By Harry Kelber | The Newspaper Guild – Communications Workers of America | March 11, 2011

For more than 30 years, well-meaning, savvy trade unionists have offered proposals to revive an ailing and declining AFL-CIO–to no avail. All the plans that were presented at well-attended conferences, all the articles that were written and widely distributed, all the resolutions that were debated and approved, failed to change the Federation as the citadel of labor conservatism and guardian of the status quo.

So on March 4-5 a gathering of 96 self-selected union leaders and activists from 23 states met in Cleveland "to explore together what we can do to mount a more militant and robust fight-back campaign to defend the interests of working people."

This was hardly different from what many of the participants had been saying or hearing for years and were now taking advantage of the opportunity to repeat themselves in the customary left-wing jargon.

The audience noted the grave dangers facing public employee unions in Wisconsin. They pledged to "go back to their unions and worker organizations and promote the March 12 Day of Action proposed by the Wisconsin AFL-CIO and an April 4 rally sponsored by the Communications Workers of America (CWA). Promoting protest rallies should keep the 96 activists busy.

Curiously, there was no mention of the AFL-CIO throughout the several-page summary of the meeting. Apparently, there is to be no criticism of the AFL-CIO leadership, despite its undemocratic practices.

It was not at all clear why the Emergency Labor Meeting (ELM) was called at this particular time and what its goals were. The highlight of the meeting was the adoption of a 14-point list of "Perspectives," proposals that that have been advocated by labor activists for decades.

They called for labor unity. They wanted unions to organize a "fight-back" mobilization campaign. They wanted unions to "fight in the streets," like unions overseas were doing. They called for a public sector to put people back to work. They said labor should be independent of the two-party political system. They wanted unions to champion the entire working class.

They called for the U.S. to adopt a health-care system like Canada’s Medicare for all. The group proposed repeal of the anti-union Taft- Hartley Act, which labor had unsuccessfully, on and off, tried to eliminate for the past 60 years. The Perspectives called for ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and "bringing all of our troops home now."

Why Haven’t AFL-CIO Unions Followed Critics’ Advice?

The meeting did not discuss any concrete steps to revive the labor movement, except to declare there was a "need" to do so. Similarly, they avoided talking about what specific steps that had to be taken to create millions of jobs or to stop the outsourcing and outshoring of good American jobs.

Virtually all of the Perspectives have merit, but there is something basically wrong with this Emergency Labor Meeting. Organized labor has been in a state of emergency for many years, so what was this meeting intending to change and why now?

The people at the meeting were mainly talkers. For the most part, hey had a good handle on current labor problems. But they were not about to incur risks by taking a public stand that would enrage either major employers or the AFL-CIO leadership. They won’t do any of the necessary things that may endanger their careers or their livelihood.

How many union leaders are there who would lead a "non-violent" action against the outsourcing of American jobs? Or challenge the AFL-CIO’s sham elections?


Whatever the outcome of the conflict in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and other states, we may see the emergence of new labor leaders who have won the respect and trust of the rank-and-file by their behavior during the bitter, continuing struggles.

Of course, we urgently need smart thinkers and good talkers, but most of all, we need courageous leaders who are ready to take risks to defend workers on principle issues.

It is in times of crisis, that new leaders rise to the occasion. And we have plenty of crises ahead of us.

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