An Open Letter

After the November elections, there will be a critical debate about the future of our labor movement. As leaders of local labor movements, who work day to day with your local unions, we want to draw on our experience to weigh in on what we believe needs to be done at the grassroots of our movement.

We believe that we cannot succeed nationally as a movement without powerful local labor movements; and we will not succeed locally without changes needed to build a more vibrant national movement.

Attached is a working draft that draws on our collective experience of building local movements. We are advocating changes that may be controversial, but we believe are essential to the future of our movement. We offer you our initial thoughts as the debate begins.

We look forward to your ideas and comments, and an opportunity to discuss these with you. And hope together we can start to redefine what needs to be done locally in concert with the changes that are being debated nationally.


Marshall Blake Central New York John Goldstein Area Labor Federation Milwaukee County (Syracuse, NY) Labor Council

(Milwaukee, WI)

Jerry Butkiewicz San Diego-Imperial Counties Shar Knutson Labor Council St. Paul Trades (San Diego, CA) and Labor Assembly

(St. Paul, MN)

Jim Cavanaugh South Central Federation of Labor Leslie Moody (Madison, WI) Denver Area Labor Federation

(Denver, CO)

Miguel Contreras Los Angeles County V. Daniel Radford Federation of Labor Cincinnati Labor Council (Los Angeles, CA) (Cincinnati, OH)

Jeffrey Crosby John Ryan

North Shore Labor Council Cleveland Federation of Labor (Lynn, MA) (Cleveland, OH)

Phaedra Ellis-Lampkin Steve Williamson

South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council King County Labor Council (San Jose, CA) (Seattle, WA)

cc. Marilyn Sneiderman, Director AFL-CIO Field Mobilization



A Strategy to Win for Workers

The World and the Economy Have Changed – Unions Have Not

Huge changes are sweeping the nation and the world. We are witnessing the impact of right wing politics and de-industrialization snowballing in a storm of anti-union legislation, regulation and court rulings. The pace of change - international economic integration, concentration of transnational corporate power, and the growing hegemony of right wing political forces – accelerated dramatically in the past decade. Meanwhile, the prospects for American workers are increasingly bleak as outsourcing, downsizing, and privatization are destroying and degrading their jobs.

Powerful metropolitan labor movements are essential if organizing, progressive politics, and new social movements are to be built in our communities. This is a moment in history to analyze our weaknesses, admit our mistakes, and have the courage that allows real change to occur. This is not a false choice of top down or bottom up reform, but a frank assessment of the requirements for success

The mortal crisis confronting American unions has been documented thoroughly over the last several years. Despite grave warnings of AFL-CIO leaders John Sweeney, Richard Trumka and Linda Chavez Thompson since they were elected nearly a decade ago, the hard choices about how our union movement should be organized at the dawn of a vastly different century must continue to be confronted.

National Problems are Mirrored and Magnified at the Local Level.

The discussion on the national level must include a debate about what should happen at the local level. There must be an informed discussion about what should happen in our cities and communities. The failure to act aggressively at both the national and local level will cede political power to the enemies of working people and their unions. Our group strongly believes that any argument for the status quo is a prescription for defeat.

Union Cities – Why We Have Hit a Roadblock, Not a Dead End.

Eight years ago a number of us partnered with the national AFL-CIO to change local union movements. We built a program around a shared vision of what a local labor movement should be, and we called it Union Cities. The Central Labor Councils were the principal means by which we moved the Union Cities program in different parts of the country.

Union Cities stands as the first major attempt by the AFL-CIO to give its Labor Councils a mission compatible with the needs of its most active affiliates. And there have been important successes. For example, the decisions of union championed City Council members in Los Angeles have helped win organizing rights for workers. In San Jose, a City Council elected by a labor-community alliance passed legislation to make sure all children are covered by health insurance. Instead of fretting about unforeseen consequences, the Cleveland Labor Federation took a risk and won by backing one mayoral candidate in a field of ten.

Despite a smart strategy and strong victories in certain cities, overall success in the rest of the country has been limited. Union Cities did not take hold in many major metropolitan areas. It has had little influence in most of the 500 Central Labor Councils. There are various reasons for this, including weak local unions, but the organizational structure of the CLC is a key problem. The original formation of Central Labor Councils occurred in the 19th Century world of hometown employers, and single shop local unions. It is folly to retain a CLC structure created when Teamsters really drove horses.

Major Change Now

The most vociferous internal critics argue that a wholly voluntary federation of unions is inadequate for the task at hand. They point out that 70% of our thirteen million union members are in only 10 of the 60 affiliates of the AFL-CIO, and that these unions are not accountable to each other or to their own federation. As a result, AFL-CIO resources are spent disproportionately on defensive fights instead of brokering organizing and bargaining partnerships, and requiring mergers with an industry focus. They point out that many unions have neither the capacity nor the will to organize workers in their core industries.

These problems play out in much the same way at the local union and Central Labor Council level. Labor Councils are no more than the sum of their parts – a powerful local union movement cannot be built from weak locals. Local unions often lack the capacity or will to organize or defend themselves against aggressive employers. The Labor Councils to which they belong are often equally weak, and misguided in their priorities. And local unions are no more accountable to each other or their federations than their national union counterparts.

We have learned again and again--Central Labor Councils cannot do what internationals are unwilling or unable to do. CLCs cannot hold local unions to a standard or a plan if the sponsoring international union will not do so. We need strong and vibrant locals to make a strong and vibrant CLC. This can only happen if national unions have a program to grow and strengthen their local unions. A changed structure can enable CLCs to help the internationals move our members and locals to where they need to go.

