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Excerpt: "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."

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka leads a protest march On Wall Street, 04/28/10. (photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka leads a protest march On Wall Street, 04/28/10. (photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Revitalizing the AFL-CIO

By Ralph Nader, Reader Supported News

26 May 11


hen 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-a-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 US 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 US 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 US 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, US 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."

Visit Harry Kelber's website for more of his insights. your social media marketing partner


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+2 # Monty Gee 2011-05-27 00:15
There's traditionally been a disconnect between unionised workers in the advanced economies - the more or less imperialistic - and those in the Third World. It boiled down to the inequality in trade relations between nations, from workers in the advanced economies stood to gain and those in the Third World invariably lost. It is naive to expect that the American labor movement can expect to mobilize global support from labor representatives in countries to which the US is losing jobs
+9 # sharag 2011-05-27 00:34
Ralph should be President
+7 # H.M. 2011-05-27 02:32
This description of these union heads sounds like it was taken from William Greider's book "Who Will Tell The People" as he describes the heads of the Democratic Party. Good grief, how do we dump these turkeys and get some new blood in!
+6 # LegacyCost 2011-05-27 07:09
Mr Kelber's description of the CNA/NNU is accurate. They alone in labor have been steadfast in championing a universal health care system. AFL-CIO only recently bowed to their membership to advocate for same.
+3 # davidhp 2011-05-27 09:10
But the CNA/NNU is elitist only representing nurses and not all health care workers - you can't push for progressive actions when you ignore your coworkers in healthcare.
+9 # davidhp 2011-05-27 09:08
As a union staff person and long time union member, unions need to get back to the militant stands they took when fighting for the rights we have now that are being attacked and taken away. We need to quit supporting a Democrat Party which fails to deliver - put our money into a real labor party and fight like hell for the workers. Unions talk about about bottom up leadership but it is all lies - they rely of political donations rather than militant actions and politics have failed the labor movement again and again. Time for workers to take control of their unions from those in the positions of power and to take to the streets to maintain our rights as workers.
+4 # enrique 2011-05-27 09:34
There is something wrong with Obama. Many of his former supporters instinctively know this and will not lift a finger this time. Since we don't have a viable third party, we'll wind up with a Republican president. We desperately need a Democrat presidential candidate. Who can handle this sticky wicket?
+7 # Diane Johnson 2011-05-27 10:31
Ralph! team up with someone like Bernie Sanders... it'll be a shoo in!
+4 # in deo veritas 2011-05-27 12:00
In order for us to survive as a nation we have to have an alternative to the 2-party (NO PARTY) system. The so-called republicans (corporate fascists) intend to destroy the working class and the gutless democrats from Obama on down aren't doing a thing to stop it or even slow it down! Neither group deserves to survive politically or even get a single vote! We are in a worse fix than in 1932 and there is no FDR to save us. Without the new deal we would have descended into fascism or communism. We are obviously headed in the direction of the former and the day of reckoning is closer than you think.
+1 # priond49 2011-05-27 20:34
Endorsing sharag and Diane Johnson and agreeing with in deo veritas... we have to make a bold move. R&D are no option and there is no third party with a bit of a chance. Enough folks who worked and voted for Obama will abandon him and the D's yet root for an untainted team Nader/Sanders.
+1 # enrique 2011-05-28 11:51
We need presidential candidates with hard core experience, and I mean hard core. There is no room for trial and error learning curves. Kucinich is a good man and smart and so is Sanders. Let's get the hell going and not moan and groan after the fact: we should’ve, we could’ve. Folks, make up your minds, dammit, show finally some guts and act! There is not enough time left to form a strong third party.
+1 # wordgrl 2011-05-28 14:14
Most labor unions in the US are moribund. The leaders are afraid of the members and the communication works one way. The leaders tell the members what they'd like them to do. The members usually have no way of getting together or communicating to each other. Most unions have no 21st century communicating technology so members can talk amongst themselves. Yes, we need a bottoms-up member-led movement. And we need all unions to work with each other -- national strikes, etc. the way they do it in Europe. But this won't happen when union leadership is afraid of its own members. We desperately need a working people's party, call it what you will. The Democrats have no competition and no reason to leave their corporate sponsors without some pressure from labor. Otherwise we bend over and get what we deserve.

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