posted May 10, 2014
Restructuring American Labor in the 21st Century

Reorganizing the AFL-CIO in the 21st Century: An Initial Proposal

The central organizational question facing the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions today is how to achieve the organizational restructuring necessary to refocus Labor priorities at the point of production (e.g. organizing, bargaining coordination, strike support, boycotts, corporate campaigns, defense of community struggles, etc.) more effectively once again, to confront the new challenges of the 21st century. Expressed another way the question becomes: how to achieve a more effective division of labor between political action (which the AFL-CIO largely focuses on) and coordinated Labor action at the point of production (which the AFL-CIO does poorly)?

In 2005 proposals for change in the AFL-CIO by its reform group led by the SEIU, UNITE-HERE, Teamsters and others, together called the Change to Win, were primarily organizational in character. And they focused largely on organizational changes ‘from the top down’. But the crisis faced by the AFL-CIO and its unions then, as still today, is more than a matter of organizational structure at the top. It is just a much a matter of membership mobilization, which means even more fundamental organizational change at the local union level. Changing the AFL-CIO’s present organizational structure from the top may be necessary but it is not sufficient. If top down restructuring is all that happens, the defeats experienced the past quarter century both at the point of production and in the legislative-political arena will continue.

A fundamental change how organized Labor operates at a local grass roots level is just as necessary as a change in how it operates at the top. A growth in absolute levels of union membership is critically necessary but still not sufficient. A change in the form and character of union membership activity at the local level is just as critical. Indeed, it is highly likely that significant membership growth cannot be achieved with-out the latter. But organization can play a role in helping achieve both.

Growing Numerical Membership by 10 Million:

A central objective of Labor must be the restoration of union membership over the next decade to levels at least equal to the late 1970s. That means to around at least 20% of the workforce. That further means the AFL-CIO unions as a group will need to nearly double their current membership, adding more than 10 million employed members over the coming decade — one million new members a year — and do so at a time during which corporations are accelerating the exporting and off-shoring of jobs at an even greater pace than before. How then to add 1 million more members a year for the next ten years when Labor has been losing 300,000 members on average every year recently?

That kind of union membership growth requires a new kind of focus on organizing and a new kind of structure for organizing never before undertaken in the history of American Labor. It also requires a commitment of resources and development of new approaches to membership growth radically different than unions have followed in the past fifty years.

Trying to reform current Labor Laws to make minor corrections in NLRB processes will make little, if any, difference. Nor will minor adjustments to how Labor has conducted organizing drives in the past. Nor will a token increase in the commitment of resources make any difference. The scope of organizing needed to bring in that many new members and to restore union bargaining density levels once again will re¬quire a new kind of mobilization of workers, organized and unorganized, at the grass roots local level. It will require a new kind of role and participation of community interests and activists in that organizing; a new kind of partnership between Unions, the unorganized, and community organizations; and, not least, a new local structure to enable and facilitate that mobilization. Only a radical transformation of the organizing process itself at the local level can take Labor from its current net loss of 300,000 members a year to a net annual gain of 1 mil¬lion a year. And that new process will require a fundamental restructuring of the AFL-CIO and its unions, from “below’ as well as ‘at the top’.

Creating An Effective Membership Base:

Organizing 1 million new union members a year requires creating a new layer, a critical mass of union members at the local grass roots level who are available and willing to participate in organizing as well as in inter-union and union-community solidarity actions in general. That means a new kind of effective membership: a cross-union membership core that is mobilized to participate in new forms of solidarity activity involving multiple unions and union-community support activities. Effective membership means members that are active and committed beyond more than just their immediate workplace group. Creating that kind of active membership will in turn will require the creation of new kinds of ‘centers of solidarity activity’ for membership involvement, in addition to and apart from the typical and limited steward roles at the workplace or the miscellaneous organizational projects in local unions that most members find boring at best. Current AFL-CIO projects launched from Washington, D.C., from the ‘top down’, are largely ineffective when it comes to mobilizing local union members. And what some of us used to called ‘COPE, HOPE, and DOPE’ projects central labor councils are not what is meant by new ‘centers of solidarity activity’,
What is envisioned here is a new organizational structure that will enable and facilitate new forms of activity — within and between unions, between unions and community organizations, and between the unionized and the unorganized. A structure and activities that will mobilize union members, friends, and allies at the local level. That will create a new critical mass necessary for non-institutional approaches to organizing (i.e. outside the NLRB) that will be required in order to organ¬ize 1 million new members a year. Without both a new structure and a new kind of mobilized membership at the local level, successful organizing drives at Wal-Mart, Fast Food outlets, and similar companies will not be possible. Nor will growth anywhere near 1 million a year be remotely attainable.

