The 1995 AFL-CIO convention initiated a real but incomplete process of reform. How can labor activists fully realize its potential?
By Kurt Stand
socialistforum.dsausa.org/issues/spring-2021/the-afl-cios-regime-of-1995-a-partial-turning-point-for-labor/In Socialist Forum.
The list of workers looking to assert their rights through the collective power of unionism is long and growing: nurses, newspaper reporters, farm workers, tech engineers, warehouse workers, fast food employers, restaurant servers and bussers, retail workers, gig employees, college athletes, truckers, domestic workers, computer programmers, day laborers, auto workers – low-paid or comparatively well-paid, working at behemoths like Amazon and Walmart or at small non-profits and at coffee shops. Workers are showing resilience in sticking with union campaigns over the long haul. There is little evidence in mainstream, business or the labor press of unionizing employees attributing difficulties, setbacks or defeats to the limitations of unionism. The unfairness of our political system, the undue power of corporations and business executives, is no longer hidden.
That is a far cry from the 1980s and 1990s, when anti-union sentiment seeped into the general population. The media and too many politicians promoted the myth of overweening power wielded by union “bosses,” while the complacency and narrowness of too many union leaders made it all the more difficult to combat anti-labor lies and distortions. There were many in the labor movement, from rank-and-file members to some in national union leadership, who continued to organize on the basis of a genuine and consistent solidarity. But at the top levels of the AFL-CIO, and in some of the more seemingly stable unions whose leadership thought they could ride out any crisis, calls for solidarity were not backed by genuine conviction. In a time of devastating and unrelenting attacks on unionism, that combination meant not only defeat, but also pervasive demoralization.
At the same time, however, the outlines of a new orientation began to come into view. In 1995, the“ New Voices” slate challenged and defeated the existing AFL-CIO leadership at the federation’s national convention. John Sweeney was elected president, Richard Trumka secretary-treasurer, and Linda Chavez-Thompson executive vice president. Sweeney’s death in February 2021 provides an occasion to review the under-appreciated significance of that change, the progress that ensued, the possibilities that still need to be realized.
By Way of Background