How We Can Elect Sara Nelson as President of the AFL-CIO

Having Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson as the head of the AFL-CIO wouldn’t cure all that ails American labor, but it would be an enormous boon for the project of building a more democratic, militant, progressive US labor movement. It won’t be easy, but there’s a real path to getting her elected.

Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson calls on Congress to pass an extension of the Payroll Support Program outside the US Capitol on September 22, 2020 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Current American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) president Richard Trumka is rumored to be considering retirement at or before the end of his term of office in 2021. The race to succeed him has already begun. The Guardian reported in July 2019 that Trumka intends to back current AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Liz Shuler. Many labor activists, however, hope that the militant and charismatic president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), Sara Nelson, throws her hat in — meaning that for only the second time in its history, the AFL-CIO might have a contested race for its presidency.

It’s early, but there are signs that the American labor movement is changing in long-needed ways. From West Virginia to Chicago to Los Angeles, educators are striking in larger numbers than ever before. The UAW recently staged its biggest strike in decades, and media outlets are organizing unions in droves. Who runs the AFL-CIO can have an impact on such developments.

The role of president is by no means all-powerful — the AFL-CIO is a federation with little authority to force its constituent unions to act. But the AFL-CIO president is understood, both inside and outside labor, to be the principal voice of America’s unions. Whoever is in that role will have a public platform uniquely suited to influence labor’s direction and relationship to the public, and command of a large nationwide organization to help implement their vision.

So it’s worth understanding how the AFL-CIO elects its president. If union members, supporters, and organizations committed to union power want to help the best person ascend to the top, we need to know how the AFL-CIO conducts its elections, and what kind of impact union members and other supporters can have on who wins.

Unfortunately, the answers to those two questions are, in order: “mostly behind closed doors” and “a lot less than you’d like.”

A Federation, Not a Democracy

First, it’s important to understand that the base political unit of the AFL-CIO is not the individual union member; it’s the individual union. The AFL-CIO is sometimes mistaken by those outside the labor movement as a union, but it’s actually a federation of unions. These unions, in oft-forgotten homage to the glory days when their organizing extended beyond American borders, are referred to as “internationals” (even those that are now explicitly US-only). The AFL-CIO’s constituents are these internationals.

Anything involving the leadership of the AFL-CIO goes through the internationals. Winning the presidency requires winning the internationals, since there won’t be a membership ballot for rank-and-file members to vote on for this position.

Instead, it will happen at the 2021 AFL-CIO convention, which will take place sometime that fall (in who knows what form, given the pandemic). Each international in the AFL-CIO sends delegates. The number of delegates per international is based on membership, but it’s weighted toward smaller unions; a union of 75,000 members gets seven delegates, but a union of 1 million members gets twenty.

When voting for AFL-CIO president, however, each delegate will get to cast a number of votes equal to the number of members they represent. So an international with a million members will get a million votes, split equally among the twenty delegates. Central labor councils, which are regional labor formations below the state level, and similar bodies can also send one delegate each. But they only get one vote when it comes to the presidency, irrespective of the size of the labor council, so their votes are highly unlikely to matter.

There were 1,047 accredited delegates on the first day of the 1995 AFL-CIO convention, the last and only convention with a contested election for president. Did having a thousand delegates mean there was spirited politicking, arm-twisting, logrolling, and so forth, to persuade and cajole votes to win? Nope. The election was sewn up months before the convention was called to order.

The 1995 Contest

The two accounts that best describe the 1995 AFL-CIO presidential election are Taylor Dark’s 1999 essay “Debating Decline: The 1995 Battle for the AFL-CIO Presidency” in Labor History, and Timothy J. Minchin’s 2017 book, Labor Under Fire: A History of the AFL-CIO Since 1979.

Lane Kirkland had taken over the AFL-CIO in 1979 upon the retirement of the organization’s first president, George Meany. Kirkland’s tenure saw little other than decline and defeat for unions. The postwar labor-management structure that had helped improve the standard of living for workers collapsed completely in the 1980s and 1990s. Membership numbers, which had continued to rise in the 1960s and 1970s even as union density declined, hit their absolute peak of 21 million in 1979 and have been in freefall ever since.

