The AFL-CIO’s “Regime of 1995”: A Partial Turning Point for Labor
The 1995 AFL-CIO convention initiated a real but incomplete process of reform. How can labor activists fully realize its potential?
The list of workers looking to assert their rights through the collective power of unionism is long and growing: nurses, newspaper reporters, farm workers, tech engineers, warehouse workers, fast food employers, restaurant servers and bussers, retail workers, gig employees, college athletes, truckers, domestic workers, computer programmers, day laborers, auto workers – low-paid or comparatively well-paid, working at behemoths like Amazon and Walmart or at small non-profits and at coffee shops. Workers are showing resilience in sticking with union campaigns over the long haul. There is little evidence in mainstream, business or the labor press of unionizing employees attributing difficulties, setbacks or defeats to the limitations of unionism. The unfairness of our political system, the undue power of corporations and business executives, is no longer hidden.
That is a far cry from the 1980s and 1990s, when anti-union sentiment seeped into the general population. The media and too many politicians promoted the myth of overweening power wielded by union “bosses,” while the complacency and narrowness of too many union leaders made it all the more difficult to combat anti-labor lies and distortions. There were many in the labor movement, from rank-and-file members to some in national union leadership, who continued to organize on the basis of a genuine and consistent solidarity. But at the top levels of the AFL-CIO, and in some of the more seemingly stable unions whose leadership thought they could ride out any crisis, calls for solidarity were not backed by genuine conviction. In a time of devastating and unrelenting attacks on unionism, that combination meant not only defeat, but also pervasive demoralization.
At the same time, however, the outlines of a new orientation began to come into view. In 1995, the“New Voices” slate challenged and defeated the existing AFL-CIO leadership at the federation’s national convention. John Sweeney was elected president, Richard Trumka secretary-treasurer, and Linda Chavez-Thompson executive vice president. Sweeney’s death in February 2021 provides an occasion to review the under-appreciated significance of that change, the progress that ensued, the possibilities that still need to be realized.
By Way of Background
The highwater mark of the AFL-CIO’s numerical strength came in 1955, following the merger between the once-rival American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) labor federations. Rather than a new lease on life, however, the merger marked the moment the steady erosion of union strength began. This was initially due to the combination of automation and speed-up that intensified in the years after World War II. The continued expansion of US manufacturing, however, masked this danger, while the unions’ prior abandonment of any attempt to influence production decisions or challenge management rights clauses limited their ability to act in anything but a defensive manner, which, in turn, contributed to the public view of unions as a barrier to “progress.”
Corporate investment abroad also undermined domestic union strength, but that danger was recognized by only a small number in the postwar labor leadership. At the time, there was a widespread belief that overseas expansion would actually improve labor’s bargaining strength by boosting corporate profitability. Many did recognize the growing threat of “runaway shops” as unionized firms opened up non-union subsidiaries, particularly in “right-to-work” states in the South, but the AFL-CIO refused to address the politics of Southern racism that kept the region a low-wage bastion. The effect of both trends was an overall loss of members and a loss of union density. The vast expansion of public employee unionism in the 1960s masked organized labor’s loss of numbers, though some individual private-sector unions saw membership declines. But the slow, steady losses eventually took on a serious character. In 1955, organized labor represented nearly 40% of the workforce and a higher percentage of workers in manufacturing and transport. This level of union membership was the basis of labor’s economic and political strength, and its erosion threatened everything working people had fought so hard to build.
