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A leaked copy of the budget for largest labor federation in America drops funds for organizing from 30 percent to less than 10 percent. Union activist and scholar Bill Fletcher, Jr. analyzes its impact

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MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. It’s great to have you all with us.

A copy of the coming year’s AFL-CIO budget baffled many activists when it was released not officially. It dropped the percentage of money dedicated to organizing new workers from 30 percent of the total budget to less than 10 percent, this all being in the course of the face of increasingly diminished power of unions in our country, addressing drop in their membership while they confront a bevy of new laws making it even harder to organize. Most of the budget seems to be dedicated to lobbying and backing candidates. But where are unions now? How do they not live but survive? How are they once again going to become a potent political force in our country representing the working class of America? How does that happen?

We are joined once again By Bill Fletcher, co-founder of the Center for Labor Renewal, scholar, columnist, longtime activist, former President of TransAfrica Forum who also served as Education Director and later Assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO. He’s authored numerous books, including “They’re Bankrupting Us!”: And 20 Other Myths About Unions, Solidarity Divided, The Indispensable Ally: Black Workers and the Formation of the Congress of Industrial Relations, 1934-1941, and his most recent book, a mystery novel, The Man Who Fell from the Sky. Welcome, Bill. Good to have you back with us here on The Real News.

BILL FLETCHER: Always glad, Marc.

MARC STEINER: So let’s do this. So let’s unravel this mystery. What happened? How did this happen? What does it mean? I mean, talk a bit about the process in your time in the union and what led up to where we are now, where organizing means literally nothing to the leadership, it seems.

BILL FLETCHER: It’s a long story, but the but the gist of it is this: from the late 1980s up until about 1995, there was a growing movement within the labor movement around the importance of putting resources back into organizing. And increasingly, unions like the Service Employees International Union, the Hotel Restaurant Employees Union, and others started increasing their resources into organizing. This culminated in a battle for the presidency of the AFL-CIO in 1995. And in October 1995, John Sweeney, Richard Trumka, and Linda Chavez-Thompson won the leadership of the AFL-CIO. Now, central to their theme was about the importance of organizing. The problem, however, is once they got elected, they quickly discovered that although they put significant resources for the AFL-CIO in organizing–and the AFL-CIO had by and large not put resources into organizing–there was pushback within the union movement by the affiliates.

I’ll give you an example, Marc. There was an experimental project called the Geographic Organizing Project that was launched under the Sweeney administration in the late 1990s. And the idea, I thought, was quite brilliant. The idea was to, in addition to the organizing that the different affiliates were undertaking, the national AFL-CIO would support locally-based organizing efforts that were rooted in central labor councils. And central labor councils are labor bodies that bring together unions within a particular geographic area. And so, the idea would be not just that you’re organizing a particular industry, but you’re organizing an entire geographic area. So there were three experimental sites. Only one took off, which was the Stamford Connecticut Organizing Project, which was led by a woman named Jane McAlevey.

And the project was very successful. But many of the organizing directors for the national unions became uneasy about this, and basically said to the national AFL-CIO, “You shouldn’t be funding these local efforts, that should all come through us. So you had that pushback. The pushback continues up until the AFL-CIO splits in 2005. And this is one of the saddest moments in our in our history, labor history, was that unions like the Service Employees International Union–under then Andy Stern–were leading a charge saying that the AFL-CIO needed to do more about organizing. But he was disingenuous because what Stern knew is that most of the unions actually didn’t want the AFL-CIO involved in organizing. They wanted to handle organizing themselves. And so, the AFL-CIO splits, and it’s been a downhill slide ever since then.

MARC STEINER: Well, I mean, certainly. But you’ve got a lot of things that have been facing unions. You just outlined one thing here. It’s also been the deindustrialization of America, which diminished some of the major unions, like the Steelworkers and UAW, losing members right and left. You have laws that make it more difficult for unions to organize, and the Janus ruling in the Supreme Court that said you don’t have to join the union as a public employee but still can get the benefits of being what the union fights for. All those things adding up and more have diminished unions and the power of unions. And they seem to start putting most of their eggs in the basket of backing candidates and lobbying Congress and lobbying in various state capitals. So I mean, and that power seems to be less and less. So I’m curious, what kind of discussions are taking place then now, given this new budget, where less than 10 percent of money is going to go to organizing? Are there debates actually taking place, are people saying, “We’ve got to organize, we’ve got to bring new workers in?”