Four Recommendations: Transformation of the Local Labor Movement

There must be a radical transformation of Central Labor Councils as an agreed upon result of the national debate, not as an afterthought. The formation of union federations with a clear and focused mission and plan in major metropolitan areas is the lynch pin of our strategy to strengthen the local labor movement. With that paramount need in mind, we make the following recommendations:

1. We Must Have 75 Real and Effective Regional Labor Federations in Major Metropolitan Centers to Make a Difference in this Country.

Most of the more than 500 Central Labor Councils are not structured around where workers live, work and vote. They are still based in a single county or two, and usually lack the resources to support a resurgent labor movement. A mere forty-four CLCs report having full-time staff or officers, and only thirty-two have an annual budget over $100,000. This is pathetic in a national federation representing 13 million union members.

Many Labor Councils have devolved into weak quasi-fraternal organizations engaged in charity work, social activities, and honorable support for lost causes. Although virtually all Labor Councils do political work, few have the resources to make a significant difference. For example, in the battleground states of Ohio and Pennsylvania there are seventy-one CLCs, but fewer than a dozen metropolitan areas. Labor Councils, as they are presently constituted, are unsuited to advance the critical cause of working people.

The largest 75 metro areas in the country contain over 65% of the population and over 70% of current union members. National reform will not succeed without more powerful Regional Labor Federations (RLF’s) to mobilize political power and community allies to win for working people. And strong RLF’s can reinforce the overhaul of local unions that their internationals must undertake.

The Labor Councils in about 75 metro areas must be required to unite into RLFs chartered directly by the AFL-CIO. This can work because it fits the larger metropolitan economies, political structures, and media markets. This model has had some success in Upstate New York, and in the designated political zones in the battleground states for Labor 2004.

2. End “Right to Work” System of Local Labor Organization - Resources are Required to Win

It is time to end the current “right to work” system where local unions pay per capita on only a portion of their membership, joining or leaving Labor Councils at will. On the one hand Labor Councils are chronically under-resourced, and on the other hand they are often hamstrung by threats of disaffiliation when political and organizational risks must be taken. “Right to Work” in Labor Councils encourages static thinking, and discourages real debate about substantive issues. The perpetuation of this system would undercut the effectiveness of Regional Labor Federations.

Regional Labor Federations need appropriate resources to hire good staff to carry out a clear program. It takes effective organizers to mobilize union members behind a working family’s political agenda, and to generate fight back against employer aggression. The right staff can combine labor, community, and political power to leverage employer neutrality in organizing campaigns.

RLFs need real resources to win for working people. The AFL-CIO should set a minimum per capita tax or minimum budget to ensure that these organizations can operate effectively. Every local union, or national unions on their behalf, should be required to pay provided Regional Federations meet agreed upon expectations. If they don’t, per capita could be revoked.

The AFL-CIO will probably need to subsidize certain RLFs so that each one adequate annual revenues, from union related sources. This is particularly necessary in strategic, low-density growth areas like the South, and where national unions have a plan to organize on a large scale or where important national political interests are involved.

3. Accountable Regional Federation to Move a Clear Focused Program to Win

The honorable tradition of solidarity is an increasingly hollow concept in the Labor Movement. Labor Councils are handicapped by the reflexive support of many local unions for the status quo.

Regional Federations should be structured, governed and financed so they have the freedom to support unions that have a plan to win for workers at the local level. Regional Federations should be chartered directly by, and held accountable to, both the AFL-CIO and their member local unions.

RLF’s must also be required to carry out a more focused version of the Union Cities program:

Working with the AFL-CIO, RLFs should be required to develop a strategic plan for this purpose and be given the leadership development support needed to carry out the work.

Minimum per capita will be required only when labor federations meet agreed upon plans and performance criteria. This per capita requirement could be revoked, and trusteeships should be used vigorously to insure compliance with plans and criteria. We must have stronger accountability standards and enforcement if local unions are required to affiliate.

4. Diverse Leadership and Truly Representative Structures.

The principle stakeholders should govern the Regional Federations. There should be an Executive Committee comprised of its largest and most strategic key stakeholders. The leaders of these organizations must have the capacity to move people and financial resources. The AFLCIO and the Committee must insure that the governing structure and the local plan reflect the diversity of their members, and a fair cross section of unions in the region.

Regional Federations will need to insure that key officials, both elected leaders and staff, are both competent to lead and to manage large organizations. We know from our experience that to see results, we need strong and effective leadership and staff capable of convening the principle stakeholders to take risks and move a clear focused program.

Finally, in order to become the true voice of working people in their community, CLCs should open up their doors to compatible community based organizations outside of the Labor Movement. Criteria should be developed for membership of community groups, minority unions, and non AFL-CIO unions. Exclusivity is a luxury union members can no longer afford.


This working draft is our first attempt to engage international presidents, their executive boards, our fellow Central Labor Council leaders and the AFL-CIO in what we, on the front lines of this movement, recommend for the future. We look forward to both your comments as well as an opportunity to discuss these ideas with you.

As leaders of local labor movements, we are convinced that union members want to fight and win in our communities; that non-union workers want to join with us to build a powerful movement for social justice for working families; and that our community allies know what a difference we can all make when we unite together.

The roadblock we face to winning real justice and a growing labor movement in our communities is our unwillingness to risk the next step; to challenge ourselves, our local and national leaders, and our members to remake this movement from the bottom to the top.

We are convinced that this is a risk worth taking.