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The AFL-CIO’s Future


This is a good run down of where the AFL-CIO stands after Richard Trumka’s death. The short version is that there are two legitimate candidates to run the federation. The first is Liz Shuler, who comes out of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and holds much the same positions as late-era Trumka, which means very little change, a lot of support for the conservatism of the building trades, and making as few people uncomfortable as possible. She was Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO and is now acting president. The other is Sara Nelson, head of the Association of Flight Attendants and general progressive superstar who wants to bring the labor movement into the 21st century, reviving the militant tactics of the past, pushing unions to spend money organizing, and willing to make lots of people uncomfortable for the larger mission of bringing justice to the American working class. This might sound too simplistic, but there are really are two very different schools of thought among American labor unions that are summarized by these two candidates, which is why this piece is effective.

For years, top union officials and senior staff members have split into two broad camps on this question. On one side are those who argue that the A.F.L.-C.I.O., which has about 12 million members, should play a supporting role for its constituent unions — that it should help build a consensus around policy and political priorities, lobby for them in Washington, provide research and communications support, and identify the best ways to organize and bargain.

On the other side of the debate are those who contend that the federation should play a leading role in building the labor movement — by investing resources in organizing more workers; by gaining a foothold in new sectors of the economy; by funding nontraditional worker organizations, like those representing undocumented workers; and by forging deeper alliances with other progressive groups, like those promoting civil rights causes.

As president, Mr. Trumka identified more with the first approach, which several current and former union officials said had merit, particularly in light of his close ties to President Biden. Liz Shuler, who has served as acting president since Mr. Trumka’s death and hopes to succeed him, is said to have a similar orientation.

But as the federation contemplates its future, there is one inescapable fact that may color the discussion: Mr. Trumka’s approach did not appear to be resolving an existential crisis for the U.S. labor movement, in which unions represent a mere 7 percent of private-sector workers.

Since Mr. Trumka’s death, labor leaders have begun to discuss what the federation’s organizing and political challenges mean for the choice of a successor. Under its constitution, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. executive council will meet within three weeks to choose a successor to serve out Mr. Trumka’s term, which expires next year.

A leading candidate will be Ms. Shuler, who as secretary-treasurer became acting president on Mr. Trumka’s death. If the council selects Ms. Shuler to fill out Mr. Trumka’s term, it could propel her to the presidency next year and cement the federation’s direction, a prospect that some reformers within the labor movement regard with concern.

A number of these reformers back Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, as the federation’s next president. Ms. Nelson has argued for diverting much of the tens of millions of dollars the labor movement spends on political activities to help more workers unionize.

But Ms. Shuler insists that deciding between investing in organizing and the federation’s other priorities is a false choice.

“I don’t think that they are mutually exclusive,” she said. “The way modern organizations work, you no longer have heavy institutional budgets that are full of line items. We organize around action. We identify a target where there’s heat.” Then, she said, the organizations raise money and get things done.

No one actually thinks they are mutually exclusive, but, again, they do represent different visions here. While both Shuler and Nelson have similar backgrounds–like myself they are both working class people from Oregon born in the first half of the 70s who are framed by those experiences–there is little love lost between the two, at least in my reading of the situation. I am, as is well known, a huge supporter of Nelson. This isn’t per se anything against Shuler. But we know what Shuler’s approach leads to–the same situation we find ourselves in now. I don’t know if massive organizing campaigns would revive the labor movement. The structural issues we face are very real and cannot be hand-waved enough. I do know though that labor is at such a low point (6% in the private sector!) that it’s at the point that trying something new is an absolute necessity.

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