BILL FLETCHER: Yes and no. So first of all, Marc, what the AFL-CIO is now doing–as represented by the budget that you made reference to–is that they’re returning to an earlier era when the major work of the AFL-CIO was precisely lobbying and legislative work and backing candidates. So that’s one thing that’s important to understand. It’s sort of a return to an earlier era. And I think that it reflects, more than anything else, a strategic paralysis at the top. You have leaders that frankly don’t know what to do and where to go. And the challenge would really be a different kind of trade unionism, and they’re afraid of it. They’re deathly afraid of a more radical kind of trade unionism, more confrontational, that takes on capital at different levels. They’re definitely afraid of this.

MARC STEINER: Why? The question for me is why is that happening? I mean, when Trumka became president of the AFL-CIO, at first I thought of Trumka as a real fighter.

BILL FLETCHER: Yes, he was.

MARC STEINER: Right, for the mine workers. I remember years back when I did some work worked with Miners for Democracy when they were trying to take over the union back then. They lost that particular fight, but people were part of that. I mean, so he comes out of that kind of fighting spirit. What happened? What changed things?

BILL FLETCHER: There’s a story about this ship that sinks, and there’s this guy that has this gold. And he’s holding onto the gold in the water, and there’s a rowboat that comes over to him. And they say, “Come on into the boat.” He says, “Well. I can’t, I have this gold in my hand.” And they say, “Well, if you hold onto the gold you’re going to drown.” And he says, “No, I’ve got this gold, I can’t let it go.” And so, he drowns. You get my point?

MARC STEINER: I get your point. Right.

BILL FLETCHER: And so, you have this problem in the union movement where you have leaders that are in one way or another, in too many cases, holding on to an old way of thinking and holding on to the metaphor of gold. They keep hoping that the pendulum will swing back in a way where the political class is more accepting of trade unions, and that we will grow through greater numbers as industry and everything–employment–goes up, and labor laws can potentially change. It’s a misreading of the situation, Marc. And this is a battle even during the Sweeny years, when many of us, people on the left, were actually hired and were doing a lot of work in the AFL-CIO. There was still this debate about how far to push the envelope. And there was a cautiousness on the part of people like Sweeney, ultimately on the part of Trumka, that if they push too hard, the doors would be shut. And they are afraid that the doors will be shut.

MARC STEINER: Are you talking about the doors to the Democratic Party power? That door?

BILL FLETCHER: And the doors to the White House. I mean, these guys–I know this will sound bizarre to your listeners and viewers, but I mean, many of these characters, they just salivate over the opportunity to go to the White House. And they just think, “Wow, this is power.” No it’s not power. In the case of when there’s Democratic administrations, it’s access. When it’s a Republican, it’s more getting kicked in your–but they still believe that having that access and that opportunity demonstrates that they have legitimate authority, whereas they don’t.

MARC STEINER: They clearly don’t. When I looked at the budgets from the leaked document, I was really shocked to see how little money the AFL-CIO really has in terms of its entire budget. That was pretty shocking. And so, but it seems to me that–I’m very curious. It seems like you’re saying that the internal struggle isn’t there around pushing for strikes and pushing for organizing. I mean, you see what the Uber drivers are doing as Uber went public, and they were trying to organize their union, and what the nurses are doing, the SEIU, hospital workers. There are people pushing, right?

BILL FLETCHER: They are. And they’re doing it at the local level. You see, the problem is–and this is the discussion that really needs to happen: do we need an AFL-CIO? And if we do, which I would argue we do, what should it be doing? What should it look like? I remember having a discussion with Trumka a number of years ago when we were on very good terms, and I said to him, I said, “Rich, I think when you and Sweeney were elected, you made a really big mistake. And that mistake was you did not sit down with the leaders and say, ‘OK now what are we gonna do?’” And he said, “No, we did that.” I said, “Rich, you had one-on-one discussions, those discussions were largely choreographed. I’m talking about pulling everybody into the room and saying, ‘Now what do we do? How do we change this movement so that we gain traction? What do we have to do?’” And there was a reluctance always to do that, and Trumka couldn’t argue with me about that. So there is a battle that’s going on, it’s a battle at the local level. And unfortunately, I think that some national and local union activists have drawn a conclusion that the AFL-CIO is irrelevant and that the best thing to do is just simply go around it.

