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Political Activism or Grassroots Organizing? A Debate on the Future of Organized Labor

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In recent weeks, a group of some of the largest unions have begun considering leaving the AFL-CIO. At the center of the controversy is the issue of political activism and organizing: The AFL-CIO camp advocates directing more resources to the federation’s political program while the SEIU and its backers want the focus to be on grassroots labor organizing. We host a debate with the AFL-CIO and UNITE HERE. [includes rush transcript]

A major crisis has been brewing for some time now within the labor movement in this country–not just over declining membership numbers but also over the future of organized labor–particularly after the reelection of President Bush last November.

In recent weeks, a group of some of the largest unions have begun considering leaving the AFL-CIO. That group represents roughly forty percent of the federation’s 13 million members and is led by the nation’s largest union, the Service Employees International Union or SEIU and the Teamsters, the nation’s third largest union. On the other side of the divide is AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and most of the other unions within the federation.

At the center of the controversy is the issue of political activism and organizing. Sweeney’s camp advocates directing more resources to the federation’s political program, which in the last election largely meant supporting the Democrats. The SEIU and its backers want the focus to be on grassroots labor organizing. At the executive council meeting of the AFL-CIO earlier this month, the dissident unions backed a Teamsters proposal to rebate a large portion of the AFL-CIO’s budget to member unions with serious organizing programs. In the end, though, Sweeney won out and passed a program that directs resources to political programs rather than organizing.

To debate this issue, we are joined by two people on opposite ends of this divide.

  • Chris Chafe, Chief of Staff and Political Director at UNITE HERE.
  • Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: To debate this issue, we’re joined by two people on opposite sides of this divide here in our firehouse studio. Chris Chafe is with us, Chief of Staff and Political Director at UNITE HERE. And in Washington, DC, Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!



JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to begin, Linda Chavez-Thompson, if you could tell us — there was a very heated and decisive meeting of the AFL-CIO leadership recently last week in Las Vegas. Could you tell us a little bit about what emerged from that meeting from your perspective, and what the prospects are for being able to resolve the issues involved between the two sides in this debate?

LINDA CHAVEZ-THOMPSON: I think what we’re talking about is: What are we going to do to strengthen the labor movement, how we can make it better, and what our resources are going to go to. We, I think, all agree that organizing and politics are the two primary concerns that we have, and that we have to concentrate. I think there’s only the difference of where we concentrate the monies first. We are not going to stop organizing. We believe that if all of the unions spent 30% of their budgets, we could actually have $500 million a year for organizing. But I think one of the other problems that we have is the environment that we have in the political arena also deters some of our organizing efforts. So, on a two-to-one basis, the executive committee of the AFL-CIO has decided that we will give more money to organizing, but that one of the focuses that we’re going to have is our political and legislative program, because that’s the way to make some changes in the country that will help us to organize more workers.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Chris Chafe, could you tell us from your perspective, the perspective of the allied unions that you’re a part of, what happened this past week? Was it a positive step or negative step, and what can be done to resolve the differences?

CHRIS CHAFE: Well, I think in general, this is a very positive step in the sense that you had six union presidents representing over 5 million workers. 40% of the dues-paying members to the AFL-CIO came together to agree that we have a different vision for the future of the labor movement. In our vision, we have to prioritize organizing first. We have among those six unions, the UFCW, the Teamsters, UNITE HERE, the Laborers, and SEIU, you have many of the strongest proponents of the AFL-CIO’s political operations. So there is absolutely no question about our commitment to political action. Thousands and tens of thousands of workers, millions and millions of dollars committed to that program. I think it is the great example of what the AFL-CIO has accomplished during the Sweeney administration. However, we are declining, and from our point of view, it doesn’t matter how much more money we throw into political work. We agree we need to prioritize that, but if we don’t grow, and we don’t organize, and we don’t have a different vision for how to do that, our political relevance and the relevance of the whole AFL-CIO is going to continue to dwindle. So, we really saw a unique experience where this many presidents from some of the leading unions came together to offer a different kind of viewpoint. And just to clarify, Linda is correct that the executive committee passed a proposal to increase the political budget, but that was not passed before the full council. It’s still going to be discussed and debated. From our point of view, that was a step that was taken a little early in the process. We wanted to see a much clearer plan developed and explained, why we were going to put more money into political work. And I think also importantly, it’s what was missing from the debate. We didn’t see an alternative vision produced that would give us and give workers greater resources, greater capacity to organize in a global economy. And that’s what our unions are looking for. We want to see fundamentally different rules about jurisdictions, so we can stop fighting amongst ourselves and focus on big, big enemies like the national and international companies that we need to take on so workers have great strength in this economy.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Linda Chavez-Thompson, I’d like to ask you, in terms of the — again, the meeting that was held this past week, you did make some decisions in terms of re-funneling more money to political organizing, but the AFL still remains in a very, very tough situation. I understand that just yesterday the staff of the AFL-CIO in Washington was called together, and 100 people, according to what I have heard, were laid off. That’s about 20% of the entire national staff of the AFL-CIO. And that the organization’s financial reserves have dropped dramatically from about $70 million when John Sweeney came in to about $30 million now.