To briefly recap the key points of the preceding paragraphs: Top down changes in organizational structure and a repositioning of financial resources can assist or inhibit growth in union numbers and density. Organizational restructuring at the higher levels of the AFL-CIO is necessary. But that kind of change alone is not sufficient for organizing a million new members a year. Structural change must be comprehensive, at the top of the AFL-CIO and down to the local level. Changes in the organizational structure of the AFL-CIO that do not extend down to the grass roots level will not produce results. New structures at the local grass roots level are just as necessary to achieve success in organizing 1 million new members as organizational structure change at the top. Those changes at the grass roots level are also central to creating new centers of solidarity activity and a new kind of mobilized effective member¬ship. But once again the fundamental question remains, how to do all that given a divided House of Labor?

The graphic at the beginning of this article (note: the graphic is not reproduceable here due to limits of this blog’s wordprocessor program. Copy is available on request to: ) represents an initial proposal for restructuring the AFL-CIO to permit a refocusing on both organizing and on other point of production activity in general, to create a new layer of mobilized membership, a new kind of tighter relationship with local community interests, and to do so without abandoning political action or split¬ting the AFL-CIO itself. A further verbal explanation of the graphic follows. The graphic and explanation are not meant as a final proposal, but as a start of further discussion.

Let’s begin in the ‘middle’ of the graphic. The current AFL-CIO would divide into two co-equal structures; an American Council of Unions with a primary mission at the point of production and an American Federation of Unions with a primary mission addressing political action, job training and search, and other traditional administrative activity.

Parallel Co-Equal Structures:

The American Federation of Unions would look much like the current AFL-CIO in both tasks and functions, with one important new functional task added. The AFU would focus mainly on those activities the AFL-CIO has tended to do in the past: namely, political action, international affairs, and traditional staff administrative support functions. Added to these traditional functions, however, would be the new mission of developing job training and job search programs for the unorganized, which the federal government has today all but abandoned.

Job training and search are two critical benefits that can serve to at¬tract unorganized workers to the union movement and develop a sense of loyalty to unions that could be leveraged in numerous ways in subsequent organizing campaigns. The union as the avenue to get-ting jobs was once a powerful benefit provided by organized Labor. Until the late 1940s in many industries jobs could only be gotten through the union hiring hall. The closed shop and hiring hall were the path to work. They were also a critical source of union loyalty and solidarity. That path and source of loyalty and solidarity was con¬sciously eliminated by the corporate elite with the passage of the Taft-Hartley law in 1947. Labor now needs to find new ways and new forms to provide job benefits to workers once again. Developing those forms and ways would be a major mission task of the American Federation of Unions, the AFU.

Parallel to the new AFU would be another totally new structure, a new American Council of Unions, or ACU. There is no need to end the cur-rent AFL-CIO and replace it altogether with a new organization. Let it do
what it has been doing as a revitalized AFU. There is a definite need, however, to create a new organization in parallel to the AFU that is able to do those tasks the current AFL-CIO has proved unable or unwilling to undertake; namely tasks at the point of production like organizing co-ordination, strike and bargaining cooperation between unions, imple-mentation of boycotts and corporation campaigns, mobilizing mem¬bers and organizing local protest actions on behalf of community struggles, effective resolution of union jurisdictional disputes, imple¬mentation of mergers between unions, and other actions to bring about greater union density and to help re-establish industry-wide bar¬gaining once again.

