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When Harry Kelber, the 96 year old relentless labor advocate and editor of The Labor Educator speaks, the leadership of the AFL-CIO should listen. A vigorous champion for the rights of rank-and-file workers vis-à-vis their corporate employers and their labor union leaders, Kelber has recently completed a series of five articles titled “Reasons Why the AFL-CIO Is Broken; Let Us Start a Debate on How to Fix It.”
The reaction: Silence from union leaders, their union publications and at union gatherings.
Kelber, operating out of a tiny New York City office, knows more firsthand about unions, their historical triumphs, their contemporary deficiencies and their potential for tens of millions of working families than almost anyone in the country. Over the decades, no one has written more widely distributed pamphlets that cogently and concisely explain unions, the labor movement and anti-worker restrictive laws like the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, than this honest, sensitive worker campaigner.
At a perilous period for both working and unemployed Americans, facing deep recession, corporate abandonment to China and other repressive regimes, and the Republicans’ virulent assault on livelihoods and labor rights, Kelber believes that AFL-CIO should be on the ramparts. Instead, he sees it as moribund, hunkering down, with control of the power and purse concentrated in the hands of the silent and Sphinx-like Federation officers and the tiny clique of bureaucrats who run the show.
“In the AFL-CIO, the rank-and-file have no voice in electing their officials, because only the candidates of the Old Guard can be on the ballot,” he writes.
Certainly, the AFL-CIO is not reflecting the old adage that when “the going gets tough, the tough get going.” They recoil from any public criticism of Barack Obama, who disregards or/and humiliates them by his actions.
Mr. Obama promised labor in 2008 to press for a $9.50 federal minimum wage by 2011, and the Employee Free Choice Act, especially “card check,” and then forgot about both commitments. He has not spoken out and vigorously fought for an adequate OSHA inspection and enforcement budget to diminish the tens of thousands of workplace related fatalities every year. He’s been too busy managing drones, Kandahar and outlying regions of the quagmire of our undeclared wars.
Nothing Obama does seems to publically rile the AFL-CIO. In February, he crossed Lafayette Square from the White House with great fanfare to visit his pro-Republican opponents at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce yet declined to go around the corner and visit the AFL-CIO headquarters. Where was the public objection from the House of Labor?
He prevents his vice-president from responding to the Wisconsin state federation of Labor’s invitation to address the biggest rally in Madison, Wisconsin protesting labor’s arch enemy, Republican Governor Scott Walker. Biden, a self-styled “union guy”, wanted to go but the political operatives in the White House said NO. Still no public objection from Labor’s leaders.
Kelber describes the lack of a strong, funded national and international strategy to deal with the growing gap between rich and poor and the expanding shipment of both blue and white collar jobs abroad. He laments AFL-CIO’s failure to develop a “working relation with the new global unions that are challenging transnational corporations and winning some agreements.” He also notes that the AFL’s top leaders “have minimal influence at world labor conferences. They rarely attend them, even when they are invited.”
Pushing for higher wages and worker rights in the poorer developing countries, including the adoption of International Labor Organization (ILO) standards has great merit and is also a constructive way to also protect American workers.
Kelber believes it is obvious “that U.S. cooperation with labor unions from other countries with the same employer is the best way to organize giant multinationals, but the AFL-CIO has spent little time, money and resources in building close working relations with unions from abroad.”
What is restraining AFL-CIO’s President Richard Trumka? A former coal miner, then a coal miners’ lawyer, and president of the United Mine Workers, Mr. Trumka has been at the Federation for over a decade. He knows the politics of the AFL-CIO, makes great speeches about callous corporatism around the country, and has a useful website detailing corporate greed.
Unfortunately, words aside, he is not putting real, bold muscle behind the needs of America’s desperate workers.
He can start by shaking up his bureaucracy and put forth an emancipation manifesto of democratic reforms internal to the unions themselves and external to the government and the corporate giants. They all go together.
When I asked Harry Kelber whether there were any unions he admires, he named the fast-growing California Nurses Association (CNA) and the United Electrical Workers.
CNA’s executive director Rose Ann DeMoro is on the AFL-CIO Board and has urged Mr. Trumka to be more aggressive. She has secured his stepped-up support for a Wall Street financial speculation tax that could bring in over $300 billion a year. He may even join her and the nurses in a symbolic picketing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce headquarters next month.
The ever fundamental Kelber, however, sees a plan B if the AFL-CIO does not change. “Union members should be thinking about creating a new bottoms-up labor federation,” he urges, reminding them that in the nineteen thirties, the Committee of Industrial Organizations (CIO) seceded from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and went on “to organize millions of workers in such major corporations as General Motors, General Electric, U.S. Steel, Westinghouse, Hormel and others.”
The new labor federation, he envisions, for today’s times would be controlled by the membership and led by local unions and central labor councils that are impatient with the sluggish leadership of their international union presidents.
Harry Kelber, you epitomize the saying that “the only true aging is the erosion of one’s ideals.”