A.F.L.-C.I.O. Convention; Winds of Change in Big Labor

Article excerpt


Winds of Change In Big Labor

On the afternoon of Tuesday, October 29, Ken Blaylock, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, stepped up to a floor mike at the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s biennial convention to speak in support of the federation's amended resolution on Central America.

He had been to El Salvador and had seen "miles of homes destroyed,' he said. "It makes you wonder what our government is all about. I look at Iran, South Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador. Just once, I would love my government to be on the side of the people, not on the side of rich dictators living behind high walls.' Blaylock spoke for five minutes, and when he was done, the way American labor makes policy had changed measurably.

It is not that Blaylock harbors insurrectionary impulses against the A.F.L.-C.I.O. leadership; on the contrary, he is a longtime loyalist. But that made him the ideal person, from the noninterventionists' standpoint, to open what turned into a ninety-minute debate. The concession in the resolution that the noninterventionist forces wrung from the A.F.L.-C.I.O. leadership was not momentous. It consisted of a statement calling for a negotiated settlement in Nicaragua. But the exchange that preceded it was the first open debate on foreign policy at an A.F.L.-C.I.O. convention in the federation's thirty-year history and the result marked the first time the federation's foreign policy establishment had to compromise its position. "In terms of how foreign policy is made by this organization,' said New England Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers leader Ed Clark, who spoke against the motion because it did not oppose aid to the contras, "a radical change is taking place.'

Change--at times radical, at times grudging, now initiated by the leadership, now forced on it--is finally coming to the American labor movement. Only this past year has labor fully comprehended the magnitude of the disasters that confront it and the inadequacy of its response. Chronically high unemployment, a globalized labor market, sectoral and sectional shifts in the work force, an Administration that has reduced the National Labor Relations Act to a scrap of paper and corporations' gleeful exploitation of all those developments have combined to reduce the proportion of union members in the nonagricultural work force to a postwar low of 18.8 percent. Wages for private-sector employees have fallen 4.3 percent against inflation since 1979. Nine percent of all contracts signed in 1985 contain two-tier clauses, under which new employees work at a lower pay scale than did their predecessors. Management seeks to provoke strikes, unions to avoid them. "The world of our workers,' said Morty Bahr, the new president of the Communications Workers, "has come crashing down upon them.'

The A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s fifteenth biennial convention offered ample evidence that labor has begun to respond to the challenge on all fronts: organization, politics, social and foreign policy. As yet, changes in organizing strategy have come more from the top than from the bottom. Some internationals now bypass the National Labor Relations Board altogether in their organizing campaigns [see Stephen F. Diamond, "No Friends in Labor's Court,' The Nation, December 14, 1985]. The Food and Commercial Workers in particular make heavy use of local radio and television commercials. The Hotel and Restaurant Employees, in their successful drive to unionize clerical workers at Yale University, have demonstrated that potent labor-community coalitions can be built around such causes as comparable worth.

One of the most potentially far-reaching changes in organizing strategy adopted at the convention was the decision to accept associate members. These are workers the federation wants to enroll even though they are not contractually represented by member unions. To this end the federation is designing a range of discounted progrmas--insurance, credit unions, buying plans, individual retirement accounts, even a low-interest credit card--that internationals could offer to workers who once were organized or who tried to organize and failed or who could yet be organized. …