(January 31, 2007)
Reformers' Silence Gives a Blank Check
To Stand-Pat, Self-Serving Union Leaders
By Harry Kelber
A SMALL GROUP OF international union presidents in both the AFL-CIO and
Change to Win now have free rein to run their organizations as though they
were their personal property, without being challenged. They spend union
money as they see fit, often on self-serving projects, and they feel no
obligation or pressure to report their expenditures to the dues-payers. If
they incur costly organizing and legislative defeats, they remain immune
from serious criticism by labor activists.
They can get away with it because they face no strong opposition from
lower-level union officials, well-known activists and pro-labor
publications, who have a history of refusing to comment on some of the most
egregious actions and undemocratic policies of the AFL-CIO and CTW
leadership. In fact, they play the role of silent, if unwitting,
collaborators with the big-time labor hierarchy, to the detriment of working
In support of these grave accusations, I am submitting eight examples as
evidence of how active rank-and-filers, union staffers, educators and the
labor press failed to speak out in situations where our national union
officials were engaged in undemocratic behavior and crude power plays, that
included the silencing of the voices of union women and minorities.
1. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and the entire Executive Council were
re-elected four times by acclamation, despite the continuing decline in
union membership and bargaining power. There was no debate, no token
opposition; no comments or criticism from any of the progressive delegates
at the four conventions. Now we learn that union membership dropped by
326,000 in 2006. Is anyone complaining? It's still "business as usual" at
AFL-CIO and CTW headquarters.
On the first day of the AFL-CIO's 1997 convention, the Sweeney team
introduced a surprise resolution, increasing their term of office from two
to four years. It was passed by voice vote in clear violation of the
federation's constitution. And it went into effect immediately. The labor
media completely ignored the outrageous power grab. Not a single progressive
unionist publicly denounced it.
2. Under the AFL-CIO constitution, international unions have as many
convention votes as the number of their members, while state federations and
central labor councils have only one vote each. Thus, at the 2005
convention, the Federation of Professional Athletes, with a membership of
1,706, was entitled to 1,706 convention votes. This was four times greater
than the combined votes of the 482 delegates from the state federations and
central labor councils. This lopsided arrangement turned state feds and
CLCs, who are in the forefront of labor's economic and political struggles,
into wallflowers at conventions.
The remedy is fair, practical and sensible: Each delegate should have one
vote, the same procedure that is followed by most organizations, including
the Canadian Labor Congress. But state federations and central labor
councils won't support a campaign for "One Delegate, One Vote," when it is
clearly in their self-interest to do so. The labor press continues its
silence on the issue. And unionists who say they believe in union democracy.
remain mute when it is being grossly violated. As a result, a cabal of
international union presidents can maintain unchallenged control of the
labor movement, far into the future.
3. None of the seven international union presidents, all males, who formed
the Change to Win coalition is noted for his fondness for union democracy,
So it should not be surprising that they didn't allow their approximately
five million members to vote on whether or not to quit the AFL-CIO. The CTW
constitution gives the seven leaders unlimited powers, spelled out in
detail, while denying any rights for the membership. Since there are no
provisions for elections, it is assumed that the seven leaders will hold
their position for life.
So where are the rank-and-file groups in these unions? Why are there no
angry protests? Why are members submitting to the blatant denials of their
And here is Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees and the CTW's
spokesman, encouraging employers to dump their health care and pension plans
that now benefit tens of millions of working families. Stern says American
companies need the billions in yearly savings so they can stay competitive
in the global marketplace.
Surely, there should be an angry outcry across the country against Stern's
astounding anti-worker proposals, especially from unions that are now trying
to safeguard health insurance and pension benefits for their members in
contract negotiations. But there have been hardly any protests, while most
labor publications have either ignored or downplayed the issue.
4. Organized labor suffered one of its worst scandals in decades when 26
current and former national union leaders, including AFL-CIO president
Sweeney, were found to have taken part in a self-serving stock-trading
scheme as directors of Union Labor Life Insurance Company (ULLICO) that
enabled many of them to gain personal profits totaling more than $6.5
million. While Sweeney and a few other directors didn't trade their shares
for profit, they did approve each stock transaction and the rules that
enabled co-directors to reap huge profits, even voting to extend the time
limit to give directors five more months to cash in additional shares.
