Can Labor Change?

Can Labor Change?

“In just six months we’ve changed the labor movement,” newly elected AFL-CIO president John J. Sweeney told the labor federation’s convention delegates last October. “Now we’re going to change America.” It was the bravado of victory speeches, to be sure, but there was just enough truth—or plausibility—in his statement to take it seriously.

There’s no denying the change wrought simply by the first challenge ever to an incumbent AFL-CIO president. The leaders of unions with about 56 percent of AFL-CIO members, notably AFSCME (public workers) and the Service Employees (SEIU), not only forced former president Lane Kirkland to resign, but, more important, opened a public debate in the AFL-CIO about strategy. The actual debate was often shallow and oblique, and even interim incumbent Thomas Donahue agreed with most of challenger Sweeney’s proposals to beef up organizing, politics, and strategic assistance to affiliated unions. But the election contest gave new legitimacy to some heretofore heretical ideas: internal challenges to leaders, blunt self-criticism of shortcomings, and more democratic dialogue over the future of unions.

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