Bill Fletcher Says the Current Debate Over Labor's Future is
Dominated by an Outdated Conservatism
Interview by David Bacon
Bill Fletcher is president of TransAfrica, a national policy organization in Washington dealing with issues surrounding Africa. After the reform administration of John Sweeney was elected in 1995, Fletcher became the labor federation's director of education, and later an assistant to AFLCIO President John Sweeney. Forced out over his radical politics, Fletcher has since proposed a wide-ranging set of ideas for a truly new direction for US unions. They clearly need it.
As the AFL-CIO prepares to meet in Chicago on Monday, the percentage of organized workers in the US (overall 10%) is lower than it's been since the 1920s. While unions are debating structural changes, and some threaten to leave the AFL-CIO entirely, Fletcher says labor's problems arise because unions have stopped being the radical organizations they once were. The current debate is too limited, he says. Instead, the labor movement needs a profound change in political direction. He was interviewed this week by labor journalist David Bacon.
Q: I'd like to ask you about the criticism you've been leveling at the debate itself, more than either of the two parties in it. You say the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the AFL-CIO itself are not really fighting about the right issues. Quoting from your most recent piece, you say, "these contentious debates make a dangerous assumption: that the decline of unions is largely the fault of the structure of the AFL-CIO and/or how the AFL-CIO has operated." What do you mean by that?
A: First, the bulk of the resources in the union movement don't exist at the level of the AFL-CIO, while individual unions themselves are responsible for organizing. This is a prerogative they have cherished very deeply. In this debate about the AFL-CIO and its structures, there's very little discussion about the actual practice of the various affiliate unions.
What I feel is missing from this debate, is a thoughtful, rigorous analysis of the economic and political conditions we're facing and the implications they have for the kinds of organizing unions should be doing, and the structures they need to accomplish that. In the absence of that analysis you can make all kinds of structural
suggestions but they may not necessarily get to the problem.
Our problems include what's happening externally - the economic and political situation - and the lethargy that exists within the labor movement. Our unions suffer from a profound conservatism, a failure to recognize the kinds of changes that are going on, and therefore our need for a very visionary movement.
Q: You mention the conservatism of the US labor movement. I think for anybody who's had much contact with unions from South Africa to Central America, even Canada, we seem quite conservative by comparison. During the Cold War, those people who really did have a radical vision were mostly driven out of our labor movement. So aren't' you expecting a lot? Where would a more radical vision, like the one you're describing, come from?
A: I am expecting a lot, but what I'm suggesting is what I believe is necessary, not simply wishful thinking. If we're going to have a renewed labor movement, these are steps we need to take. As they say, we can keep rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but the ship is sinking. My concern is, what do we do? What kind of analysis do we need? And, therefore, what changes do we need in the practice of trade unionism in order to succeed and build power?
Does that mean radical solutions? Damn right it does! We need a different kind of leadership. Most of the leaders in the labor movement really should retire. Unfortunately, people have gotten very comfortable, but, more important than that, they've made certain wrong assumptions about the politics and economics of this country. Unions are not accepted in this country by the governing elite. They're not accepted by capital.
Q: One of the issues you point to is globalization, and how unions approach the way capitalism operates on an international scale. The Service Employees have a proposal in their 10-point list that talks about how unions should conduct their international relationships. It calls for unions to find partners in other countries, even to
organize them, in order to face common employers. That's what I heard AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Richard Trumka say in New York ten years ago, when the Sweeney administration was in the process of being elected. At the time this seemed like a big change from the Cold War, that unions would cooperate with anyone willing to fight against our common employers. Now this doesn't seem so radical. What's the limitation there that you're pointing out?
A: You're right, it's not radical anymore. A number of unions have been doing this, like the UE and the Steel Workers. It's an important example of what I call "pragmatic solidarity," and it should be done. But what's missing from this discussion is a response from the labor movement to US foreign policy.
Q: Like the war for instance?
