afl-cio and wto

Michael Yates mikey+ at
Sun Dec 5 16:38:22 MST 1999

In light of the recent comments on the role of the AFL-CIO in the WTO
protests in Seattle, perhaps my remarks below may be of interest.  They
are from a recent article in Monthly Review and follow a commentary on
Paul Buhle's new book, "Taking Care of Business."

michael yates

        There are valuable lessons to be learned from Buhle's examination of
our labor history for those of us who want to help to rebuild the labor
movement and make it a force for radical social transformation. First
and most obviously, the "New Voice" leadership of the AFL-CIO cannot, by
its revolution from above, overcome the overwhelming weight of the
past.  It can make some progressive changes (such as dismantling the
International Affairs Department) and open up some space for radical
activists.  But it cannot radically transform itself much less the
member unions, over which it has precious little control, precisely
because it is itself the product of a bureaucracy absolutely bereft of
an ideology of class struggle.  Federation leaders are busy creating new
institutes and departments, endorsing various organizing drives and
strikes, and organizing or speaking at conferences.  But they are not
busy developing a working class ideology, championing union democracy,
or formally denouncing racism and condemning U.S. imperialism.

        Second, it would be a mistake for leftists to ally themselves too
closely with the new leadership, because, if we do, we will inevitably
begin to apologize for its shortcomings and to make rationalizations for
them, just as did many erstwhile radicals in the days of Gompers.  For
example, in the first labor teach-in at Columbia University in 1996,
philosopher Richard Rorty came close to apologizing for the New Left's
opposition to the war in Viet Nam (Buhle quotes Rorty as saying at this
teach-in that at one time the AFL-CIO was leading the U.S. toward a
classless society!).  What sort of critical stance can we expect from
people thinking like this? We can and should support any and all good
things which the Federation and the member unions do and actively
participate in them whenever we can.  But we should do this as leftists,
and we should at the same time insist on building the broadest possible
movement and refuse to subsume the fights against racism, sexism,
homophobia, and imperialism to the Federation's definition of the
working class and the labor movement.

        Third, we need to consciously think of ourselves as the left wing of
the labor movement and begin to work out a left wing vision for the
working class (including ourselves as members of this class).  One way
we might begin to do this is to take the egalitarian rhetoric of
organized labor's most progressive voices at face value and turn it
inward toward the unions themselves.  That is, we should enunciate and
act upon the idea that unions must be militantly egalitarian
organizations, organized not just to fight the employers but to serve as
training grounds for the growth of a democratic and egalitarian

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