But under the unfortunate leadership of long-time AFL-CIO president George Meany and unionists of his ilk, labor assumed that as long as the US dominated world affairs, and as long as unions did not “rock the boat,” the kind of union-busting workers persistently confronted until World War II would never return. Thus the federation vocally supported US wars abroad, overseas business expansion, and the protection of US business interests from those who threatened corporate investment rights. The AFL-CIO actively sought to split, undermine, and cheer on the suppression of union organizations overseas that did not welcome US corporate investment. The same parochial mindset also meant that the AFL-CIO as a whole stood on the sidelines as the civil rights and Black Freedom movements gained strength, although some individual unions actively supported those struggles. The AFL-CIO did lobby politicians in support of civil rights legislation, but confrontations were frowned upon, and the racist practices of a number of individual unions and union locals was rationalized, never challenged. Similarly, AFL-CIO leadership – again, bearing in mind that there were numerous union leaders who never abandoned principles of solidarity – failed to protect and defend the rights of immigrants and immigrant workers, turned its back on women entering the workforce and viewed feminism and the Gay Liberation movement with distrust and distaste.
As a result, organized labor seemed increasingly irrelevant to growing sectors of the non-union workforce — ignoring the universe of the growing numbers of sub-contracted or temporary workers, ignoring “unskilled” service workers and highly trained engineers and other professional workers. At the same time labor’s ability to defend existing members was being undermined, the broad range of cooperative and “fraternal” forms of organization, which in previous eras had tied people to the movement even in bad times, withered on the vine. A deep disconnect developed between many union members and top AFL-CIO leaders which they failed to notice. The reactionary image of workers as anti-intellectual and incurious about the world around them – an image Meany cultivated to prove labor’s “Americanism” — meant that federation leadership saw working people as they wanted them to be, not as the varied, changing, complex people they were. In consequence, many union organizations lost their internal cohesion at the same time the labor movement lost strength even in basic industry strongholds.
Beginning in the mid-1970s, following the Vietnam War, corporate interests responded to their own sense of loss of power. They recognized the erosion of labor’s strength and adopted a more aggressive posture by demanding big concessions at the bargaining table, promoting decertification campaigns, using scabs to break strikes, and illegal methods to combat organizing drives. This set the stage for Reagan administration’s green light for unrestrained union-busting, accompanied by corporate disinvestment, deindustrialization, the undermining of regulatory agencies, and the privatization of public services. Organized labor was rudderless and unprepared. A string of badly defeated strikes in the 1980s revealed the isolation of unions and the fact that many working people no longer saw a direct link between union strength and improved rights and living standards and security for all. Meany’s successor Lane Kirkland was more open-minded than his predecessor, and brought back into the AFL-CIO unions that left or were expelled in prior years. He was also more willing to work in coalition with liberal and progressive organizations outside the labor movement. But he was less connected with workers and working-class realities than Meany, and still sought change mainly through political and business relationships built on “influence” that had less meaning as union membership and power declined. Moreover, his worldview was completely shaped by Cold War ideology and the politics of US global corporate expansion and militarism. He remained committed to this orientation even after the Cold War ended, when the impact of corporate globalization meant that US workers needed support and solidarity from workers abroad more than ever. In sum, the AFL-CIO proved incapable of providing the leadership its affiliated unions and the wider working class needed in a period of major global transformations.
Changing of the Guard
A number of hard-fought strikes in the mid-1990s made clear that many unionists assimilated the lessons of the 1980s defeats. In the new world of global capitalism, unions had to develop strategic campaigns that focused on the company as a whole; confront large corporations not only at a particular worksite, or just within the US, but wherever they drew profits. Central to these campaigns was that they began with effective membership engagement and broader community ties from the beginning of a contract dispute, rather than trying to catch up in the midst of one. Organizing drives became more creative, with greater emphasis on direct action and less adherence to the rules business ignored and government agencies were unwilling or unable to enforce.
