After a bitter public leadership dispute featuring charges of expense account abuse and overreach of executive power, all of the top officers of the AFL-CIO are now back to work. How’s the comity among the leaders? Uhhh.. judge for yourself.
To recap: Earlier this month, Richard Trumka, the president of the 12.5 million-member union federation, abruptly suspended executive vice president Tefere Gebre (the third-highest officer) from his job, pending an investigation into a six-month-old receipt from a strip club that had been filed for reimbursement. Gebre said the receipt was filed in error by his assistant, was never paid, and that Trumka was exceeding his authority; others in the labor movement saw the entire dispute as an attempt by Trumka to get rid of someone he viewed as a political opponent. Gebre was ultimately reinstated, but not before a final exchange of angry letters between the two men.
Now, two weeks have gone by. Might there be any lingering discontent inside America’s most powerful organized labor group? I do not know. I do, however, have here a transcript of speech that Tefere Gebre gave yesterday to the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, which may lend some clues. (Gebre, who was born in Ethiopia and came to America as a refugee, is the only person of color among the AFL-CIO’s top officers.) He began:
Good morning, brothers and sisters.
It’s good to be here.
More importantly, despite what you have heard, I’m not going anywhere.
Heh. And later:
But our demands are not always heard. let us be clear: Not everyone has welcomed the fact that an outspoken black immigrant refugee was elected to one of the top three positions in the American labor movement!
Why is that? Why do some people want us to sit still and be quiet – and “stay in our lane”? Why do some people want us to pretend that the labor movement has solved our own racism problem? Why do they want us to tone down our demands?
I’m here to say what you all know: the scourge of racism, sexism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, discrimination and hate isn’t just a Donald Trump problem. It’s an American problem… and it affects our labor movement just like it affects the rest of our society. AND WE NEED TO CALL IT OUT and FIGHT IT
But our movement is bigger than any election.
Campaigns come and go.
Movements are built over the long run.
Let me go back for a minute to the Movement moment when I was first elected as Executive Vice President of the AFL-CIO. We were in Los Angeles in 2013... and the vision our Convention put forward that year was a vision of a growing Labor Movement that was rooted in our communities and focused on the future.
We saw a future of building strong labor – community alliances in our cities and towns: bringing communities of color and immigrants into partnership with the labor movement and growing our organizing together
This was not just my vision… this was YOUR vision – and the vision of unions all across the board.
But with the election of Donald Trump… We’ve seen a pulling back from that vision. You know that the rhetoric may be there – but the reality of where we spend our resources and our energy has changed.
This line of criticism about the priorities of the AFL-CIO sounds rather familiar.
And finally—bolding ours:
I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to fight.
For worker rights and civil rights.
For voting rights and LGBTQ rights.
For just immigration. For health care as a right.
For clean air and clean water.
For a free press.
For equal pay for equal work.
For a labor movement leadership that looks like the people in this room.
So, might there be some deep, underlying political divisions at the highest level of the AFL-CIO, and the labor movement itself?
Maybe we will find out, one day.