This report from Daniel Randall as Assistant Chair of the Bakerloo branch of the RMT rail union is taken, with thanks, from RMT London Calling, the website of RMT London Transport Region..
Three activists from the RMT Bakerloo branch attended, via Zoom, the Saturday 21 November convention of the Vermont State Labour Council (AFL-CIO) as observers. The convention was attended by nearly 100 delegates and guests, from local union branches and campaign groups, as well as a number of elected city councillors. As a state-wide federation, the rough equivalent to the Vermont AFL-CIO in the British labour movement would be one of the regions of the TUC, such as London, East, and South East TUC (formerly SERTUC).
The convention’s two major items of business were to discuss a resolution (see below) calling for a general strike in the event of an attempt by Donald Trump to sabotage and obstruct the election result, and to discuss a series of democratic reforms to the union federation’s own standing orders.
In opening the convention, Vermont AFL-CIO president David Van Deusen said the labour movement had to make itself a tribune of democracy: defending existing formal democracy against a potential Trump coup, but also fighting for a much fuller, more accessible democracy, including economic democracy, as well as transforming the movement itself to make it more democratic.
The business of the convention was conducted in a highly open and accessible fashion, with all delegates able to have their say, and propose amendments to the motions from the floor. Those expressing minority viewpoints were encouraged to speak up and share their views. Executive officers said that bringing the motion to the convention was an important way to give rank-and-file delegates input and ownership over strategy and perspectives, rather than simply having it determined from above.
In the discussion around the general strike resolution, delegates emphasised that the purpose was not merely to defend the victory of one man, Joe Biden, against another man, Donald Trump, but to make organised labour and workers’ action central to a wider movement against the authoritarianism, racism, and bigotry represented by Trumpism. Many delegates stressed their opposition to the neoliberal policy agenda of Biden and the Democratic Party leaders, and said the labour movement had to prepare for action to make demands of a Biden administration.
There was some debate over whether the motion was constitutionally admissible, given that local AFL-CIO federations are not able to directly call strikes or issue instructions to their affiliated unions. AFL-CIO national president Richard Trumka had written to the Vermont AFL-CIO to declare the resolution unconstitutional. Many delegates expressed frustration with his intervention, reminding the convention that the resolution was not intended to be a binding instruction but merely a call advocating a general strike in certain circumstances. One delegate asserted it would be good if President Trumka had been as quick to speak out on the need for unions to defend democracy as he had been to try to prevent discussion of the resolution.
In an indicative vote on the resolution, in which both delegates and observers were entitled to vote, 92% supported it. In the formal vote, the resolution was carried with 39 in favour, five against, and one abstention.
Although Vermont AFL-CIO is a small federation, representing around 10,000 workers, the adoption of the resolution has significant symbolism. It shows that activists in the US labour movement are thinking politically about the role of organised labour, including how to face down legal restrictions on workers’ ability to struggle in defence of rights in the workplace and wider society.
A political general strike would, in both Britain and America, be illegal; whilst simply demanding workers take illegal action without adequate preparation and organisation would have little grip, unions must challenge and ultimately defy the laws that shackle us.
RMT supports Free Our Unions and the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom, which campaign against anti-union legislation. Such campaigning has to be stepped up, especially in the context of Tory plans to impose further restrictions on transport workers’ right to strike.
Following the adoption of the resolution, a workshop session was held to discuss strengthening rank-and-file engagement across unions. Vice President Tristin Adie gave a presentation on the principles of rank-and-file organising, looking at how these had been applied in a 2018 nurses’ strike in Vermont. The presentation emphasised the need for independent working-class organisation and self-activity. As Adie put it: “No-one is coming to save us.” Breakout groups discussed the challenges delegates faced in organising at work.
The convention’s final plenary session discussed and passed a series of reforms to the federation’s standing orders, which aimed to widen rank-and-file participation and increase the number of officer positions which were directly elected. Cold War-era language in the standing orders was replaced with new statements affirming the federation’s commitment to anti-racism and anti-fascism. It was an honour to attend the convention and witness the adoption of a historic resolution.
We hope to be able to welcome Vermont AFL-CIO activists to an RMT meeting in the near future.