Unionists also began to challenge the basic premises of corporate economics. Until the early 1970s, even many industrial unions supported unconditional free trade pacts. The logic that “what was good for General Motors was good for the country” had numerous labor adherents. By the 1990s this began to change, marked above all by organized labor’s opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Solidarity with those sections of Canadian and Mexican labor similarly opposed to so-called “free trade” reflected a recognition that relations with unions in other countries should be grounded in a shared agenda for worker rights, not the State Department’s foreign policy objectives. This coincided with the growing support for local labor initiatives in solidarity with the anti-apartheid struggles in South Africa and against US intervention in Central America by a growing number of national unions. The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) and the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) led the way to a recognition that organizing to address specific needs and overcome past and continuing discrimination did not weaken union unity, but was instead was a prerequisite for real working-class unity. This was driven home by the awareness that successful new organizing required reaching out to immigrant workers from Latin America, East and Southeast Asia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Nigeria, and around the world.
Finally, because workers share the concerns of all human beings, many unionists came to understand the need for labor to be part of the environmental movement, to support the campaign for a nuclear freeze, and to cut US military spending. The emergence of the Rainbow Coalition and the multiracial working-class support Jesse Jackson won in his two presidential campaigns was proof that workers in far larger numbers than commonly assumed were willing and ready to support a broadly progressive political alternative committed to social justice. After Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 campaigns, labor support for a political alternative was underlined by the formation of the Labor Party, which at its outset had considerable support in union circles.
Each of these developments reflected a push to address the shortcomings that allowed the labor movement to lose so much ground so quickly. None of this, however, was sufficient to bring about a change in the AFL-CIO itself, which was required if any of those various initiatives were to grow, flourish and become transformative. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) president John Sweeney stepped up to lead that fight, with the support of other union presidents and officers. Sweeney was by no means a left-wing radical, but he spoke to and reflected a deep current of working-class politics and a pragmatism rooted in genuine values of solidarity and the need for inclusiveness. Following his election victory at the 1995 convention, new initiatives opened labor up to the currents in society seeking to secure and advance those rights which are the bedrocks of unionism. Four of these initiatives had a particularly lasting impact:
Organizing Institute — After 1995, the federation established the Organizing Institute to initiate and support new organizing campaigns. Building on the model developed by SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign, it represented a new departure in the federation’s history. The AFL predominated over the CIO when the two federations merged, and, reflecting their AFL roots, Meany and Kirkland believed organizing should be left up to individual affiliate unions. The few attempts at coordination, such as mass campaigns in Los Angeles in the 1960s and in Houston in the 1980s – both pushed by the United Auto Workers and other former CIO unions — never received adequate support and were quickly abandoned. The Organizing Institute was different not only as a body aimed at a long-term project of organizing the unorganized. It was also distinctive in reaching out to the excluded sections of the working class, those whose situation was most precarious, those most in need of a union.
Union Cities – The Union Cities program sought to breathe new life into Central Labor Councils (CLCs). These citywide or metropolitan area-wide councils were largely moribund, serving primarily as vehicles for local electoral endorsements based on favors and relationships, with little connection to members beyond testimonial dinners. But the federation’s new leadership recognized that CLCs had the potential to mobilize members on an ongoing basis, be a voice for all workers on matters ranging from public education to public transportation to neighborhood development and thus a vehicle to address systemic discrimination and marginalization both inside and outside the workplace. Some CLCs had already moved in this direction, recognizing how a structure that combined multiple unions, engaged in community services and political action could be a fulcrum for cross-union solidarity and for advocacy on social issues that transcend parochial divisions. The basic goal was to make the values of unionism and solidarity a part of daily life for union and non-union workers alike.
Workers Centers – The logic of both the Organizing Institute and Union Cities reflected an awareness of the critical need for non-union worker organizations that combine community and workplace activism in the most marginalized communities, particularly among new immigrants and the most exploited African American workers. Over serious objections and opposition, these “workers centers” were allowed to affiliate to AFL-CIO bodies. This was a radical step because it affirmed in practice, not just in rhetoric, that organized labor speaks for all workers, not only those who are union members. Flowing from that logic, labor organized to end wage theft, enforce labor standards on hours, establish family medical leave policies, and raise the minimum wage to a living wage. As such, it challenged the mindset of those in labor who feared that worker gains outside of collective bargaining would undermine unions. It also meant redefining the fight for workers rights as a broader demand for democratic rights. This provided the basis for subsequent AFL-CIO resolutions against mass incarceration, for immigrant rights on and off the job, and for fighting racism as a systemic reality of our society – including within union organizations – if worker rights are to be fully secured.