Kirkland was not the cause of this and for some years retained the support of internationals even in the face of tragedy. But his bubble burst after Bill Clinton was elected US president in 1992. Kirkland’s AFL-CIO failed to persuade the Democratic president and Democratic majorities in Congress to pass any labor law reform, and he was unable to stop the passage of NAFTA, which unions were (with a few exceptions) against. When the weaknesses of centrist Democratic governance led to a Republican takeover of Congress in the 1994 elections, some of the leaders of the internationals joined many on labor’s left who had long been discontented with the federation’s embrace of the United States’ side in the Cold War — as well as various reactionary social positions on everything from immigration to LGBT rights — and decided it was time for a change.

Eleven internationals formed a Committee for Change in early 1995. At first, their goal was to force Kirkland to step aside in favor of the AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, Tom Donahue. Kirkland refused to budge and so did Donahue, who even announced he would not seek reelection as secretary-treasurer.

In time, the Committee for Change decided to field their own candidate. While Gerald McEntee of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is regarded as the driving force of the committee, he was also considered too controversial to run for president, with a brusque manner that his compatriots felt would be too off-putting to the other internationals. So instead, the group settled on running John Sweeney, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), as their presidential candidate, and they formed the “New Voices” slate to take over the federation.

Kirkland, seeing the writing on the wall, announced his retirement. Tom Donahue then decided to run to replace him — but it was too late. Now that the Committee for Change, which had tried to recruit Donahue to run just a few months before, had settled on Sweeney, the committee was against him.

There was a spirited and at times nasty debate in the months leading up to the AFL-CIO convention in October 1995, but it was little more than sound and fury signifying nothing. As both Dark and Minchin show in their accounts, the two sides were not neatly divided along ideological lines. This was more about personalities than anything else.

What the Committee for Change stood for, more than anything else, was simply a breath of fresh air, a break from the past that was more about symbol than substance. Of the eleven unions that formed the original Committee for Change in February, ten stuck with Sweeney. Those ten unions were effectively the majority needed for Sweeney to win. Most of the other internationals sided with Donahue, but the ten dissident unions — including the Teamsters, the United Auto Workers (UAW), and the IAM (International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers), in addition to AFSCME and SEIU — were too large. While the public debate over the AFL-CIO presidency began in the summer of 1995, all the real decisions had been made in the first months of the year.

Three things are worth taking away from this history. First, it is almost certainly the case that there is more going on behind the scenes than we may realize. There may already be deals being cut, decisions being made, sides being taken, and we in the interested-but-unconnected public might be in the dark. What we are seeing and hearing about the future of the AFL-CIO is likely incomplete and out of date. We have to expect that going forward.

Second, AFL-CIO politics makes for strange bedfellows. There were important differences in views within the AFL-CIO in 1995. There were strong disagreements over the role of the AFL-CIO in new organizing, for example, with some wanting the AFL-CIO to do more to encourage and coordinate new organizing, while others wanted more autonomy for individual unions. Some wanted to see a consolidation of unions, a reduction in the total number of unions and a reorganization based by industry. There were different views on labor and politics (the 1990s did, after all, see an attempt to form a national Labor Party).

What’s missing, though, is a direct link between a union’s view on those issues and their stance on Sweeney vs Donahue. While it is true that the Committee for Change (and the subsequent “New Voices” slate) had ideas and plans, Dark and Minchin also make clear that there was no clear dividing line ideologically between the two sides, nor was their ideological uniformity within factions, either. Personalities and timing seem to have meant just as much as anything else.

Finally, this was an entirely top-down process. There is little evidence that McEntee, Sweeney, and the other leaders of the Committee for Change held extensive consultations with either their international membership or unions’ national leadership before acting. Surely there must have been some, but it appears to have been more about informing internationals rather than asking permission. While the level of internal deliberation will vary between unions, we should not expect this to be something that union leaders feel they need to ask their rank-and-file members about.

What Can We Do?

If the 1995 election were rerun today, with the same unions taking the same positions, Sweeney would have lost. This is because two of the largest unions in the Committee for Change, SEIU and the Teamsters, are no longer in the AFL-CIO — they belong to the union federation that broke off in 2005 called Change to Win. Neither is the nation’s largest union, the National Education Association (NEA). Any efforts to influence the AFL-CIO presidential election will have to be targeted at the unions within the AFL-CIO.

The AFL-CIO’s reported membership in 2019 was 12.4 million. The seven largest unions in the federation — the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the AFSCME, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), the Communication Workers of America (CWA — which includes Sara Nelson’s AFA), the United Steelworkers (USW), and the IAM — are more than half that total. Any path to the presidency of the AFL-CIO will require support from at least some of these unions.

