Labor Fights Terrorism and Bush Simultaneously
AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney, a balding, pudgy, sixtyish man in suspenders, makes an unlikely revolutionary. But when he was elected in 1995, he vowed to revolutionize what was then a moribund 13-million member organization. Six years later, Sweeney can claim much credit. He has helped revitalize American labor by focusing on both old-fashioned organizing and new campaigns to build bridges with political, church, community and immigrant activist groups.
On the other hand, labor's challenges remain daunting. Union membership has stagnated, with only about 12 percent of American workers now represented by a union. Republicans, the traditional foe of organized labor, occupy the White House and a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives. Some 650 unionized workers died in the Sept. 11 attacks, and the economic recession following in its wake has resulted in the layoffs of hundreds of thousands. Post-attack emergency legislation -- from the airport-industry deal to the proposed economic stimulus program -- has not addressed labor concerns.
Against that crisis backdrop, the AFL-CIO held its biennial convention last week, where this interview with Sweeney took place.
QUESTION: How have the events of Sept. 11 and their aftermath affected the priorities and political focus of organized labor?
ANSWER: It's a national disgrace the way workers have been treated. We supported the president and his administration in the war on terrorism from the very first day. Many of our members are a part of the increased military activity. We saw the airline industry bailed out in Congress. We were assured that worker protection issues would be taken up as quickly as possible. Yet, despite all that's going on with things like moving to bail out the insurance industry and to enact airplane security legislation, the people who are suffering the most -- the hundreds of thousands of laid-off workers -- have not had their issues of unemployment insurance and health-care coverage addressed. It is insulting to workers who make this country run.
Q: You've noted that congressional Republicans like Dick Armey (R-Texas) and Tom DeLay (R-Texas) have failed to address the issues of workers. But what about your traditional Democratic allies? There have been reports that you were pretty angry with them as well. Why didn't Democrats put up any significant resistance to that original airline-bailout bill?
A: We thought it was wrong not to include worker protections in the airline bailout bill, and we still think that it's wrong that our issues haven't been addressed. We really have been trying to move both Democrats and Republicans on this issue. I think, though, that the Democrats, under the leadership of [Sen. Tom] Daschle and [Rep. Richard A.] Gephardt, have taken some strong initiatives and have been trying their damnedest to get worker protections. It's clear that the administration, along with the Armeys and the DeLays, are not interested in real worker protection.
Q: As we speak, the country is now officially in a recession. We have an economic-stimulus bill that's stalled on Capitol Hill. Is there anything in that bill that you think is going to benefit your constituency in this decline?
A: Well, there are really two proposals out there. One is the House bill, which contains tax revisions that are clearly anti-worker while benefitting corporations and the wealthy. The Senate Finance Committee proposal is a fairer proposal that does attempt to address worker issues in a meaningful way. But the administration is not supporting the Senate proposal and, as far as we're concerned, until both houses come up with a bill that has real health coverage and increased unemployment insurance, we're not going to be satisfied.
Q: You say that labor has lined up with the administration on the war on terrorism. How difficult a balancing act is it to be supporting the administration on the war at the same time you're engaged in tough battles on economic and social issues?
A: I really think that we're in two wars: the war on terrorism and the war against workers. It's insulting that business leaders and people in government do not want to take care of workers. I don't know how we raise the public's perception of all of this. You know, the president's getting good marks for the war against the terrorists, but he is neglecting the domestic war.
Q: A war on workers. Isn't that a bit overstated?
A: I wouldn't be saying it if I thought it was overstated. I think it's very clear that we have an anti-worker administration in Washington. It didn't just start on Sept. 11. The recession didn't start on Sept. 11. There are hundreds of thousands of people suffering out there, without unemployment insurance, without health coverage. Many of our state [programs] are facing bankruptcy, and the states need some help in order to supplement these programs.
Q: In the realm of real politics today, what are the top issues that you would like to see a turnaround on from this administration?
A: The best way to stimulate the economy is to put money in the pockets of workers, because they spend their money on consumer goods and put their money right back into the economy. Tax breaks for the wealthy are not going to do anything to stimulate the economy. So, that's a short-term strong priority. We will also continue to oppose trade agreements like fast track that do not include core labor standards and environmental protections. We think this is not only important for workers here in our own country but for our trading partners' workers as well. In the long run, we're calling for a close look at the manufacturing industries to see what has happened to manufacturing. We need to look, for example, at the steel companies that are going bankrupt. And then we need to look at how trade policies have contributed to that situation.
Q: One of the issues that the AFL-CIO has taken up in the last couple of years has been immigration. And it looked, before Sept. 11, like this administration might have been ready to embrace immigration reform as well. Do you believe that the immigration reform issue went up in flames on Sept. 11? Or is meaningful reform still possible?
A: I don't think the immigration movement has gone up in flames. I think that it has been delayed, and the momentum has slowed a bit. But ultimately, the direction in which we were heading prior to Sept. 11 is the right direction for our country to be going. Immigration policy doesn't have to interfere with our security. Immigrants have contributed so much to our country throughout its history. They deserve the same protections as any other workers in our country.
Q: When you were elected to the presidency six years ago, one of the central issues that you put forward was growth in union membership. Generally speaking, the sort of growth that you said would be vital for the future of the labor movement has not happened. Why?
A: Nobody ever said that we were going to double our membership over the short term, but we have set goals for ourselves, and a lot has been happening. Unions have been putting more resources into organizing, and more strategic campaigns have been undertaken. There has been growth. We may have slowed down a little bit since September because of the high layoffs. But the bottom line is that we're organizing for the long term. I think that after we recover from this recession, the programs we're developing will produce significant growth.
Q: It has been proposed that we are in a new economy, different from any previous one, and that in that economy of e-commerce and telecommuting, unions are an anachronism. What do you say to those who say that unions are part of the past and can't really help individual workers today?
A: I think we have to take a little bit of the blame ourselves. We haven't changed as fast as we should have. We were negligent in not addressing the new industries and the new growth in employment. But, I think, over the past few years, we have been moving in the direction of change. We have been addressing the issues of young workers and new workers, and we have been really opening up our unions and achieving more diversity. We also, though, have to take more risk in trying new programs that focus on younger workers, as well as on people of color and women.
Marc Cooper is a contributing editor to The Nation magazine and a columnist for the LA Weekly. A version of this article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.