International Labor – The phrase “Solidarity knows no borders” was routinely bandied about in the Meany-Kirkland years, but its sentiment was too often observed in the breach. The AFL-CIO’s commitment to the Cold War, to the “freedom” of US corporations to invest, expropriate and rob workers around the world, isolated US labor from social democratic and Christian international trade union centrals and made relationships with left-wing unionists impossible. The AFL-CIO, for several years, even withdrew from the International Labor Organization (ILO), a move rendered all the more ironic due to the failure of the US government to sign most ILO labor protection protocols. Unthinking support for arms spending and military engagement became profoundly out of step as the experience of Vietnam left a generation of working people disillusioned and embittered by mindless militarization. Moreover, as the growth of corporate overseas investment contributed to the loss of domestic union strength, changing AFL-CIO international policy was central to efforts to rebuild labor. An early measure Sweeney took after the 1995 convention was ending the AFL-CIO’s shameful collaboration with the CIA and its interference in the internal affairs of unions abroad. The federation was reintegrated into the mainstream global labor organizations, while the ban on collaboration with left-wing unions, such as COSATU in South Africa, CUT in Brazil and KCTU in South Korea was ended. Perhaps the most significant change took place when the AFL-CIO opposed the war on Iraq in 2003, as it has been historically rare for the dominant labor federation in any country to oppose its national government’s call to arms.
Taken together, these initiatives changed the profile of unions and is the reason so many workers today view unions favorably and to seek to organize where possible.
Even so, the changes that began in the 1990s have not gone far or deep enough. Transforming an organizational culture developed over decades of retreat does not happen at the drop of a hat. Twenty-five years after the 1995 convention, unionization in the private sector continues to shrink while public employee unions have lost ground in many states. Corporate power remains ascendant, worker rights remain imperiled, inequality has grown in society at large and within the working class.
Organizing initiatives, notwithstanding some meaningful victories, have been insufficient to overcome the unending hostility of business and the Republican Party and the indifference of too many Democratic office holders and funders. Union Cities has made a difference in some parts of the country, contributing to progressive politics and a growing level of intra-union and union-community solidarity. But too many CLCs failed to make meaningful changes, most state labor federations never changed at all, affiliated unions have often been unwilling to participate in on-going mutual support initiatives, and the pull of business-as-usual approaches to electoral politics has prevented the program from reaching its full potential.
Worker centers played a critical role when Hurricane Katrina ravaged already devastated communities in 2005. The 2008 financial collapse further underscored their importance, as did the rising tide of deportations already evident during the Obama administration, but which reached a fever pitch of hatred and cruelty under Trump. These challenges strained the already-limited resources of many workers’ centers, which would have benefited mightily from the support and solidarity of established unions. But most unions, whose memberships were facing challenges and hardships, only provided modest assistance. The limited effectiveness of Union Cities and the Organizing Institute meant that connections between organized labor and worker centers were weaker than they needed to be, limiting what could be done when a crisis hit.
As for international affairs, the “America first” mindset of the Cold War years has been slow to change. Too many unionists continue to blame foreign governments and the policies they pursue for the problems of global capitalism, rather than US economic policy and the practices of US and foreign transnational corporations. Although the Solidarity Center is far better in pursuing a pro-worker agenda than its predecessors, the fact is that it functions more like an NGO than a union body. It tends to approach overseas unions from the standpoint of providing aid, rather than as equals in a shared movement to establish worker rights. Moreover, as a recipient of government funding it fails to challenge the fundamental basis of US foreign policy. The critique of US militarism has receded, and with that the challenge to endless wars that drain resources from our economy, destroy lives here and abroad, and undermine labor rights everywhere.