The labor press loudly criticized the Enron scandal, but handled the ULLICO
labor scandal gingerly, if at all. There were no demands for some action,
at least a rebuke, to express disapproval of those union leaders involved in
the ULLICO affair. There was no pressure on the AFL-CIO Ethics Committee to
act, although there were three public investigations into their wrong-doing.
5. For nearly three years, the AFL-CIO has maintained a news and
information blackout about the war in Iraq, that began a few months after
the invasion. Union leaders have avoided any mention of the subject and so
have most official labor publications. In the 2004 and 2006 national
elections, the AFL-CIO and its affiliates unwisely limited their campaigns
exclusively to domestic issues, while the major topic for voters across the
country was America's role in the Iraq war.
The labor media apparently did not see any violation of freedom of the
press in the AFL-CIO policy of choking off discussion and debate on one of
the most crucial issues facing our country. Why weren't their loud protests
against this blatant attack on free speech? We should thank U.S. Labor
Against the War (USLAW) for acting as labor's voice in the current
intensified national debate on the war.
6. Although the American Center for International Labor Solidarity was
formed ten years ago, not many union members have any idea of what it is and
what it does, because it has made hardly any effort to inform or involve
us, while it speaks for American labor around the world. It is shocking that
90 percent of Solidarity Center's operating budget comes from U.S.
government agencies, who are not noted for their zeal for international
labor solidarity. The Center won't tell us what it gives the Bush State
Department in return for its extraordinary generosity.
Solidarity Center was involved in the attempt to overthrow Venezuela's
elected president, Hugo Chavez. Even after the failed coup, the Center
received $116,000 every three months from the National Endowment for
Democracy, from September 2002 to March 2004, for which it was required to
submit five quarterly reports containing information that its benefactor
Solidarity Center maintains offices and staff in at least 26 countries,
including Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Croatia, Paraguay, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
What is the Center doing there? It won't tell us. Nor is it clear how
it is promoting
international labor solidarity. Isn't it time for union members and the
labor press to ask questions-and demand answers?
7. The AFL-CIO and Change to Win, along with their affiliated
international unions, each collect and spend millions of dollars every year
without reporting their expenditures to the membership. We have no idea how
they're using our dues money. Union officials are free to make any financial
decisions without our knowledge or consent. Since, as far as we know, there
is no oversight committee, they can be reckless and irresponsible in
handling our money.
The incredible fact is that rank-and-file groups and the labor press have
rarely, if ever, demanded official financial reports from our unions. Public
companies publish annual financial statements and hold meetings of
stockholders where their decisions can be reviewed. Why can't our big
unions do the same, using the Internet for posting their reports? They
won't do it unless we demand it. Will we?
8. At the AFL-CIO's 2005 convention, the only challenge to the
leadership came from a lone CWA member, who was not a delegate and had never
held elective office, whose candidacy received no financial or moral
support from any union source, and who was 91 years old. He forced the
incumbents to give him time to address the convention delegates, where his
speech was greeted with applause and a standing ovation. Wasn't the event
newsworthy? Why was it totally ignored by all AFL-CIO publications? Why was
there no coverage in the labor media, except for Labor Beat, which
More important, why was the opposition to an incompetent, undemocratic and
stand-pat leadership limited to a 91-year-old union member? Why weren't at
least a handful of the hundreds of convention delegates with enough backbone
to become candidates, when there were openings on the Executive Council,
with the departure of the dissident unions? It's time for a frank
discussion of why we have become meek and complacent, and what we have to do
to get back on track.
* * * * *
Many months ago, a prominent labor leader chided me. He said,: "Harry,
you're wasting your time taking pot shots at us. Can't you see that it's not
working? We're getting very few complaints from our members, so they must be
content with what we're doing for them. You should find better ways to spend
My strong belief is that members are not complaining because they've given
up all hope of getting any remedies for their problems from the AFL-CIO and
Change to Win leadership. I think they are also disappointed by our
lackluster behavior in fighting for their needs.
We can no longer afford to be inactive on the critical issues that confront
working people and their unions. If we do not unite nationally and fight for
a reform agenda, we shall be as guilty as our national leaders in letting
the labor movement continue to sink into impotence. Silence is no longer an
option. Let's speak out and come up with some answers.
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