And one of the things I think the AFL-CIO should be doing is to be a site for real struggle; debate, for example, on the environment instead of what happened a couple of years ago, where the laborers engaged in really unprincipled activity towards unions that were pro-environmental. This should have been a debate. Let’s have it. Let’s have it out there. Let’s have it for our members to see and hear. The same is true when it comes to presidential nominations. I would argue one of the biggest mistakes that were made in 2016 by the union movement as a whole was not the question of whether they supported Hillary Clinton. The problem was that a number of unions including SEIU, ASME, American Federation of Teachers, jumped forward with what I would argue was a premature endorsement. There was no real debate within the membership and in the leadership, and they got their clocks cleaned as a result. I mean, let’s have the debate.

MARC STEINER: Because every president since Jimmy Carter has done everything they can do to diminish the power of unions, the laws they backed in Congress and everywhere else. I mean, that’s something that unions need to kind of realize. So where do you think the future is going to go? I mean, are you optimistic about what could happen inside unions, what you’re seeing from organizers on the ground and people actually in local unions? Or do you think that it’s a very kind of pessimistic future in terms of what unions might be able to do to regain power in the face of this huge growth of power of capital in our country in the world.

BILL FLETCHER: Well, I’m optimistic. But in explaining my optimism, I’ve got to tell you another story. And this comes from the great film and book, The Flight of the Phoenix. And for your listeners who have not ever seen or read the story, there’s two versions of it. The original one with Jimmy Stewart is about this plane that’s flying over the Sahara and crashes, and there’s no one coming to save them. And Jimmy Stewart is the pilot. He walks around the plane and determines that the plane will never get off the ground, it’s too badly damaged. So the challenge for the survivors is this: they can sit around and wait to be rescued, which may or may not happen. The second is that they can try walking out of the desert, even though it’s a very long distance. And then there’s a third option that emerges, is there’s a German engineer on the plane who walks around and says, “You know what? We have the material and the basics to create a new plane.” And that’s what they set about doing.

We’re at a point in the labor movement where the plane that we’ve been flying is stuck in the desert. It is not taking off. And many of the leaders believe that it’s okay to sit around and wait, and we’ll be saved. There are others that think they can walk out of the desert on their own. Their individual unions, they’ll figure out a way to get to the oasis. And then there are other people that are saying, “Now, wait a minute. We actually have the parts here where a new plane could be created.” And it’s not going to look like the old plane, but it will draw from the old plane and it will include some other things. In this case, the plane would include organizations like the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, the National Domestic Workers Alliance. It would include worker centers that are legally not classified as unions but are a part of the labor movement. And so, in that setting, you’re actually talking about the emergence of a phoenix bird.

Our movement would be that phoenix bird that rises out of the ashes. So I’m optimistic because there are people that hold to that view throughout the movement. Some of them are rising into positions of power. And what they have to keep in mind is that the future is not in the past.

MARC STEINER: And that’s a really important statement you just made. And what I would love to do is continue this discussion with you and others, and kind of rebuild a discussion to actually be able to talk about how you do what you were saying just now, to rebuild the unions. Because that’s where the power is going to be, that’s what we’re missing in this country right now in terms of resistance to all of us being pushed on in this country.


MARC STEINER: So Bill Fletcher, it’s always a pleasure to talk with you. I thank you so much for taking your time with us here at The Real News.

BILL FLETCHER: My pleasure. OK. Thank you very much.

MARC STEINER: Thank you very much. Always good to see you. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Take care.

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Bill Fletcher Jr. has been an activist since his teen years and previously served as a senior staff person in the national AFL-CIO; he is the former president of TransAfrica Forum, a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, and the author of numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, including ‘They’re Bankrupting Us!’ And 20 Other Myths about Unions and The Man Who Fell from the Sky. Fletcher Jr. is also a member of The Real News Network Board of Directors.