Why hasn’t the genuine potential of 1995 been fully realized? To begin answering that question, we need to look beyond the unions themselves to broader political-economic developments. Unions have been weakened worldwide since the end of the Cold War. Labor displacing technologies, global integration, and the erosion of solidaristic world views have all taken their toll. These trends, however, have been especially strong in the US, which has used its global dominance to build a political economy in which profits are increasingly disconnected from production. On one side, the position the US enjoyed as the unscathed, unquestioned global leader after World War II has eroded. On the other, US labor’s strength rested on the health of the domestic market to a greater extent than in many other countries. As these twin pillars of postwar prosperity collapsed, the systems of collective bargaining and social provision labor helped to shape became especially vulnerable.
Despite the relative weakness of US unions, labor’s overall strength as measured by workers’ ability to disrupt production, improve wages, and decrease hours grew through the 1970s, in part because egalitarian social movements challenged structural racism and all forms of discrimination. Consequently, some progress toward greater equality among working people was made. The business attack on the labor movement, racial justice, women’s rights, and immigrants all gained in intensity as the foundations that allowed for a relatively higher standard of living and social mobility came undone. This unravelling, in turn, facilitated the right-wing demagoguery connecting the broad decline in the quality of life with the ”rights revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s. This frequently took the form of attacks on public services, and therefore on government itself, which easily translated into growing attack on political democracy. Since labor rights and democratic rights are inextricably bound, the general crisis of political representation that took hold in the 1970s served to weaken unions. Bernie Sanders’s calls for a political revolution against the billionaire class resonated so powerfully because they made an explicit link between rampant inequality and the lack of popular control over government. The internal changes heralded by the 1995 AFL-CIO convention enabled organized labor to play a greater role in the resistance to the reactionary turn in US society. These changes were not, however, sufficient on their own to overcome those circumstances.
Highlighting the broader constraints on labor’s revival ought not be used to justify inaction or inattention to labor’s internal flaws and shortcomings. Instead, understanding these dynamics reminds us that neither the labor movement nor working people in general can simply will the changes they want to see into being without taking account of the circumstances in which they act. A failure to understand that simple fact contributed to the unnecessary and destructive split in the labor movement when SEIU, joined by the Teamsters and several other unions, broke from the AFL-CIO to form Change to Win, a split that inhibited progress toward deepening the reforms initiated under Sweeney’s leadership.
Failure to keep these constraints in perspective led to an inflated assessment of what labor leaders might be able to accomplish on the basis of their own. There was the belief that strategic planning research, intelligence, and the capitalist cure-all of money mobilized from above, cut off from meaningful membership participation, could get the job done. Those leaders who initiated the split ignored the fact union decline was caused by structural and political developments that needed to be addressed directly and ignored the fact that existing unions had, in fact, accomplished a great deal in preventing even greater losses of worker and democratic rights. Thus they argued that there was a conflict between putting resources into new organizing and working to address the immediate needs of the already organized. In the long run, that concept was unsustainable – and in fact, the policies, program and approach of unions in the alternative Change to Win federation that SEIU helped create are not substantially different from those of AFL-CIO unions. The split played a key role in slowing down and undermining the potential of the 1995 convention and the changes it put in motion.
The Road to ‘95
Unions are membership organizations that need to protect and defend the interests of non-members while defending the rights and gains of the already organized. Any attempt to separate the two will come to naught. Taken together, that is what the initiatives around the Organizing Institute, Union Cities, workers centers, and international solidarity were all about. Those who sought to reform the AFL-CIO understood this, so we need to analyze the outlook of the reformers themselves to fully grasp why they weren’t as effective as they hoped.
