Thursday, September 17, 2009

Major Changes in the AFL-CIO--Progressive Blogosphere Doesn't Care

The AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh has produced one seismic change and one significant change in the labor movement.

First, the fourteen year reign of John Sweeney as AFL-CIO president has ended. I think Sweeney deserves a good bit of credit for moving labor from the staid Cold War consensus years of George Meany and Layne Kirkland and focusing more heavily on organizing. But labor continues to struggle with deeply entrenched leadership. Sweeney did everything he was going to do by 2000, but has stuck around for almost ten more years. Moreover, Sweeney was unable to stop labor's decline in the U.S., but I don't think he deserves much blame for this--the conditions for organized labor in the United States are worse now than any time before the Civil War. Even when the government actively oppressed labor, at least workers understood all the great things unions could do for them. Today, they don't. The anti-union brainwashing of the past sixty years has proven incredibly effective.

His replacement is Richard Trumka. I generally like Trumka. He's the former Steelworkers president. I met him in 2000 and found him to be personable, energetic, and committed to working-class people. He was a big player behind the federation's recommitment to organizing. I am a bit concerned with his commitment to decentralized leadership, given that he's been the heir apparent for the entire Sweeney regime. To what extent will he represent new ideas? And given that he's 60 years old, will he stay in power for 15 or 20 years as well? One hopes not.

Nonetheless, Trumka's opening speech was certainly positive. He wants to push for even more organizers, adjust to a service-based economy, organize people of color and women, and have a big focus on immigrants. Moreover, he sees the need for a true international union and wants to organize workers in the developing world.

Well, that's certainly an ambitious agenda. And probably not attainable. But it's also important that the AFL-CIO maintain an active role in American life during the economic downturn. Assuming the recession hangs around awhile and assuming Americans actually learn any lessons from it, perhaps we may a resurgence in unions as workers realize that unregulated capitalism has failed them on multiple levels.

The other big piece of news is the return of UNITE HERE to the AFL-CIO. In 2005, the union left the federation as part of the Change to Win Coalition, a group of unions ironically led by SEIU, Sweeney's own organization, that were frustrated with labor's decline and Sweeney's lack of action to solve labor's problems. While I supported this at the time, mostly because I figured it couldn't hurt, Change to Win has done approximately nothing to improve labor's situation. I don't think it's hurt, but SEIU and Change to Win leader Andy Stern hasn't shown any more ability than Sweeney to solve these intractable problems. Whether UNITE HERE's defection from Change to Win and return to the AFL-CIO is directly related to Trumka's coronation, I do not know. But UNITE HERE also split itself earlier in the year over philosophical issues that arose out of UNITE and HERE merging several years ago. Many left to join SEIU. But clearly Change to Win has little reason to exist at this point. United labor is probably more useful than split labor, though again, it may not matter a whole lot either way.

Finally, it's somewhat disheartening that these events have received virtually no coverage in the progressive blogosphere, outside of labor blogs. Nothing from leading individual bloggers like Yglesias and Klein, nothing from TPM, nothing on Kos, nothing on Huffington Post, nothing at Think Progress. If I've missed something, let me know, but these key events in liberal politics are receiving absolutely zero coverage from people that should care deeply. I know that health care is dominating the agenda, and well it should. But it's hardly the only thing people are talking about and there's really no excuse for this--except to say that the progressive blogosphere seems as indifferent to organized labor as most of the rest of America. Nothing makes me feel more pessimistic about labor's future than this; even its allies don't care about it. Unless they need a check.

Note: if I have missed any coverage from the major blogs on this, please let me know. But I don't think I have.