The American Council of Unions is not the old Industrial Union Council of the AFL-CIO but something quite different. It will have complete authority to carry out a broadly defined mission at the point of production. The Council would also serve as the primary organizational form for achieving a closer integration of Labor and community solidarity actions at the local level. It would be the workplace action and mobilization arm of the Union movement, in contrast to the political-administrative arm, the American Federation of Unions.
Just as the American Federation of Unions task is to work toward achieving political density, the American Council of Unions’ task is to expand union density by leading and coordinating organizing drives inter-union bargaining and strike activity, and in general mobilizing current union members, the unorganized, and community allies around concrete events and struggles. The AFL-CIO, as structured today is incapable of effectively pursuing both objectives of political and union density at the same time. It tends to opt and fall back to the pursuit of the former at the expense of the latter. The tasks must therefore be divided and the AFL-CIO today restructured into two co-equal parallel bodies to enable the effective pursuit of both tasks. The American Council of Unions mission is to focus on mobilizing workers around workplace and community issues and struggles.

The Council and the Federation would be co-equal in other ways. Both would provide a co-chair for each of the State Federations of Labor This latter organizational structure exists today and would thus contin¬ue, but now with additional tasks and under a dual leadership structure. Each State Fed would provide two delegates, one from the American Council of Unions and one from the American Federation of Unions to the new Parliamentary policy body, the American Workers Congress.

American Workers Congress

This is a new organizational body. A ‘Parliament of Labor’ that would meet quarterly and set general policy directions. It would have no executive authority whatsoever. That would reside solely with the American Council of Unions and the American Federation of Unions, in areas of their respective distinct missions. The current structure of the AFL-CIO has a fundamental conservative bias that renders it unable to make major strategic or policy changes quickly enough in crises situations. Its many small unions become dependent on a few in the AFL-CIO in leadership roles, who then rely on that highly fragmented support to stay in office for extended periods. Only a major rebellion from time to time by a significant faction of unions is able to unseat the leadership and change policies. This is a very ineffective ’succession process’ and is harmful to Labor in times of crisis, such as the present, when a more rapid change and response is necessary. In addition, a greater role in the determination of national union policy needs to come from the field, from below. Even the Democratic Party has a more dispersed policy making body comprised of representatives from the field, its central committee. Labor needs a broad-based policy making body more closely reflecting the voice of its members in ‘the field’. The American Workers Congress idea represents a shift in that direction, toward opening organizational policy making ‘to the field and from below’. State level representatives, two each from each State, would constitute delegates to the American Workers Congress, with the proviso that one representative from each State would come from the new American Council of Unions and one from the American Federation of Unions.

An Interim Federation of Sectoral Unions:

The above American Council of Unions will not be successful over the long run, however, if it remains just another lineup of existing unions. The new Council should be organized on a base of merged, new ’sectoral unions’. At first these sectoral unions could be ‘federated’ organizations, as a preliminary to subsequent formal reorganization of unions along sectoral lines.

Union organization structure has always reflected changes in corporate organization. Early forms of union organization were built along craft lines to organize small and medium companies employing skilled labor. In that context they were effective. But as corporate forms began to expand along industrial lines the craft union concept proved ineffective. It was historically followed therefore by an industrial union concept to accommodate a better approach by workers to dealing with corporations that were large industrial entities themselves. However, now many corporations have outgrown a simple industrial structure and have transformed into global conglomerates integrated across entire sectors of the economy. Union organizational structure must therefore also develop new forms and organizationally adapt once again. Craft unionization proved ineffective in organizing and bargaining with industrial companies during the 1930s (although still remaining an effective organizational form for construction and other work to this day). Now that experience is repeating itself. Now industrial unions themselves are be¬coming increasingly ineffective as an organizational form for dealing with the new global cross-industry corporations. A sectoral union organizational form needs to evolve out of the shattered base of industrial unions in America today. Just as labor developed industrial unions to deal with the new corporate reality in the past, it must develop new sectoral unions to deal with the new corporate reality of the present. To approach organizing or bargaining in the long run along industrial lines only is like craft unions in the past trying to organize a corporation that was industrial.

