Report on the AFL-CIO convention

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Nov 19 08:10:12 MST 1999



The AFL-CIO's 23rd Biennial constitutional convention held in Los Angeles
Oct. 8th through the 13th ended with the endorsement of Al Gore Jr. for
president of the United States. James Hoffa, President of the 1,400,000
member Teamsters union, and one of the largest of the 68 federated
international unions in the AFL-CIO led the opposition to approval of Gore
in the Executive council and on the floor of the convention. While the UAW
lent support to Hoffa, they did not participate in the convention floor

Hoffa spoke for a delay in the endorsement decision until the candidates
had made their positions clear on the major labor issues unspoken to by
Gore and Bradley. They included the November World Trade Organization
meeting in Seattle, the continuing Nafta agreements that permit Mexican
teamsters to carry their freight into the United States and the candidates
position on the anti labor legislation that is a huge obstacle to union
organization. The resolution for the Gore endorsement was read to the
delegates by one of the executive board members. The first speaker from the
floor, an official of the Painters Union, gained recognition and moved to
close debate. John Sweeney, chairman, acted surprised by the motion but
recovered quickly to brush aside the attempt to close discussion. He
insisted that the delegates should have the opportunity for air their
disagreement. This move to discussion marked a distinct departure in the
way lack of debate took place at other conventions. Sweeney needed a public
debate in recognition that besides the Teamsters and UAW opposition to an
early endorsement also came from other unions in the Federation. The other
unions sat silently in the discussion, letting Hoffa led the dissent. He
was followed by several other Teamster officials.

In support of the Gore endorsement were the presidents of the American
Federation of Teachers, Sandra Feldman and Gerald W McEntee, President, of
the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Union.
Both of these unions are strong lobbyists with their government agencies in
city and state that negotiate the basic wage policies for their members.
Often a symbiotic relationship develops between service unions and the
government bodies that prevent an expression of militant unionism.
Following their speeches especially the frenetic oration of McEntee for the
endorsement of Gore, the vote on the resolution was taken by voice vote and
while it carried the Teamster opposition cast a pall over the convention
which was made uneasy by the significant opposition. Program consultants
and the pro Gore supporters arranged for several hundred of adherents to be
bussed into the convention to fill the half empty hall. On the first day
the 650 delegates were augmented by hundreds of new union members but now
the convention hall was filled from those unions endorsing Gore long before
the convention. Even with the additional Gore supporters the spell could
not break the recognition that the endorsement was a pro forma gesture.

Hoffa's leading roll in the convention started from the first day of the
convention when the union officers were introduced and Hoffa brought the
loudest applause with the introduction of the officers. The teamster
delegates and business agents remained active with a daily handout of
leaflets and pamphlets calling attention to the attempt to organize the
Kroger super market chain, campaign to organize the Overnite Transportation
Company and asking for support of the three-month strike against Basic
Vegetable Food Products in King City California. The company is a food
giant employing 750 workers that were fired and replaced. One of the
teamster handouts decried the Nafta agreement that allows Mexican truck
drivers permission to carry freight across the U.S. state lines. The only
other unions in the convention active in advocating policy while the AFSCME
and the AFT were pushing for the endorsement of Gore. The nature of these
union campaigns marked a significant difference to their approach to union
problems confronting the Federation today.

>From Sweeney's opening gavel calling the convention to order to the last
session one could see the dramatic influence of the huge immigrant
migration to the Unite States from Mexico and the Central American
countries. A most prominent role at the opening session fell to Linda
Chavez Thompson, Executive Vice President who gave physical presence to the
latina influence in the top councils of the union. John Sweeney in his
opening remarks to the delegates reported the addition of 250,000 new
members but the Los Angeles County publication noted the continuing
hemorrhage of members from the higher wage industries. They were replaced
by workers in the low paying service industries.

The changing composition of the union came into sight when Chavez Thompson
asked for audience participation. Those on Thompson's right were exhorted
to shout union , while those on her left responded with 'Yes." Chavez
Thompson then called the newly organized workers from a union to come
forward while Thompson called for the audience to respond with a yell for
union or a responding yell for yes. Processions of workers came to the
front of the platform while the ritual calls sang out until the front of
the stage disappeared from sight. Brown skins from the service industries

Of the 90,000 union members recruited in Los Angeles County almost 74,000
came from home health care workers. The union influence in the political
arena in city, county and state has enabled the union to gain these new
members. Fair wage resolutions from the Los Angeles City Council and Board
of Supervisors spur union organization. Underlying the political shifts in
California is the enrollment of Latinos in the voting rolls that have
elected many Latino politicians.

"Two-thirds of Los Angeles county's population is minority. "The County
Federation of Labor repots, "44% is Latino, 12% is Asian, 10% is African
American." Of the 2,151,855 residents in Los Angeles County, 844,000 are
below the poverty line."

