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May 2001 • Vol 1, No. 1 •

John J. Sweeney’s union organizing drive strategy:

A Prescription for Defeat

By Shirley Pasholk

In 1995 John J. Sweeney ran and was elected the new president of the AFL-CIO with the promise to radically reform and revitalize the U.S. labor movement. Specifically, Sweeney denounced the decades-long decline in union membership and pledged to make increasing union membership his No. 1 goal with a massive financial and organizing campaign.

Sweeney did dramatically increase union fund-raising. Not much of it was devoted to organizing unorganized workers, however. The first year a record $35 million plus was devoted to hustling votes for so-called “friends of labor” in the Democratic Party. And this amount has increased every year since under Sweeney’s presidency.

How have Sweeney and the AFL-CIO done in their No. 1 goal of increasing union membership? Last month the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released its latest figures on union membership. The percentage of American workers belonging to unions fell to a new historical low of 13.5 percent of the work force. It is the lowest level of union membership since unionized workers peaked at 35 percent fifty years ago.

Even the money that was spent on organizing efforts under Sweeney accomplished little. Brother Sweeney, like his predecessors, views an organizing campaign as if it were primarily a technical and administrative problem that can be solved with more money and hiring more people to run through their various “organizing schools.” But the long inability of the AFL-CIO to successfully organize the unorganized is fundamentally a political and programmatic problem.

During the 1950’s, a much larger, much stronger, much richer AFL-CIO with a record of winning some strikes and winning some higher wages behind it, launched a major campaign to organize the unorganized South. They correctly recognized the threat of a non-union South that could be used as a staging area by employers to launch union busting campaigns. But it quickly became clear that organizing the South was impossible without directly challenging the anti-union Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party.

The refusal of the AFL-CIO to do so was the rock upon which this crucial campaign floundered. On the contrary, their misplaced loyalty and reliance on the Democratic Party directly paved the way for the so-called right to work, anti-union “Sun Belt” of the 1980’s and 90’s.

The failure of this infamous Southern organizing drive of the 50’s, called “Operation Dixie”, is in stark contrast to the historical precedent set between 1935 and 1940 when some five million new additional workers were organized—doubling union membership in this country.

That organizing drive was sparked by, and dependent upon, three historic union victories that took place in 1934—the Toledo Auto-Lite strike, the Minneapolis Teamsters strike and the San Francisco general strike.

The employers, and the Democratic and Republican parties alike, did everything they could to crush these three strikes. But the unions won through powerful mass mobilizations on picket lines and city streets, organized in open defiance of restrictive anti-picketing laws and against all the armed repressive forces the employers and politicians could bring to bear against a rebellious working class. In all three of these crucial strikes the unions and their leaderships had to go to war against the Democratic and Republican parties.

No successful union organizing drive is possible in this country today without going to war against the Democratic and Republican parties, which consciously and with a bipartisan division of labor, has constructed a judicial and legislative wall specifically to block the growth and power of organized labor.

Politicians may be influenced but they are only influenced by the power of the unions to actually show some muscle. And union muscle is not acquired by competing with wealthy corporations to raise slush funds for politicians. Union muscle has been and always will be reflected in the ability to strike to win better wages and working conditions for the members. If the unions indicate that they don’t have that muscle or the will to use it, the politicians are free to ignore them whether they are Democrats or Republicans.

Unions and union members have to develop a new leadership that will return to a policy of building union solidarity, publicly expose the bipartisan, anti-labor nature of these politicians and demonstrate that we have a serious strike weapon which we are prepared to use in our self defense.

That’s when workers will flock to the unions.

- Shirley Pasholk




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