Sectoral unions would include, for example, the merging of all unions and members in manufacturing industries into one Manufacturing Union. Steel workers, auto workers, rubber workers, and the like would be aggregated thus into one union organization. In similar fashion, all unions with members in the transport sector would aggregate and form one sectoral Transportation Union. Teamsters, Longshore workers, Railway, Airline, Bus drivers, subway, and all workers involved in some way moving people or freight would be part of such a union. Similarly, all workers involved in some way in delivering health care services would be members of a Health Care sectoral union. While all workers and unions in the Hospitality sector would be in one sectoral union. Labor should bypass the task of trying to rebuild its now shat¬tered industrial unions and move instead to the next evolutionary phase of union organization and create a sector-based form of union organization. These sectoral unions would represent the leadership of the new American Council of Unions, first on a transitional federated basis and then as conditions permitted on a more integrated basis.
One of Labor’s major weaknesses today is the lack of cooperation and coordination between unions at the point of production — i.e. in areas of strike, boycott, and other direct action activity. And the AFL-CIO in its current form has been ineffective doing anything about it. Too many in positions of union leadership are content to remain big fish in shrinking organizational ponds. Union membership and bargaining density cannot be achieved without at some point the merging of unions today into larger, more effective sectoral union organizations.

Local Mobilization Committees:

The key to successfully organizing 10 million new union members in the future is what happens at the local level. As noted previously, structural organizational change at the top will not lead to the successful organizing of 10 million new union members. To achieve that level of union growth will require a mobilized effective membership base as well as the broad involvement of community forces and organizations in the organizing process. In turn, to achieve that kind of effective membership and community involvement requires extending union restructuring and re-organization down to the local grass roots level. Thus the key to organizing the 10 million lies fundamentally in the creation of the new American Council of Unions focusing on the workplace and the local community, and in particular with new Local Mobilization Committees reporting to that Council.

The current Central Labor Councils of today’s AFL-CIO at the local level would continue to exist and would report to the new American Federation of Unions. They would continue their work in the area of local politics and in the new task of developing job training, job search and place¬ment services for the unorganized. But alongside the Central Labor Councils locally a separate local organization would take form and would report directly to the Council of American Unions structure. This new organizational form is the Local Mobilization Committee.

The Local Mobilizing Committee would be staffed by two full time paid local organizers. The two LMC co-organizers would have the task of co-ordinating organizing campaigns, boycotts, community protest actions, strike support assistance, corporate campaigns implementation, etc., at the local level under the direction of the regional American Council of Unions. This is the level where the creation of the idea of effective membership would begin, engaging union members as well as community and unorganized workers in common support activities and struggles. Here is where new centers of solidarity activity would develop and emerge, bringing together union members, the unorganized, and members of community groups in joint activities across organizations and respective membership bases. Only out of such real actions and struggles can the idea of a new effective union membership take form. But this kind of cross-union membership itself cannot develop without a formal local structure to enable it or without resources provided to those who may lead it.

It is important as well that the LMC are bonafied local bodies staffed and supported ‘from below’ and not appointed ‘from above’. The LMC would also work closely with the local Central Labor Councils and their affiliated unions when mobilizing support for point of production activities for a particular union such as organizing drives, boycotts, strike support, etc. In turn, the LMC would provide job training and job search support for the unorganized. The LMC union co-organizer would be elected from among union delegates to the local Central Labor Council. The community co-organizer would be elected according to an appropriate process agreed upon by those organizations and endorsed by the regional ACU. Both co-organizers would be paid by and report to the regional body of the American Council of Unions, which would prioritize and assign their activities, as well as coordinate those activities with other regional ACU when appropriate (e.g. a nation wide organizing drive at Wal-Mart, mass protests against the destruction of union pension plans, elimination of funding for section 10 public housing, closing of public schools in communities, benefits for the unemployed, etc.).