Some of the union officials want to advocate lessened citizenship rules.
Strong opposition in the Executive Council at the pre convention sessions
came from another section of the union movement that resisted efforts to
make amnesty an easier path for documented workers. The debate in executive
council indicates that a resolution of the immigration policy that sees
300,000 new immigrants crossing the border and challenging for work not
only in the low earning end of industry but putting a severe strain on the
once more skilled building industry that includes the carpenters, plumbers,
bricklayers and electricians. Nancy Cleland reporting in the Los Angeles
Times, October 12:

"Neither is support for the amnesty plan universal. Leaders of several
prominent unions that have large immigrant membership, including the United
Food and Commercial Workers said they were opposed to the resolution. 'We
just didn't think it was in the best interest of our members,' said Sean
Harrigan, regional director of the UFCW, which represents thousands of
immigrants in meat packing.

"Among many in the UFCW rank and file, sentiments ran strongly the other
way, 'I've been a member 18 years and an organizer for two, and I can tell
you, the biggest hurdle I face is fear of retaliation by undocumented
workers,' said Roger Rivera of UFCW Local 428 in San Jose, ' The sanctions
are not doing what they are supposed to do. They've become another tool for
employers.'" A divisive vote on this red hot resolution was postponed. When
the economy softens this will return as an explosive issue for the entire
union movement. Yet the fear to speak openly on the subject reflects the
new political influence of the Latino politicians who represent race as
well as union and the two do not always coincide.

While the convention proceedings were care fully scripted except for the
final debate over the endorsement of Gore, from time to time an authentic
voice of the rank and file broke through One of those voices was a woman
from the Field crest Cannon in Kannapolis, North Carolina plant of 5,000
organized after a long battle. The delegate told of the several attempts to
organize and the defeats suffered by the union. She went on to thank the
union for not giving up and finally winning the union vote for recognition.
It was refreshing to detect the slight southern accent as she told the
story without embellishment.

Early in the first days session, when the convention hall had 1200 in
attendance a young slim woman with jet black hair was introduced and
proceeded to electrify the convention. Monica Russo spoke without notes and
related her experiences as an organizer for the Unite union in Florida.
Monica graduated from Georgetown University and told me that her parents
were part of the civil rights movement and her interest in civil rights led
her to the union movement where she must have heard many Baptist ministers
orate but her technique was one that she devised. The AFL-CIO should allow
her skills to be used from coast to coast.

The speech of Ed Mistretta a worker from Delta airlines brought into focus
the ongoing problem of industrial versus craft unionism. He reported that a
Delta merger with another airline 12 years ago led to the abolition of all
union contracts. Delta had 60,000 workers divided into flight attendants,
freight handlers, maintenance workers and pilots. Since the company
operates in cities across the country the problems of organization are
manifold.. With the support of the pilots and the machinists an airline
could be shut down but the division of the crafts is a major obstacle to be
overcome. Even when the union obtains support of the aircraft workers, the
company refuses to negotiate

In the lobby, I encountered secretary treasurer Richard Trumka. It gave me
the opportunity to find out why many of the officer delegates denounced the
anti union legislation and even the employer delaying use of the NLRB but
no AFL-CIO effort was used to put the politicians feet to the fire in 1999.
Trumka replied that 74% of the people support unions and when the other 34%
come to the same position the union movement will be able to rid the county
of anti labor legislation an answer probably made in jest. Trumka's union,
The United Mine Workers, is a supporter of the Labor Party but the
question, I asked him about the Labor Party drew a no comment response.
None of the Labor Party endorsing unions took an active part on the floor
of the convention. The UAW and the Steel workers union were not to be heard
although both had serious problems with the loss of jobs abroad. In 1970
the UAW had 1,600,000 members. They are down to 800,000 members while their
are more auto workers producing cars today than in 1970. Several hundred
thousand are in unorganized plants in the south and an equal number in
plants abroad.

Linda Chavez Thompson led a delegation to Tijuana to see the Maquiladora
plants. They flashed pictures of the workers living in shacks and the women
washing clothes in a polluted stream. One plant making auto parts had voted
three times for the union but the company refused to negotiate and moved
production to another part of Mexico. The government colluded with the
company to prevent union organization. Linda Chavez Thompson offered no
solution and her committee offered no method to fight the Nafta exodus of
American production to countries abroad.

The service unions look for salvation from the election of labor endorsed
candidates that explains their silence but the manufacturing unions are
stiffening in their attitude to politicians making promises that ignore the
loss of jobs. When the good times disappear the leaders of the non
manufacturing unions will have led the union movement into a blind alley.

The Sweeney administration is open to innovation like the establishment of
a labor college, and having schools for graduate students to participate in
organizing campaigns but the most difficult option is how to get the
unorganized to participate in the organization from the inside the
factories. Last years program didn't work and this will require an entirely
new agenda that this convention failed to provide. The spur of adversity
will bring changes and Sweeney has shown that he reacts more progressively
than his predecessors.

Louis Proyect

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