultimately unsuccessful warehouse election, made it clear they were being overwhelmed by a lack of capacity.  He was juggling media calls and worrying about finding office space and opening bank accounts as priorities in the middle of the election.  Tell me in the vast edifices of institutional labor in Washington as these titans of working people read this article, who among them would not have been able to spare one of their crack admin folks, members of Local 2, OPEIU, the office professionals union, and detail them to solve these problems for Smalls and the ALU, even if they were too stingy with their own small organizing staffs?

If the AFL-CIO or any US labor federation wants to make speeches about responding to the anger and issues of working people right now in America, they need to prove it with real action, because their words aren’t working for anyone.