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The Unfulfilled Sweeney Legacy

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Rich Yeselson has a really powerful essay on what it was like to be on the front lines of the labor movement when John Sweeney won his upset victory to become AFL-CIO president and the world seemed the oyster of a revived labor movement. Although Sweeney did what he could, it, uh, did not end up that way.

We who worked in the IUD believed we were different than the building-trades-dominated AFL side of the building. We carried forward the legacy of Reuther’s social unionism, a belief in multiracial organizing, especially in the deep South, and an in-house resistance to the paralyzing dogma we confronted whenever we stepped out of our third-floor offices.

I personally enjoyed pissing off the reactionaries. One time, a Cold War apparatchik grimly asked me who I “spoke for” when I mentioned in a brief speech (for reasons I no longer remember) that Eugene Debs had gotten 16 percent of the vote in Oklahoma during the 1912 presidential election. Later, I was reported to my boss by an otherwise amiable international affairs guy for expressing leftist leanings during a trip to build solidarity with Italian tire workers in 1994.

So it can’t be understated how exciting and significant we IUD staffers (and some quiet sympathizers elsewhere in the building, too) believed the Sweeney insurgency was. In addition to my strategic campaigning job at the IUD, I had studied and taught labor history and thought the stakes of the Sweeney-Donahue contest were enormous. (Donahue, who took over after Kirkland’s forced resignation, had been Sweeney’s mentor at SEIU decades earlier — a creative, decent trade unionist who was trapped in the wrong coalition at the wrong time.) Working for a boss connected to the leadership of the insurgency and listening intently to the secrets he sometimes unspooled in his office, I was one step removed from the strategic maneuvering and the plotting: there was no rank-and-file voting — indeed, no rank-and-file interest in any of it — but instead a kind of Electoral College of organized labor; unions voted proportionally based upon their size.

The fight wasn’t the streets against the suites, but the suites on one side of K Street NW in Washington, DC, versus the suites on the other side of K Street NW. It was a vicious but formally circumscribed contest among mutually familiar top-level players, resembling the College of Cardinals picking a pope.

Still, it was extraordinary to think that labor could undertake any kind of fight to displace the leadership of its major federation at all. It had only happened once before in 1895, when AFL president Samuel Gompers had lost the job to John McBride, the president of the Mineworkers, who sought to link labor to the Populist Party’s militant effort to reorganize the political economy and achieve state power — and then Gompers beat McBride in a rematch the following year and held the position until his death in 1924. But exactly a century following McBride’s brief upset, Sweeney’s coalition of mostly public-sector, retail, and manufacturing unions defeated Tom Donahue’s coalition of mostly reactionary building trade unions, Albert Shanker’s American Federation of Teachers, and other odd elements. (One major progressive union, for example, stayed with Donahue’s status quo candidacy out of, I was told, mere friendship between Donahue and the union’s president.)

Maybe someday the labor movement seriously revives itself in this nation. Maybe it doesn’t. But we have to keep trying. Sweeney wasn’t the answer. Maybe no single person is the answer. At least the old AFL-CIA days are over there and the explicitly anti-communist hacks in the federation are mostly retired.

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