Dear Brother Sweeney: An Open Letter to Labor's New Leader

With John Sweeney as the new president of the
AFL-CIO, we now have a labor leader too militant for the
New York Times.
Times is partly upset because Sweeney's union, the Service Employees
International Union (SEIU), once blocked the Roosevelt Bridge in D.C., as part
of the Justice for Janitors Campaign. In Washington, this may be the one type of
gridlock that can get the country moving.

There may be some symmetry in Sweeney's election as president of the AFL-CIO and
the gutting of Medicare in the Republican House the same week. This historian
Fernand Braudel observed an inverse relation between "the welfare state"
and "labor militancy." In Europe, he wrote, labor was most militant
before the welfare state took hold. Well, wasn't U.S. Labor stronger before the
Great Society?

Does that mean Gingrich's moment is Sweeney's moment? Not yet, no. Sweeney's
challenge is just to keep a spark alive, even if it's just 10 percent of the
private sector, unitl there is a break in the political weather. But how does he
do even this modest tending of the flame? Sweeney didn't ask me for my opinion,
but I thought I'd give it anyway.

Dear Brother Sweeney,

I once had a Letterman-like "Top Ten List" of ways to keep Labor
going. But in this era of downsizing, I have cut it to seven.

7. Move the headquarters south.

The whole country has moved there. Why not you? The South is where the
people go. Where the jobs go. That's the real U.S., like it or not. The South is
like being on television. If you aren't in the South, you don't exist. But as
every organizer knows, people in the South regard Labor as a hostile, northern,
"alien corn" kind of thing. So how to counter that? Move there. Leave
Nora's, the Tabard Inn, the escalator at Dupont Circle, which is just dragging
you down anyway. Follow the janitors, gardeners, home health aides to the South.
By the next century, the word "South" should mean "Labor,"
the way it now means "Elvis imitator" or "grits."

Now I can hear the shrieking in D.C. "How can we leave?" "It's
impractical, it's too expensive, we've got to be close to the legislative
action." Well, you can move down there slowly, very sloooowly . . . the way
Helmut Kohl is moving to Berlin. Second, what do you do in D.C. anyway, except
deal with a lot of southern politicians?

Go to the places they're from. And not Atlanta, either. We don't need to see
union presidents in ballparks doing tomahawk chops on national TV.

No, I'd put headquarters in Texas. It will grow the fastest, and have the
biggest influx of Hispanics, who tend to like unions. But not Austin, damn it.
Not Austin, with the intellectuals and the hormone-free croissants. Something
more austere, like Brownsville. When and if Labor gets back up to 15 percent of
the private sector . . . then maybe we can start talking Austin.

6. Start a fight at the Democratic Convention.

Not a riot, just a fight. Father Andrew Greeley once said somewhere, "If
you want people to notice you, start a fight." John L. Lewis, when he
started the CIO, went out of his way to pick a fight with the old AFL, because
it gets you noticed. So who do you start a fight with? The Democrats, of course.
Now don't gasp. Of course, I'm for Clinton. I'm hardly in favor of a Third
Party. Does the Christian Right start a Third Party? No, they take over the
Republican one. But I am in favor of a big, splashy fight, and people would love
it, as they loved it when Lewis blasted "Big Labor."

The fight I have in mind is not over Clinton, but the platform. Sit down and
write your own platform, as a single seamless "Manifesto on Wages."
The preamble should be, as you put it so well in your convention speech, "America
needs a raise." Then go out of your way to say, "It's not Job
Training, it's not anything we've been saying in the old platforms. . . . It's
not the Government. Just: You're Getting Robbed at Work." And explain it.

Pitch out all those unreadable Democrat platforms of yore, and write one, around
one idea: higher living standards.

  • A guaranteed living wage, with profit sharing.

  • A guaranteed four-week vacation for employees with five years or more, and
    a guarantee of three weeks to all with more than one year.

  • A defined pension plan for all employees. Half the workforce are now in

  • Unemployment compensation at one-half of salary, and two-thirds if it's
    not "business necessity."

  • Labor courts for all, yes, all, even white male discharges (is that the
    right way to put it?).

  • Full fringe benefits for part-timers and contract workers, to discourage
    the move to contingent work.

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Better yet, take over the Democratic Party. There's no "there" there.
If we can't take over the Democratic Party, there's no point in starting a third

Such a takeover may be a ten-year project. But do it like the Christian Right.
Don't back "prolabor" candidates, run union people instead. They don't
have to hold every office, as the Christian Right learned from Lenin or maybe
the Mafia, but just be there at every level, at some key spot.

In Europe it makes sense to disentangle labor from the left or left-center
party. But in Europe labor has a much stronger presence and center-left parties
are serious about brokering social contracts. Here, for years to come, there is
nothing to broker, because a labor movement scarcely exists and the Dems are so
defensive. In effect, in the U.S. now, it might as well be 1880. When we get two
sides to the table again, then, then, we can talk about disentangling Labor and
the Democratic Party again.

5. Form caucuses that cut across unions.

There is talk about turning Labor into an AARP. They say, "Since we can't
raise wages, let's just offer `services.'" Unions already offer Visa cards
and the like. Now this is crazy. If Labor can't raise wages, what's the point?
Raising wages is exactly what labor does in other countries, like northern
Europe. All German labor does, really, is to raise wages. Many of the "services"
that we provide through unions, grievance handling, etc., are done by the works
councils there. Anyway, the First Service is just to raise people's wages.