SEIU’s forerunner, the Building Service Employees International Union (BSEIU), was built slowly and under immense difficulties. The workers who built BSEIU, who were mostly European immigrants and African Americans, were subjected to pressure from the organized criminal elements whose foothold in the industry was not fully dislodged until the late 1990s. That presence had to be fought and overcome, but it could only be done indirectly because of the workers’ weak bargaining position against a hostile and somewhat distant management. George Hardy, Sweeney’s predecessor as SEIU president, played a critical role in the process of bringing the union back to its members. His success was due to the determination of a growing group within the rank-and-file and local leaderships who often maintained ties to immigrant groups of their own background. Left-wing immigrant workers’ circles also played a key role as a minority conscious of the need to build change from the ground up. The emergence of a progressive union within the shell of a conservative organization riddled with the likes of Al Capone was due to the cross-ethnic solidarity and basic decency of engaged members, skilled workers who were treated as unskilled and whose existence could be precarious.
At the same time, there was no frontal assault on organized crime in contrast to the fight against the mob in the needle trades, on the docks, and in some industrial unions. Intra-union unity was essential to prevent employers from taking advantage of internal conflict. The program of BSEIU reformers was never “radical” in a sloganeering sense; rather, it was rooted in a true understanding of what the union’s members could and would do if they were organized (hotel workers, bakery workers, and others followed an analogous path). This orientation was reflected in Sweeney’s bold Justice for Janitors campaign and the union’s outreach to a now largely Latino immigrant workforce, his consistent opposition to racism, and his openness to the Left as a legitimate presence in the labor movement, all the while working within the far more conservative, established culture of the AFL-CIO. When he did challenge the federation’s old leadership as an insurgent, it was with the support of both reform-minded and more traditional unions, with the goal of not alienating those whom he defeated. The point was to maintain unity by reforming the institution, not transforming it. Every program, every half-step forward that was consciously not a full step reflected that outlook.
Current AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka’s background was different from Sweeney’s. He came up through the United Mine Workers (UMW) during the era of Miners for Democracy, a rank-and-file movement that reasserted membership control of the union through more than a decade of struggles against a corrupt and violent leadership. From the mid-1960s through the 1990s, coal miners launched a series of both official and wildcat mass strikes that won a series of critical battles over wages, pensions, disability benefits and safety protections. Unfortunately, their ability to win in direct confrontations with employers was not enough to overcome corporate asset shifting, as larger energy companies moved investments to sectors, such as natural gas, with seemingly more “compliant” workers and less public scrutiny. Coal companies also pioneered “double-breasting” (i.e. opening up non-union mines with profits taken from unionized mines) and increased mining operations in Wyoming and other Western states to increase non-union coal production. So the UMW was weakened even before the realities of climate change sent coal on a downward spiral from which there is no way out. The fact that the miners’ upsurge took place during a time when AFL-CIO leadership was asleep at the wheel, unwilling to engage in a systemic campaign to reorient the US economy (as the IAM, the UAW and other unions proposed) meant that their militancy had no place to turn once the struggle moved beyond what could be won at the workplace.
The UMW remains rooted in its membership and still fights for all miners, especially around pensions and health and safety, but does so with ever fewer resources to challenge the system that has grown wealthy exploiting labor while destroying the natural environment. The tragedy, however, is that miners should have been at the forefront of planning and rebuilding union-based industries in the areas where they once held sway, using the profits mine owners took without reinvestment. But the problem was not only due to this mass working-class movement taking place in an industry about to go in decline. Mass upsurges during the 1960s and 1970s amongst farm workers and hospital workers, industries that continue to thrive, also hit a wall at the same time. Corporate and political reaction created financial structures and business arrangements that prevented further progress. It is not a coincidence that representatives of energy, mining, agricultural, and health industry capital can be found in the circles that promoted Trump and all he represents.
