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The Battle for the AFL-CIO’s Future

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Stephen Greenhouse has an excellent (and very fair) write-up of the behind the scenes battle to replace Richard Trumka as the head of the AFL-CIO. Trumka is not going to run for another term. In fact, if he thought his preferred replacement would win, he might have resigned already. But that’s not happening, at least not yet.

There are two candidates. The first is Liz Shuler, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer and long the heir apparent. The second is Association of Flight Attendants president and all around bad-ass Sara Nelson. To say the least, these two candidates represent two very different approaches.

I have nothing per se against Shuler. But the American labor movement, or at least the American union movement, is dying. Trumka was OK in his early years but the last decade have been pretty disastrous, with just not even the beginning of a strong response from the federation to the issues we face as workers. If unions keep doing the same things they’ve been doing, nothing will change and they will continue marching toward death. Shuler has her allies–mostly the building trades, which too often represent the reactionary side of the labor movement. That’s slightly unfair, I admit–some of the trades are really good and others are good on some issues, but the trades are not going to lead us out of the morass we are in. Even if they were all headed by lefties, they simply aren’t built that way.

I don’t know if Nelson can lead us to a better tomorrow. I absolutely do know that we have a better chance for that brighter day with her as president than we do with Shuler. Her role in ending the government shutdown, bringing the idea of mass strikes back into the labor movement, being an actual public face of the labor movement–my God imagine actually showing up in public!–is a huge and refreshing change. For the first time since Walter Reuther (or maybe Cesar Chavez but that was always more myth than reality) we have a union leader at the head of social change, not just their own organization.

Both Shuler and Nelson have their allies. But let’s be clear, the AFL-CIO establishment definitely wants Shuler. She’s been groomed for this role for a long time and the federation is not an organization that does change well. At all. The only time there’s been an upset in the history of the federation was in 1995, when John Sweeney defeated Tom Donahue to replace the nearly worthless Lane Kirkland. Sweeney did some good things. Not enough, but he was certainly better than Donahue would have been. While I fully believe that Shuler would be a better candidate than Donahue was in 1995, the difference is still stark and clear.

Hard to say what is going to happen here. I will be writing about this at length going forward.

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