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Bill Fletcher: The American trade union movement is in disarray

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington, and joining us now again is Bill Fletcher Jr. He is the executive editor of He’s also the co-author of Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice. Thanks for joining us again, Bill.


JAY: So a year and some, a year and change ago, the labor movement thought they had a president who was on their side. They were going to get real health-care reform. They were going to get EFCA, the Employee Free Choice Act that would allow more unionization. They thought they were actually going to be heard. What do they think now?

FLETCHER: The US union movement is in disarray, and that plays itself out at every level, including how to assess and relate to President Obama. They had very unrealistic expectations about the speed of change and the direction of change. But more importantly, in my opinion, they downplayed their own role, that is, in terms of what they needed to be doing over the last year or so. They were sort of sitting back and playing the inside-the-Beltway game, including, like you mentioned, the Employee Free Choice Act. Instead of taking that out around the country, they focused mainly on an inside-the-Beltway lobbying effort, laying the foundation for this, but not making it a national issue.

JAY: Well, they spent millions of dollars in an advertising campaign. I think at one point they had as much as, like, $80 million budgeted for it. I’m not sure they spent it all on that.

FLETCHER: But you see, Paul, the problem is—and I used to work for the AFL-CIO, so I know a lot of these guys, and they have the same problem. They have this magical thinking when it comes to advertising. They basically think that it’s sort of like in the military, where you have the people in the Air Force who think you can win a war by bombing from the air, and they don’t pay any attention to the ground troops. You have, in the union movement, folks that think that you, through an air war—in this case advertising—that that’s what you need and that that is what changes people’s opinions.

JAY: As opposed to—.

FLETCHER: Having people on the ground, knocking on doors, talking with people, going to visit religious institutions, talking with community-based organizations, writing op-eds, writing letters to the editor of small newspapers, basically to—and large newspapers, explaining to people: this is what we’re going for; this is why it’s in your interests.

JAY: Well, it comes back a lot to something that we talked about a lot before the election. And maybe we’ll play it again now. George Will—we were just talking off-camera about this—on Stephanopoulos’s show talked about what was at stake and who was running in the last election. And here’s a clip from Will.


GEORGE WILL, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Donna, does the name Springwood ring a bell? No? That is the ancestral home, high on a bluff over the Hudson River, of Franklin Roosevelt, who was born there and is buried there, a man of deeply aristocratic background and privilege who sympathized as much as anyone, surely, in your mythology of your party, with the common man. Where did we get the idea that owning homes is a disqualification?

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, HOST, ABC’S THIS WEEK: I know. It started in the last—I think it was in the last presidential election; it was used against John Kerry.

WILL: Exactly. But surely in a democracy it’s time for us to quit being sentimental and say the question we settle in an election is not whether elites shall rule, but which elite shall rule.


JAY: So that was George Will on George Stephanopoulos’s show. So, essentially, he’s saying people get to vote between one section of the elite or the other.

FLETCHER: That’s right.

JAY: Now, if George Will knows that, you would think the trade unions’ leaders should know that. And maybe they have to play that game, and they do make alliances with one section of the elite versus the other. But if you understand that, you just can’t put all your eggs in that basket.

FLETCHER: Here’s the problem, Paul. George Will can get away with saying that, because he sees himself in many ways as an ideological spokesperson for part of that elite. So he’s very comfortable. So, basically, it’s my team or the other team, right?

JAY: But even putting it in that terms, I think he only said it ’cause he got angry.

FLETCHER: Right, that may be true, but he is himself is an elitist, and I think if you read enough of his work, with the exception of baseball, he is not focused on people on the ground. He really sees himself as—.

JAY: No, no. I—but my point is that if you’re leader of the trade unions—

FLETCHER: No, but they can’t do it.

JAY: —and you make these—. Well, [inaudible] they speak that way or not, they seem to think that way. They seem to genuinely believe that this wasn’t just another section of the elite, that this man, Obama, was in his heart of hearts really with them.

FLETCHER: And I think that part of that is that some of them believe that. Some of them also think that if they don’t say that, they won’t be able to inspire people to really engage, because when you’re saying to people, look, let’s talk the realities of this country: this is a class society, and we’re not the ruling class, and that within the ruling class there are these competing sections, and at this point our forces are too weak to break this, but we can influence the outcome, right? Well, that ultimately can lead to the question of, okay, got it; what are we doing, then, now so that at some point we actually can drive a wedge?