Summary Comments on Organizational Change:

The above organizational proposals are only initial suggestions. There are many unanswered and other critical questions not addressed by these proposals. And it is recognized that the proposals themselves raise important new questions requiring further consideration and discussion. But the proposals flow from the fundamental premise that labor, as structured today, has shown over the past quarter century it is not capable of effectively dealing with the current Corporate Offensive. Nor will it be in the period immediately ahead as that Corporate Offensive intensifies further.

The AFL-CIO as structured today does some things well, others poorly, and still others very poorly or not at all. The revitalization of American Labor must be based on a massive new organizing campaign that will have to employ totally new strategies and tactics in order to bring in 10 million new members over the next decade. Organizing via the NLRB or even card checks won’t do it. But new approaches to organizing can only be successful if a real mobilization of the union base occurs and if this mobilization also includes the unorganized and community allies in ways not previously developed. Structural change at the top, as well as down to the local level, are both necessary to facilitate the new organizing and a new mobilization of Labor. Achieving union density in numbers is essential. But density in numbers and density in bargaining units are not necessarily the same thing, and the latter won’t happen without aggregating unions eventually at some point into new sectoral organizations. Nor will union density in any sense result without creating a new structure dedicated to the mission of mobilizing new local forces, union and non-union alike, around concrete conflicts and struggles like organizing drives, boycotts, strike support, corporate campaigns, community demands and protests, and the like.

The road back will of course not be easy. Labor’s historic shock troops in manufacturing have been decimated over the past twenty-five years and face even greater challenges immediately ahead trying to stop even further offshoring and outsourcing. The construction trades unions were ripped apart even earlier, in the 1970s, by the open shop drive led at the time by the Construction Users Business Roundtable (now just Business Roundtable), and then forced into major metropolitan enclaves where once guaranteed prevailing wages are now under at¬tack by corporate-government forces. The manufacturing unions have been shredded by corporate ‘Free Trade’ policies, runaway shops, out-sourcing and offshoring now for a quarter century. The Teamsters union has been driven into a corner by deregulation and the undermining of their once premier National Freight Agreement. Meanwhile, a new assault on the public employee unions’ basic right to bargain for their members and their pension benefits has begun to take shape. At the same time at the political-legislative level, a massive financial commitment and political restructuring by the corporate elite of the Republican Party and a corresponding shift in the leadership of the Democratic Party have enabled the corporate offensive to outflank and overwhelm liberal elements in Congress and within the Democratic Party itself. Given these realities, while not abandoning political action, workers and unions must nevertheless return to their roots, their base, as their first priority and rebuild and mobilize anew.
That rebuilding requires a new structure at the top but only if it is based on a new open, democratic structure at the bottom as well. That new structure at all levels should seek to create a new kind of rank and file and new forms of cross-union solidarity activities that generate solidarity not only intra-union but across unions and between unions and community organizations as well. Most importantly, that structure must be willing to release the energy and creativity of the union membership itself without which there is virtually no possibility of organizing 10 million new members, restoring union bargaining and political density, or having the slightest chance that workers may yet check the current Corporate Offensive — an offensive about to intensify still further in the months immediately ahead,

A Concluding Thought:

Sitting recently in a local working class truck stop, I had the occasion to order a cheap cup of coffee. It had brewed for too many hours in a pot that probably hadn’t been cleaned out for some time, producing that sharp bitter taste that neither cheap saccharin nor chemical creamer can tame. The coffee was bad. Period. But on the side of the cup were the words of WE.B. Dubois, the great Black thinker and activist of early 20th century America, written sometime back in the 1920s or 1930s no doubt, which said simply: “It is time to stop thinking what you are and to start thinking about what you can become” I drank the coffee slowly, savoring every word with each sip of the brackish brew. And I thought about the words of another many years ago who said to me as a younger man: “The first act of change is not the doing. It’s not even believing you can do it. It’s seeing what you’ve done before it even happens".

Copyright 2006 & 2014

Jack Rasmus, The War At Home: The Corporate Offensive From Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, Kyklos Productions LLC, San Ramon, CA, 2006

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"The lyrics and music of the play's two theme songs: 'The Song of Solidarity' and 'Song of the New Unionism' are particularly memorable, representing in musical form the main premise of the play."

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