Unions representing workers whose militancy defined those respective upsurges were part of the AFL-CIO reform movement. But their inability to sustain their forward march tempered how they saw the struggle to reform the labor movement and contributed to the half-step approach toward change. Trumka has shown a greater tendency toward political independence since he succeeded Sweeney as AFL-CIO president, and he has been able to publicly articulate a working-class politics expressing that independence. Yet the ground for an alternative labor politics has been weakened as many union members have either been lured by the siren song of reaction or dropped out of political and collective action entirely. Left-wing union sentiment remains a powerful part of this mix, but it is unable to become a greater force without a clear connection between the need for such an alternative and a realistic pathway to implement it.
Looking at the third of the three officers elected in 1995 helps elucidate that dilemma. Linda Chavez-Thompson, who as a child worked as a sharecropper in Texas as part of the Mexican immigrant workforce, eventually became an AFSCME organizer. It was a natural progression for public employment and was one of the few occupations in which any degree of stability and upward mobility for working people was possible within her community. Being a unionist in a state dominated by reactionary politics has also made working through the Democratic Party necessary because these highly vulnerable workers did not have the luxury of choosing better in the face of dominant, far-right Republicans. The fight for immigrant rights in Texas was also a fight to change the Democratic Party’s stance to confront Republican immigrant-bashing. She made her most important contribution to the AFL-CIO reform project in this context, as the federation’s new leadership moved it away from its old, immigration restrictionist posture to a full defense of workers irrespective of their citizenship status. Immigrant rights remain far from secure, as do working people’s rights in general – all of which heightens dependence on the deeply imperfect instrument that is the Democratic Party. Public employees, who by necessity bargain with elected officials, are constantly subjected to such pressure.
In looking at this past, the point is not to highlight the respective weaknesses and strengths of Sweeney, Trumka, and Chavez-Thompson as individuals, but rather to underline the experiences that formed them as part of the working class. It will be possible to take the next steps forward toward fully remaking the AFL-CIO only when working people inside and outside unions take action to go beyond the current limits. This doesn’t mean that other strategic and tactical choices shouldn’t have been made since 1995. Criticizing union leadership, however, has little meaning if it is divorced from the underlying challenge of building a sufficient base of working people who see the need, and feel they have the power, to advance a more fundamental transformation. The regime of 1995, then, is better seen as the start of a new beginning for labor, rather than judged as the culmination of a completed process.
Labor’s near-universal condemnation of the neo-fascist pro-Trump coup attempt of January 6, as well as the fact that many of those condemnations specifically connected the racism of the rioters with a right-wing anti-worker agenda, indicated a deepening commitment to equality as central to both labor rights and political democracy.
This commitment to defend democratic rights against open racism flows from a change in understanding in the wider public, underscored by the massive Black Lives Matters protests that reached a crescendo last year. Those demonstrations, together with the whole panoply of protest and resistance to the Trump agenda, has broadened the perspectives of millions of working people. Therein lies the potential for spreading a political project that can realize labor’s full potential as a force for social and economic justice.
At the moment union hopes are focused on the PRO Act, which would restore workers’ rights to organize, bargain, and strike, thereby opening space for a new outburst of union strength. At the moment, popular hopes lie in demands for a Green New Deal which can provide a framework for addressing the climate crisis by transforming the economy to create meaningful work at living wages. These two movements must become intertwined, because they will win only if they can overcome the resistance standing in the way of both of them.
These initiatives will not be fully realized unless popular movements address police violence and mass incarceration, winning a living wage universal health care, protecting women’s right to choice and sexual freedom, expanding and protecting immigrant rights, ending inequities in housing, education and criminal justice, bringing our troops home, ending dependence on fossil fuels, cutting military spending and moving toward the abolition of nuclear weapons. All these can create the basis for transforming the economy to ensure that public rights supersede private gain. Imagining those possibilities means seeing how we can bring to fruition the potential the four pillars of unionism erected in the wake of the AFL-CIO’s 1995 convention: Organizing, Union Cities, Workers Centers, and international labor solidarity.