JAY: Well, number one, that. But even one step before that, if you’re going to, quote, “influence the outcome,” then why don’t you play hardball? I mean, why aren’t you saying, understanding, you know, it’s nothing against Obama as a person, but he represents a whole alliance of forces, saying to that alliance of forces that you want us to get the vote out, you deliver or we won’t, and you don’t—? There seems to be no hardball coming from the unions.

FLETCHER: I agree. I couldn’t agree more. But, you see, and you saw this in the Clinton era also, that many of these leaders are, frankly, so petrified, the idea that they will be excluded from discussions, that they’ll make the concessions. In the spring, in the middle, while health care was bubbling, there was at least one union leader who said that it was better to be at the table and get nothing than to be excluded from the room. And I thought that that was incredibly profound, because to openly admit that you’re sitting there, you’re essentially warming a chair, but that that’s better than being on the outside, when—I mean, my attitude is very different. I’d say then put me on the outside, but then you’re going to have to deal with the consequences of having me out there. The Obama administration was very upset with many of their progressive and liberal critics of them on health care, and they made it very clear that if people didn’t tone down, particularly around single-payer, Medicare-for-all, that they would be excluded.

JAY: And now saying that, knowing that many of the trade union leaders were pro-single-payer, there’s then, I think, hundreds, if not even thousands, of resolutions from union locals around the country, and they passed a resolution at the last AFL-CIO convention endorsing single-payer, yet their president won’t even allow someone who supports it at any of the—at a table.

FLETCHER: They continue to be fearful that if they raise the rabble too much and raise the temperature, that they will simply be iced. And so the challenge—and we may see some change with [Richard] Trumka. I’m still watching carefully.

JAY: Yeah. Trumka’s the new president of the AFL.

FLETCHER: That’s right, that’s right, who was the secretary-treasurer. And Trumka, he’s a firebrand, and I mean that in the best sense of the word, the term. The question is whether or not he is prepared to challenge his own institution—I don’t mean just the AFL-CIO; the AFL-CIO and its affiliates—you know, whether he’s prepared to take the risk that by really raising the rabble, you know, by really upping the tempo, that this administration could in fact say: we don’t want you back in this building, and we will talk to Andy Stern, the president of Service Employees International Union.

JAY: Well, they’re doing that anyway.

FLETCHER: Right. Exactly.

JAY: But there’s another fear they have, because I’ve talked to several of the leaders of some of the unions, and they fear it’s weakening the Obama presidency, that their bigger fear is a return of the Republicans. And whether they get what they want out of this Obama presidency or not, the bigger problem is [if] there is no Obama presidency next time, and that fear seems to drive them more than anything.

FLETCHER: Precisely. But I think that what they—I gave a speech recently about this to a union audience, and one of the things I said is that I feel like there’s lessons that we’ve forgotten from the Franklin Roosevelt years, where there’s a very famous story about Roosevelt talking with A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Randolph lays out a whole series of reform proposals. Roosevelt sits there and listens and says, “I agree. Now go out there, organize, and make me do it.” Randolph actually did. Our current leaders are afraid that by pushing Bill Clinton in the ’90s, Obama now, that they will somehow weaken the presidency and give aid and comfort to the enemy. Now, there’s something about this particular moment that I think gives credibility to that position that’s very difficult from Clinton that we have to acknowledge, which is that the virulent, racist, irrationalist attacks on Obama are very real and are chipping away at the administration. So progressives and liberals have a understandable concern about that and not wanting to pile on. My position, though, is that it’s not piling on; it’s pressure; that particularly when you size up Obama, that Obama is influenced by pressure. It’s very, very obvious. He’s someone who personally likes to jump into the middle, try to build a consensus from the middle, and wants everyone to just simply be nice-nice. It doesn’t work that way. When the Republicans are attacking him from the right, he is responding. The problem is we’re not pressuring him from the left. And that’s what the union movement needs to understand, that we do not strengthen our position—.

JAY: Well, if they’re going to do it, it seems the most obvious place to do it is by representing the millions of unemployed people in the country. And in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about the trade unions and unemployed people.


JAY: So please join us for the next part of our interview with Bill Fletcher.

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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.