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July, 2005

Crisis in the AFL-CIO Shows Need for Labor To Take Up Program Of The Dispossessed

By People's Tribune Staff

For more than a year, the AFL-CIO has been embroiled in an intense struggle to determine its national leadership and future direction. This struggle could culminate at the labor federation's national convention which opens July 25 at Chicago's Navy Pier. It now appears likely that at least one major union - and possibly as many as three more -may withdraw from the AFL-CIO soon. This could set the stage for two separate trade union federations in the United States.

As this edition of the People's Tribune goes to press, it is impossible to know the precise outcome of the intense maneuvering currently going on. However, irrespective of the specific organizational results of this maneuvering, one thing will remain true (and decisive): The crisis in organized labor shows the urgent need for the trade union movement to take up the program of the dispossessed.

The struggle in the AFL-CIO has sparked a healthy discussion among trade unionists and the friends of organized labor about the future of the union movement. This discussion needs to continue - and be deepened. The debate is not enhanced by abstract calls for "unity" which never indicate who is to be united with (or for what purpose), or general appeals to "organize" which avoid indicating what program people will be organized around. The crisis in the AFL-CIO has to be seen as part of the crisis affecting all major institutions in our society. This crisis is a reflection of the profound economic changes sweeping the globe.

In news articles about a possible split within the AFL-CIO, reference is often made to the famous split at the American Federation of Labor convention in 1935 which led to the formation of the CIO. This comparison ignores the fact that the situation today is different. In 1935, industry dominated the economy of the United States. The factories of the mass production industries required literally millions of people in order to operate at full capacity. In 1935, workers could sing the verse in the union song "Solidarity Forever" which declares "Without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel could turn" with certainty. At that time, that proud statement was true. In the 1930s, the debate within the union movement was over how to enlist those millions of industrial workers into the ranks of organized labor. GM's recent announcement of yet another round of job cuts shows how different the situation is today - qualitatively different. By the time GM finishes with this new round of job cuts, it will only employ as many hourly production workers in the entire United States as it employed in the city of Flint, Michigan alone in 1970.

Today, the introduction of qualitatively new means of production -electronics and robotics - is polarizing society economically. This new reality means that the way things are distributed is no longer compatible with the way things are produced - and Americans are feeling the consequences. Those who once benefited from "middle class" incomes, job security, affordable housing, access to health care and education, and retirement income are now joining those who could never expect anything from the system. The "middle" in American society is being destroyed, opening the way for something new. This can be seen vividly in the U.S. trade union movement, a movement whose stated goal for some time has been to make it possible for its members to join the "middle class."

These attacks on labor are unfolding at the same time that this country's rulers are moving to eliminate every barrier to the free movement of capital throughout the world - and this stance has the support of both major political parties in the United States.

Given this situation, the trade union movement has to change. The choice cannot be between staying on the current course or simply devoting more money and personnel to organizing without a clear program. When the capitalist system was expanding, the social struggle was marked by the back-and-forth sparring between workers and employers, and the struggle of oppressed groups for access to the system. At that moment in history, the trade union movement could be organized for such sparring. Today, something different is needed. The profound economic changes in society are tearing all old alliances apart. The connection between the working class and the capitalist class is being broken by the development of production without human labor. A new class is arising with no connection to the system and no stake in it.

This new situation demands that organized labor think in new ways. Today, the emphasis should not be on "who's in" or "who's out" of the AFL-CIO - or who's up or who's down in the furious jockeying for position currently going on within the trade union movement. Instead, to be productive, the discussion must focus on: What's right and what's wrong? What is labor's program?

Labor's program must be the broadest possible unity and most energetic struggle in defense of this new class of the destitute and marginalized. This means fighting for universal health care for all. It means fighting for free, quality public education for all, and for the rights of immigrant workers, documented and undocumented. It means not only championing the struggles of those who are employed and potential dues-paying union members, but the interests of the unemployed and retired and very young as well. It means putting forward independent class politics instead of relying on a Democratic Party which has made absolutely clear that it represents only the interests of capital. (The June 30 vote by the U.S. Senate to pass the Central America Free Trade Agreement was a particularly glaring example of this representation by the Democrats.)

The days and months ahead could be marked by great strife within the house of labor. Whether that strife will change the union movement for the better or destroy it will depend not so much on who wins a particular office or which unions stay in the AFL-CIO or leave it, but rather on what program organized labor rallies around. The stakes have never been higher. Today, the development of electronics and robotics means that it really is possible to "build a new world from the ashes of the old" -that is, to create a cooperative society. The place to start the struggle for that new world is through the development of an independent political program that organizationally defends the needs and interests of the rapidly growing new class of dispossessed.

This article originated in the People's Tribune
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