But within Labor, for your own members, there can be more "services"
to offer:

  • Represent more people in pension grievances.

  • Why not be their ombudsman with the HMOs?

  • Start more "caucuses," with newsletters, 800 numbers, etc., that
    cut across old union lines.

For instance, what about a "Single Working Mothers' Caucus"? But I
would offer these services only to union members. Maybe use them as bait to
bring more people in, so you can raise more people's wages. An AARP-like
organization such as the group Working Today, is a fine idea for the nonunion
majority. It might even warm up more people to collective action. But this is
work from which Labor should stay away.

4. Use direct democracy for more black (and Hispanic and female) leaders.

But don't ruin this with affirmative action. Unions already have many
women and minorities. Just let more members vote directly for their top leaders,
and it will produce more integrated leadership. If there were more rank-and-file
elections, you'd have more stump speakers at the head of unions, and some would
be African American, and Hispanic, and female. Soon, we'd have black (female,
Hispanic) union leaders who can go on TV, or lead a march, or both.

It makes me cringe to see people, lamblike, go to the polls with no one, as in
the old New Deal days, to articulate what their real interests are. Even the
rich have their lawyers, right? The cynical majority need more people "like
us" or who look "like us" just to tell them how to vote.

The great thing about Rich Trumka (Mineworkers) and Ron Carey (Teamsters) who
led the break with Lane Kirkland is that each man had his own authentic base.
Each was elected by the rank and file.

You need someone who can lead, really lead, a Million Worker March for a $7.00
minimum wage.

3. Organize! And pull in the kids.

Of course, you've already done this as well as anyone in the labor
movement. You're the master. Maybe as wages fall the AFL-CIO may be this new
refuge for kids who already know something is terribly wrong.

The Boss already senses this. The invites on the union-busting seminars now
claim: "College kids are now organizers!" "College kids with
nose rings ARE IN YOUR HOME STATE!" So keep doing what you're doing, only
more so. Write to Gingrich, as I have, to kill Bill Clinton's national service
corps. The best place for idealistic kids to go is into union organizing.

Organizing is also great public relations. There's no way a meeting of
middle-aged guys in suits at Bal Harbour can generate a good story-and no way a
bunch of kids organizing nursing-home workers can generate a bad one.

They say you're going to spend $20 million on organizing. But as you know well,
$20 million is nothing. An SEIU organizer, whom I'd never seen, stopped me the
other day and said, "Twenty million? In one city, Justice for Janitors can
cost nine!" The legal battles go on for years. So how do you raise more?

  • Tap the Strike Funds? How can you have a successful "strike"
    anyway until more people are organized? The UAW alone has a billion-dollar
    strike fund.

  • Go to foundations? I think Lane Kirkland is still sitting on half of their
    boards. Which reminds me: Ask to get on every foundation board you can.

  • Try living off the land, with an 800 number, like Jerry Brown. He raised a
    ton of money, in a few weeks, from frustrated ordinary people. You could
    spotlight one state at a time. A "Texas" fund for Texans. An "L.A."
    fund for Angelenos.

Plenty of nonunion liberals might send in a few bucks. I'd pledge, just as I do
with public radio. Make it clear that the money goes only to organizers! Nobody
wants to pay for a business agent.

2. Stop the fatalism about the global economy.

The more you complain about the global economy, the more you encourage
people to give up. First, how do you know it is the global economy? Is that
what's driving down the wages of janitors? Have wages in other countries, like
Germany, stagnated like ours?

Second, look around Labor today. How many negotiators, in their entire careers,
deal with an employer's threat to move abroad? One out of twenty, if that?
Mostly they threaten to move to the South. (See number one above.) The people
you're going to organize-fast-food workers, nurses' aides, retail clerks,
back-office workers-aren't threatened by jobs moving abroad.

1. Understand Media.

How about a good video! You can't get in company parking lots any more,
thanks to a decision written by Clarence Thomas. But if parking lots are
off-limits, we can still get in people's sets.

Perhaps we can get the stars to help. Go to the Hollywood Women's Political
Caucus and say: "You really want to do something for women? Get them a
higher wage . . . and shorter hours!"

Our side already has Whoopi Goldberg. How hard is it to add a Newman, or Barbara
Streisand? Start changing the tone of the debate. Let's have a Cindy Crawford
type saying, "Hey, I have an agent represent me . . . . Why not have an
agent represent YOU?" Or a Cal Ripken video on Showing up Daily on the
Picket Line. And by the way, where is Norman Lear?

And if you can't afford TV, get on radio. Every week, at least once, in a major
media market, you should have someone on talk radio. And open up Labor, from top
to bottom, so everyone, shop steward, associate in-house counsel, the janitor
who organizes-everyone can go on. Don't wait for one day a year, Labor Day, for
the Big Boss.

Why not start a radio network, too? The FCC is handing out stations, on the new
digital audio radio system, "DARS." No one listens to DARS now because
no one has the sets. Twenty years ago, no one could play a compact disc. But
there is a good chance, by 2020, DARS is all we'll listen to. Why isn't Labor
lining up for channels?

Well, it will take more than Seven Ideas to change Labor. But I hope your very
election has opened up the place to fresh thinking. If nothing else, remember:
Your first job, as AFL-CIO president, is to get us out of D.C.

Fast. Before the Republicans block a bridge.

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