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. The 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 nothing.


  • 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 one.

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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