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As the AFL-CIO and the American labor movement take a good hard look at themselves and their institutions in the wake of their winter meeting in Florida, I offer a few humble suggestions.

- Do not give up the fight for full organizing rights and collective bargaining rights for all American workers. The lack of a real and full freedom to form unions and bargaining collectively is the core of our economic crisis. 35 years of assaults on workers and unions have led to 35 years of stagnant wages, very weak consumer demand, an 800% increase in incarceration. In effect our anti-poverty program is hustling for cash, then going to prison for three hots and a cot. The unfettered right to bargain collectively is accepted by every democracy in the world including South Africa and Brazil. NO ONE will campaign for this critical, fundamental right if the labor movement doesn’t. Social change in America takes a very long time – often generations. But what if Frederick Douglass had given up or Gene Debs or A. Philip Randolph or Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Harvey Milk? We call it a struggle because it is one. The future of America is dependent on this change. We cannot afford to stop our efforts. And when organizing and bargaining rights are challenged anywhere we must respond with our entire enraged movement.

- We must reach out to and connect with unorganized workers. It is critical that organized labor play a leadership role in progressive immigration reform that puts families, workers, and communities ahead of corporate interests who just want to exploit this large pool of workers in the shadows. We must be louder and prouder for both raising the minimum wage and advancing healthcare reform someday to a single payer system. That will mean an immediate raise for every worker in America.

- Organized labor must continue to press for sustainable, renewable energy – wind and solar at least even if we don’t have internal consensus on the future of fossil fuels. Eventually our ability to remain a vital, civilized country depends on renewable energy.

- We must accelerate the opportunities and leadership within our movement for workers of color and female workers. They will draw others to us. Most importantly, their perspectives and ideas will be fresh and necessary. More Leaders of color and female leaders will make us much stronger.

- We must broaden our definition of the labor movement to worker organizations that don’t bargain collectively but represent workers – worker centers, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Interfaith Worker Justice, others.

- We should give up our membership in the Washington Elite, the Beltway Elite. That only poisons our thinking and deafens us to the needs and desires of America’s workers.

- We must talk openly about our values – social justice, human dignity, collective action, fairness, the family of humanity.

- We must rebuild – not from a position of power, but from where we are – not where we used to be.

- We must stop acting like a club and act like a movement. Look, the bosses and the rightwing will never like us. Good. That is as it should be. Our goodwill should come from the workers we fight for. We will not cutesify or finesse our way out of this crisis. We have to fight out way out.

- We have to take a leadership role in reforming and rebuilding our global instruments of solidarity so that high minded statements become down and dirty actions.

Our future depends on fundamental change.

© Creative Commons Copyright 2013


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Stewart Acuff is the former organizing Director of the AFL-CIO. Acuff has also written two books: Playing Bigger Than You Are: A Life in Organizing, and Getting America Back to Work.
Get the e-book edition of Playing Bigger Than You Are by clicking here!

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