The parades, picnics and breakfasts that once marked this end-of-summer holiday have faded some in recent years, but one Labor Day tradition that seems to have survived intact is that on this one day of the year it is allowed to mention such a thing as the "working class" and raise the question of just how well America's economic system treats the people who work for someone else - and perhaps even to also dream about something better. This, of course, is what the American labor movement does 365 days a year - or at least is supposed to. So, on this Labor Day, it seems very much to the point to note the change that's definitely coming to the labor movement, along with an unusual opportunity to exert influence well beyond the confines of its current membership.
The change that's coming for sure is that later this month the AFL-CIO will elect a new President at its convention in Pittsburgh - something that doesn't happen too often. Whether there will be an even larger change in how the organization positions itself in American politics depends on how it chooses to deal with the wave of resolutions that members have submitted to the convention in support of HR 676, the federal Single Payer Health Care bill.
Now, like Labor Day itself, the AFL-CIO might not be what it used to be, with the defection of the ten unions that formed the rival Change to Win federation coming on top of the long decline in the percentage of the workforce who belong to unions. But even if the defecting unions were not to return (which it seems likely they will actually do, although precisely when is not clear), the AFL-CIO presidency remains the nation's single most important union office, a status it has maintained since Samuel Gompers became president of the American Federation of Labor in 1886, long before there was a Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Gompers went on to serve for nearly forty years. And terms limits never did catch on in American unions, so a total of only five men have occupied the Federation's presidency for 121 of the 123 years of its existence. This alone makes Richard Trumka's ascension to the office a matter of some moment, even if it will come in an uncontested election. (In fact, current President John Sweeney's first election in 1995 was the first and thus far only one to be contested since the AFL-CIO's 1955 merger.)
Trumka, who's served as Secretary-Treasurer these past fourteen years, immediately walks into a potentially defining situation as the convention deals with the health care debate. These days the AFL-CIO only holds conventions every four years, so a lot has changed since the last one. One thing that has happened is that 556 union organizations - of all sizes and varieties and from 49 states - have endorsed HR 676, including 39 of the AFL-CIO's state level organizations. And more than 40 of those organizations, including the Wisconsin and South Carolina state federations, have submitted draft resolutions calling for the national organization to follow suit.
So far as content goes, Trumka should be perfectly comfortable with this, having told the August Netroots Nation Convention that "My preference, and the feeling of many in the labor movement, is that we should have a single payer health care system." To say the least, the AFL-CIO did not position itself as pro-single payer earlier this year when its online healthcare survey, which drew over 26,000 respondents, failed to even mention single payer.
Of course, President Obama has made the occasional pro-single payer statement in the past himself and Trumka's more typical statements run along the lines that the AFL-CIO "won't support the bill if it doesn't have the public option." Also reducing the likelihood of the convention making waves is the fact that White House operatives are doubtless even now giving the AFL-CIO leadership multiple earfuls about how the Federation ought not to embarrass the President by supporting legislation that "can't pass" - particularly as he is slated to address the gathering.
But then not much about this health care debate has gone according to plan. Of course there really never was much of a plan and that constitutes a major part of the problem. Right now, the White House appears to consider the ideal position for its supporters to adopt to be readiness to back whatever piece of legislation it ultimately decides it can get through Congress - with a little Republican support. And if this means not only scuttling the real single payer solution and even eliminating any "public option" that could make a dent in the health insurance market, well the President has got to pass something. But because the process has not gone according to schedule, the bill which was to have been passed by the time the AFL-CIO arrived in Pittsburgh will not have been, giving the organization a tremendous better-late-than-never opportunity to fill a national leadership gap.
The labor movement is being given a chance to demonstrate its relevance on a silver platter. If it can only keep a grasp on the principles that knowing that you may not be likely to prevail does not necessitate surrender and that negotiations must start from what you actually believe in, not from what you're told you can have, Trumka and the ten million member AFL-CIO can do a great service. That is, they can give the Administration not what it wants, but what it - and the country - really needs - clarity and the beginnings of a legitimate mass movement for an adequate universal health care system.