LINDA CHAVEZ-THOMPSON: Let me tell you exactly what happened. There was a staff meeting yesterday. People were told that with the changes that we’re going to have to be making as to where our per capita is going to go and how we’re going to fund these efforts, both for organizing and political, that there is the possibility that anywhere from 80 to 100 positions may have to be eliminated at the AFL-CIO, and it will be done very properly within the confines of our union contracts. So there were no layoffs yesterday. People had a lot of questions after to the executive council meeting in Las Vegas, and we tried to answer those questions for them yesterday. There are procedures. There is a process where we will very definitely look at how people are treated, and how we are able to help them transition into other jobs, or some people will be retiring. But if we don’t change the anti-worker laws that we have right now, for instance, in the NLRB, the state governments that are literally rolling back the rights of workers, and we will not be able to get ahead no matter how many people we organize, because without that political environment having changed, we’re not going to be able to get these people their due rights, no matter how many of them we organize. It’s already hard enough. In some cases where we have elections that we won, it takes three to five years or more. And I think even these unions who agree that he we need to organize more know that it is harder to get a union certified than it has ever been, because we have an anti-union administration in Washington, because we have state governments that have switched to governments where they are denying the rights to workers. So time and time again, we can organize more workers, but once we have them, what are we going to do for them. The political grassroots mobilization effort that we want to do is one of the changes that has to happen before we can make more changes for workers. We don’t need to stop organizing. We have to continue to organize. Every union has to concentrate more of their monies on organizing. Bottom line, we have to think about which comes first, the chicken or the egg. I think in this particular case, we have decided politics and legislation has to be first.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Chris Chafe of UNITE HERE, and Linda Chavez-Thompson of the AFL-CIO. Chris Chafe, take the example of Wal-Mart. What is the difference in the two camps here on what should be done? And the significance of Wal-Mart in the struggle of labor?

CHRIS CHAFE: Sure. I think that both — the first thing to keep in mind here is that this is a discussion within a family of people who agree essentially on who the true enemy is. You have identified one of our favorites. The difference is that in the proposals produced by this reform group, we are talking about trying to generate $25 million, for example, out of royalties from the Union Privilege credit card. So, that every union member who uses the Union Privilege credit card, when they spend their money with that credit card, they know that they’re putting money into an organizing campaign to organize Wal-Mart or Fed-Ex or Cintas or one of the other huge multinational companies that we’re trying to take on as a dedicated labor movement. I have yet to see, and I think it’s still being developed, what the other ideas would be about how you organize Wal-Mart. But I think that what we’re trying to say is this should be the priority of the labor movement, and we have got to have dedicated fire-walled resources that just focus on that. We need to have capacity to engage capital strategies to engage Wal-Mart. We need to have a ground campaign that goes and meets with the workers. We need to have a more dedicated, broader communications strategy so that we can hit them daily in the media. And we need to have the capacity in each community where Wal-Mart is seeking to expand. Every single day of this year, they’re going to open a new store. The labor movement, where it has density and capacity, should be there to fight them and defeat them as we did recently here in New York City.

AMY GOODMAN: Linda Chavez-Thompson, what’s the difference?