A: Exactly, like the war, because the international situation is about more than multinational corporations. Corporate globalization and military intervention are intertwined. In the labor movement there's an absence of understanding about the relationship between the two. That's why we get manipulated in the response to 9/11, by justifications for the war. Unions in the rest of the world are not simply asking us whether we will stand with them against General Electric, General Motors, or Mitsubishi. They want to know: What is your stand about the US empire, about aggressive wars or coups de etat? If we have nothing to say about these things, how can we expect to have any credibility?
Q: In some ways it seems to me that US corporations operating in a country like Mexico or El Salvador are, in some ways, opportunistic. They're taking advantage of an existing economic system, and trying to make it function to produce profits. They'll exploit the difference in wages for instance, or their ability to require
concessions from governments in order to set up factories in their countries. The question unions rarely ask is what causes poverty in a country like El Salvador? What drives a worker into a factory that, looking at it from the United States, we call a sweatshop? What role does the US play in creating that system of poverty?
A: You've got it. In our union movement, we don't have that kind of discussion. We destroy education departments, or we turn education into simply a technical matter. We don't really work with our members to develop a framework to answer these questions. So our movement becomes ineffective in fighting around these issues. This is part of what is missing entirely from this current debate over how our unions are structured. Simple solutions are being put forward for very complex problems, often with a high level of arrogance, from
Q: I see the AFL-CIO campaigning in Washington against CAFTA, for instance. Labor lobbyists will go up to Capital Hill and mobilize pressure on Congress to defeat it. To a certain extent, unions will go out to their local affiliates and will ask that members make phone calls or write letters to Congress. But what seems to be missing is what you're pointing to - a kind of education at the base of the labor movement. Actions in Washington often don't have a lot of force behind them because there's so little effort to create a conscious, educated union membership that's prepared to take action.
A: The root of this problem is a kind of American pragmatism that disparages education. There's also fear that an educated membership may rise up and demand change. But that's why, in this current situation, people need to demand more from both sides of the debate.
For one, the whole notion of threatening to pull out of the AFL-CIO is, at best, a tactical mistake. Those people who want change lose credibility and the moral high ground. That's turned this debate towards an extremely personalized exchange, like firing missiles across the demilitarized zone. What's needed right now, desperately,
are voices saying, let's pull back for a moment and engage in the kind of discussion we need. For example, I read a letter from Tom Buffenbarger, president of the Machinists Union. I disagree with him on virtually everything, but he asked a very important question. What percentage of the workforce do we actually need to unionize to make a qualitative change in our situation? It leads to asking ourselves, what do we mean by power?
Q: You mean people say we need more members, but don't say how many or in what industries?
A: Exactly, and if you say we need to organize 30% of the workforce to make a qualitative change, that's an enormous difference from where we are. But at least if you ask the question, then you can start talking about the structure unions might need, or the strategic implication of that objective. Those who are talking a lot about
restructuring might have to propose even more radical ideas in order to accomplish a goal like that. But as the saying goes: if you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there. When you have various structural solutions that are put forward in the absence of clear strategic objectives, it's really just a gut-level response.
Q: Talking about organizing 30% of the workforce seems so far away that I think it's hard for people to imagine what might really be necessary to make such an advance. Despite the best, even spoken, intentions, since Sweeney came in 10 years ago there was only one year in which the AFL-CIO increased the percentage of union members in the US work force. Every year other than that we've still gone down. And I don't think it's for lack of trying, although we can talk about what trying consists of, and what the drawbacks to those efforts were. Nevertheless, I remember when I was an organizer in the late 1970s and 1980s. There was no consensus then in the US labor movement that we even needed to organize new members at all. So let's take one of the barriers that inhibit that kind of growth - racism in the US workforce, and racism in the US labor movement as
well. How should the labor movement discuss that issue, that would be different from the kind of debate going on right now?