This cannot be done by cherry-picking delegates. In 1995, delegates didn’t cast individual votes for the number of members they represented. Whole international delegations voted as one; the only two exceptions were very small unions. Again, this is a top-down process.

The selection of the delegations is also top-down. In only one of the seven largest internationals, the Steelworkers, are delegates elected directly by the membership (they are the international officers and district directors). Of course, because we can’t have nice things, none of us can influence that election, because the USWA delegates to the 2021 AFL-CIO convention were already elected in 2017.

In four of the other six largest internationals — the IAM, the IBEW, the AFSCME, and the UFCW — the president or the international’s executive body selects the delegates (IAM does elect three of their delegates by direct vote, with an arcane nominating system of some complexity). IBEW’s delegates serve for five years, and I can’t find their names anywhere, so they may also have already been chosen. In the AFT and the CWA, delegates are chosen at the international’s conventions. In the AFT, at least, these elections are tightly controlled by the union’s ruling caucus, and wild-card nominees from the floor of the convention will not win.

To sum up: the overwhelming majority of the people in or supporting the American labor movement will have no effective say in how delegates are selected to the AFL-CIO 2021 convention or what choices those delegates make.

And Yet

So what can we do? How can actual members of American unions who want to see Sara Nelson become president of the AFL-CIO make their voice heard between now and the 2021 federation election?

For those readers who are members of AFL-CIO unions, the first step must be basic power analysis. Yes, these unions are large institutions weighted down by inertia, but all are capable of movement and change. Who makes the decisions in these unions? Who influences those decision-makers? Mapping those power relationships should in most cases be possible and will allow for us to determine the vectors of approach possible.

We need robust rank-and-file member education (and leader education) about the role of the AFL-CIO: what it does, and what it doesn’t do. “What do we want out of the next president of the AFL-CIO?” is decidedly not the same question as, “How do we want the American labor movement to change?”

The AFL-CIO doesn’t do new organizing of unorganized workers. It doesn’t bargain contracts, take workers out on strike, or handle grievances. While the AFL-CIO can and should provide moral leadership in those areas, and while the presidency of the federation is a powerful platform to deliver a leadership vision, the very real limitations of the job should be understood.

The possibilities also need to be explored. The AFL-CIO is, even in this day and age, a player on the national stage in political matters. It has very real, if limited, powers in jurisdictional fights between unions. It plays important roles in community campaigns, labor education, and research. And the AFL-CIO is one of the few places within the structure of the American labor movement where different unions can come into the same room to hash out differences or plan strategy.

Moreover, the barriers to entry in the various entities of the AFL-CIO are fairly low. Central labor councils (CLCs) and similar bodies are often starved for volunteers to help. AFL-CIO state federations almost always are engaged in political and organizing campaigns and are eager for union members and members of the public to help them.

Those who want to change the American labor movement would do well to develop a robust vision of how the AFL-CIO can be part of that change, and bring that vision to union halls, CLC meetings, and everywhere else union members gather.

The next step should be to do what can be done to open up closed doors and bring the 2021 AFL-CIO presidential election into the sunlight. This must begin now, because the longer we wait, the more likely the whole thing will be stitched up without our knowledge.

Union leaders at every level, from the shop floor to the international, should be encouraged to speak openly about what they want out of the AFL-CIO. Rank-and-file leaders should press for open meetings and discussions at every level of the union.

Potential candidates for the AFL-CIO presidency should be asked to state their views on crucial questions. While individual union members won’t have much success doing that, there are many venues where this could happen — if the great folks at the Chicago Teachers Union were to invite Sara Nelson, Liz Shuler, and others to publish a statement in their union’s magazine laying out their vision of the AFL-CIO and what they might do if elected, I have to imagine that they would agree. Indeed, AFT president Randi Weingarten would also almost certainly respond to such an invitation, which might be a way to get a read on that important union’s views on the AFL-CIO. In other places, central labor councils might be persuaded to hold debates or fora around the AFL-CIO, to create an environment where engagement at the union-member level is possible.

This won’t be easy. One of the realities of the AFL-CIO is that its internal politics are often low on the list of priorities of internationals and local unions, who are busy with their own unions’ day-to-day concerns. We can expect many labor leaders, even those committed to building a democratic and militant movement, not to have the time or the inclination to pay much attention to the AFL-CIO presidency. It will be the responsibility of those deeply committed to labor to push themselves and labor leaders to place it higher on their list of priorities. That offers the best hope possible of allowing all the voices in the House of Labor to have a say in who its titular head will be in 2021.