LINDA CHAVEZ-THOMPSON: We don’t have any difference. I mean, we all agree, Wal-Mart is the worst employer because it brings down wages, it doesn’t provide benefits. People literally have to subsidize to work at Wal-Mart, and we don’t need that kind of employer anywhere. But the question here for all of us is we are in the process of developing with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union as the lead union in the fight, what is the best way to approach the Wal-Mart issue? And we still are working on the plan. I think all of the unions have committed to working on the Wal-Mart. We have a task force that’s developing the plans as we speak. And it is going to involve organizing monies. It is going to involve what do we need to do as a movement for this. We’re not in disagreement about the fact that we need to organize more. I think, again, we are talking about what comes first and what comes second to make the second piece, which is our organizing, very, very successful, and it brings us in more members. I don’t think we, any of us, have disagreement that we do need the politics and we do need to organize. It’s just the priorities that we place, and where those priorities will be set by the executive council of the AFL-CIO, and at the convention in July.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Chris Chafe. Criticism of your side from some progressive members of the labor movement is that you are pushing centralization of bigger unions, less autonomy by the local central labor councils, and more top-down structure. On one hand, you’re pushing for more grassroots organizing; on the other hand you’re pushing for a much more of a top-down structure of decision-making within the labor movement and stifling, in effect rank and file democracy. What’s your response to that?

CHRIS CHAFE: I would disagree completely with that critique. Let me explain why. I think we have —- in our group we have, in the leaders of many of these unions, their local leadership are the leadership of many of the state federations and the central labor bodies. So they are a key component of our grassroots strength. I think we want to see a stronger state federation or area labor councils, as they’re called in some places, or CLCs. We want to see, if you look at what has worked -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: But you want them appointed, the leaderships appointed by the national body?

CHRIS CHAFE: I think that’s still being debated. I think that’s being debated. I think the fundamental disagreement here is that we believe — yes, we believe there has to be much greater coordination. We need to have greater clarity about key campaigns that we work on together that become a clear priority. And obviously, the political work and the organizing work that’s done and mobilization work that’s done to support those campaigns is our goal. I don’t think there’s absolute agreement in any of these different camps about what happens at the end of that process, in terms of the structure, but we believe strongly that you need to have stronger locally based and state based operations in the states where you know we’re going to have campaigns and growth, and where you know we have to have political strength and capacity.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And finally, Linda Chavez-Thompson, I’d like to ask you, when John Sweeney ran several terms ago, he indicated then that he would only serve, I think it was two — was it two terms? He has decided he’s going to continue and run again. There’s talk of possibly John Wilhelm of UNITE running against him. What do you see happening at the AFL convention this summer in terms of the future? Will the labor movement end up with two federations? Will there be new leadership, or do you think John Sweeney is the man to keep things moving forward?

LINDA CHAVEZ-THOMPSON: John Sweeney feels like he hasn’t finished the job and he wants to finish the job. This, I think, is one of the reasons why we are running with him for re-election, myself and Richard Trumka are running with John for re-election. And the bottom line is that there are certain programs, there are certain ideas that we want to put forth to continue to grow the labor movement, to make it a politically and viable labor movement that helps working families in this country. We certainly don’t have friends in the White House or in state governments that are helping us, and it’s up to us to make sure that the dreams come true of the people who are working every single day. And I think John Sweeney is a man who is very committed to that realization that we have to make those dreams come true for all working families in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Chafe, final comment.

CHRIS CHAFE: I think the fundamental issue here is that we have an agreement about the importance of politics. But I think the truly significant change that we need to see is that if the labor movement does not decide amongst itself about how to change the rules internally about organizing, if we don’t have a clear prioritization with resources for unions that want to grow, if we don’t have that growth take place, all of the political work in the world that we want to do is not going to give us greater strength to carry out many of the changes which both sides agree are crucial. We are going to come out of this with a stronger labor movement, but it has to have a vision for how we sustain it and grow it going into the future, not just build up the political strength that we have currently.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to —

JUAN GONZALEZ: Just one last question. And if you don’t agree on those things, is there a possibility there will be two labor federations coming out of — starting by the end of this year?

CHRIS CHAFE: I think obviously each union has to make a decision on its own, and its members have to be part of that decision about what is the best structure for it to move forward to accomplish goals. We’re having that debate internally within our union. I know several other unions are taking a look at that. But our broader goal here is we want a stronger AFL-CIO, so that we can be much stronger to accomplish these common goals.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Chafe of the labor union, UNITE HERE, Linda Chavez-Thompson, AFL-CIO. I want to thank you very much both for joining us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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