A: The discussion of gender or race right now mainly ends up focusing on diversity - how many people are at the table, how many people are in leadership? This is a discussion of whether or not the racial and sex complexion of the leadership of the labor movement reflects its base. While that's important, the more fundamental discussion is one of inclusion. Who is making the decisions? You can have a union executive board where 30% of the leaders are people of color. But if mostly white people are still making the decisions,
it's basically window dressing.
What I don't hear is a discussion about changing the culture of unions, so that we change the decision-makers, and are really inclusive. That would represent a dramatic change. Moving against racism, against sexism, means changing the way we do business within unions. The informal networks of the people who actually make decisions now will have to be broken up.
Q: What else would be different?
A: One common experience for most workers of color is that we are often asking community-based organizations to do something for us. But it's not always a two-way street. We have to start building
partnerships with communities of color, and that means back and forth. It does not mean we are going to agree all the time, but it means unions need to be there around issues communities feel are important. Years ago in St. Louis and Boston, union locals actually started and helped to build organizations in working-class
communities. They took the issue of race very seriously.
Unions have missed the boat by not taking up an urban strategy. Right now working class people have to fight just to stay in the cities. They're being driven out, and this has a disproportionate impact on workers of color. Unions and central labor councils need to look at economic development, and issues of housing and job creation. That would start to give us something we lack, a compelling vision - something people will rally to. I find the current debate very disturbing because it often feels technical and corporate. What's missing is any sense of why hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of unorganized workers should rally to unions. Unions were once a source of inspiration to community-based organizations, particularly in the '30s and '40s. You don't feel that today. We need a very different approach if we are going to organize millions of unorganized workers.
Q: Of course, these days joining a union usually means risking your job. You talk about what the labor movement puts in from of workers to inspire them to do this. Primarily, the kinds of arguments made
to workers are economic - that they need a wage raise, more security, and pensions that aren't going to disappear. They need healthcare coverage, which is becoming increasingly unavailable. These are all
pretty important items. But you're talking about a kind of vision that goes beyond that, aren't you?
A: I definitely am. We absolutely need to appeal to people to act on their immediate economic interests. But we're also talking about a movement that inspires people with a broader vision of social justice, not simply what happens in the workplace. So we also need to be flexible about the forms of organizations people join. Sometimes it might be associations, or groups based on occupation. At other times people join groups based on industry, or craft.
Q: Are you saying that you want workers to be against the system? Do you think that that's too much?
A: I think we have to take on the system. We have to be prepared to talk about something we've been afraid to say out loud - that capitalism is harmful to the health of workers. It crushes workers every day. Our standard of living is declining. People are fighting everyday to pay for health insurance, if they even have it. Workers
often have to choose between paying their rent, or their mortgage, and having healthcare. So yes, it means taking on the system. There's something fundamentally wrong with the priorities of this society, and we have to be courageous enough to say it.
Q: Looking back at labor's history, there were two eras when a substantial section of the labor movement did say things like that. During the period of the Wobblies in the early 1900s, or the period of the CIO during the 1930s, the left was strong. There were organized political parties critical of capitalism, which called for other kinds of social systems. Today that kind of left in the United States is very weak and small. So who is able to put forth that kind of vision? The labor movement itself? Who can do what left wing parties did in that earlier time?
A: We need left-wing political parties, desperately. We need a voice that's explicitly anti-capital, with no apologies. But we can't sit back and wait to build them, before we can do anything else. Within the union movement, we can have that struggle too. In the past, the Wobblies and the CIO were also influenced by the
existence of radical workers, who were looking for radical answers. That's one reason why we need to be open about having debates about how the way this country, or even the planet, is going.
Q: Do you think the debate that's taking place in the AFL-CIO now, over structure, could become a larger debate over politics?
A: It has to be revamped. Currently, it doesn't hold a candle to what we've had in the past, or what we need now. The current debate is not only of very little use, but it's potentially very destructive. In the absence of real political discussion, personal attacks have emerged. So we end up with assaults on John Sweeney, or Andy Stern. The debate ends up becoming very personal, rather than a real discussion of substance, about the future of our unions.