Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Panacea for Labor: Charisma?

Via Truthout.org, I found this article from Harry Kelber of the Labor Educator. Within, Kebler goes over the 50 year organizing record of the AFL-CIO under George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and John Sweeney. While Meany and Kirkland come off looking like stuffy, out-of-touch administrators, there's no doubt Sweeney attempted to reinvigorate labor through organizing. As Kebler explains:
When John Sweeney became AFL-CIO president, he made organizing his top priority. He budgeted 30% of the federation's income for organizing and urged affiliated unions to do the same. He hired scores of young, enthusiastic women and minorities as organizers. He poured more money into the Organizing Institute's training programs.

He initiated an educational campaign, "Change to Organize; Organize for Change." Over a 10-year period, he held numerous conferences, seminars and workshops. Appropriate resolutions were passed at AFL-CIO conventions.

Despite Sweeney's efforts, the AFL-CIO's percentage of the work force has dropped from 14.5%, when he assumed office, to 12.5%, and less than 8% in the private sector. Many unions see the answer as spending more money on organizing, but that won't do it. For one thing, employers can always outspend the unions
So simply throwing money at the problem doesn't work either.

Kebler does have a point though when he notes that Meany, Kirkland, and Sweeney had virtually no relationship with the rank and file and therefore had no grassroots support. But his best insight might be calling attention to Sweeney's boring and uncharismatic personality. I've seen him speak and I can attest to Kebler's description of him as "a boring speaker with a monotonous voice"... who..."has done little to enhance labor's message and public image in the few times he was invited on a TV talk show." Kebler believes:
What is urgently needed is a few articulate, dynamic leaders who are respected by union members across the board, and who can involve them in the struggle to regain their former strength. Without the participation of an army of union volunteers, the AFL-CIO will never achieve its organizing goals or succeed in reclaiming its long-gone reputation as champion of the nation's working people.
If labor needs a frontman they can root for, Andy Stern, the troublemaking head of the Service Employees International Union should be their man. Stern has already threatened to leave the AFL-CIO if the federation doesn't increase its efforts on organizing on top of other structural reforms. For more in-depth info on Stern, check out this profile in the NYTs Magazine or this interview with Alternet.org. As these links will show, he's charismatic, progressive, and an avid organizer - everything the labor movement needs in a CEO now.

Labor needs its strut back in a big way. Stern has the track record and the big mouth to help it get its groove back...or at least fail courageously trying.