Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Labor Movement's 1%?

Amid the speeches and rallies at the AFL-CIO Convention this past week in Los Angeles, there were many resolutions passed, as well as a handful of amendments to the AFL-CIO constitution.  Most of the resolution and amendments were what you would expect from a labor convention.  There were resolutions opposing efforts to privatize the Tennessee Valley Authority, as well as one supporting the American Labor Museum.  There was also an amendment recognizing the role of young workers with a seat on the Executive Board.

Then there was Constitutional Amendment 11.

Here is the amendment in its entirety:
Submitted by the Executive Council
 Referred to the Constitution Committee

Article V, Section 5 is amended as follows (New language in bold and italics)
Section 5

(a) The President, Secretary-Treasurer, and Executive Vice President, or any one of them, after having served five years as an Executive Officer of the Federation and either having reached age 65 or having served in any capacity a total of 20 years with any organization affiliated with the Federation, and/or with the Federation, shall, upon leaving office, have the title of President Emeritus or Emerita, Secretary-Treasurer Emeritus or Emerita and Executive Vice President Emeritus or Emerita and shall render such service to the Federation in an advisory and consultative status as is mutually agreed to by the Executive Council and the emeritus or emerita officer.

(b) The President Emeritus or Emerita, Secretary-Treasurer Emeritus or Emerita and Executive Vice President Emeritus or Emerita shall, in consideration of their active service prior to leaving office, be afforded for life a pension, payable weekly, in an annual amount equal to 60 percent of either the highest annual salary received as an Executive Officer or thereafter paid to the corresponding Executive Officer, whichever is greater. If, after attaining eligibility for this pension, such Executive Officer shall die, either before or after receiving such pension, the Officer’s surviving spouse shall be paid an annual annuity for life, payable in weekly installments, of 30 percent of either the highest salary received by such Executive Officer, as an Executive Officer, or thereafter paid to the corresponding Executive Officer, whichever is greater. The Executive Council is authorized and directed to enter into a legal and binding agreement with the President, the Secretary-Treasurer, and the Executive Vice President to make these retirement compensation and annuity benefits payable by the Federation for their intended duration pursuant to the terms and conditions of this Section. The Executive Council is also authorized to provide, after such benefits become non-forfeitable, for (1) the cash-out of a portion of these retirement compensation and annuity benefits (through accelerated payment of the present value thereof) where the officer will be subject to taxes on the value of benefits not yet otherwise payable, and (2) appropriate arrangements, including payment by the Federation, for payment of employment taxes attributable to these retirement compensation and annuity benefits. Notwithstanding the foregoing, the Executive Council is authorized to modify or eliminate the benefits provided in this section. 

When I first read this amendment, I didn't really think anything of it.  After all, I am all in favor of pensions, as just about anyone in the labor movement is.  The crisis around Social Security has far more to do with companies reneging on employee pensions than it does about baby boomers - but I digress.

When I really started to dig into the language of this amendment, I began to realize just how tone deaf the leadership of the labor movement has become.  The amendment awards pension in the amount of 60% of the officeholder's highest grossing year after 5 years on the Executive Council, or 20 years with any affiliated labor organization.  This also increases any time a current officeholder's salary is increased in order to keep up with inflation.

This happens to work out great for Richard Trumka, who served three terms as the president of the United Mine Workers of America(UMWA).  Given his length of time as an officer with UMWA, he almost certainly is eligible to draw a pension from that organization.  Now he is eligible to draw a pension from the AFL-CIO that as of 2012 would pay him an estimated $166,000 annually for life.

It works out even better for Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler.  According to the amendment, an officer becomes eligible for the lifetime pension when they either reach retirement age, or their total service time with affiliated labor organizations reaches 20 years.  Guess which year Liz Shuler took her first staff job with the IBEW?  That's right, 1993.  I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt, but you have to admit that's one hell of a coincidence.  I'm 33, and Ms. Shuler is not all that much older than I am.  She could decide to leave the AFL-CIO tomorrow, and under this new amendment, she would collect roughly $146,000 a year.  This is remarkable since she easily has 15-20 years before she is retirement age.

At a time when the AFL-CIO is out railing against the 1%(and rightfully so) and the inequality of wealth in the workplace, it seems unfathomable that they would pick this moment to make the divide between the rank and file union member and their leadership even wider.  To do so in such a public fashion is even more stunning.  This sort of excess harms the labor movement and does little to dispel feelings among the average worker that their union leadership is out of touch with the day-to-day struggle in the shop.

The bottom line is that while there shouldn't be an issue with our leaders being fairly compensated - that's what we're fighting for after all - but it should be done in a common sense way that is not excessive.  

Maybe next convention someone will have the good sense to introduce an amendment inspired by the United Electrical Workers(UE) that restricts the salary of the national president to the same level of the highest dues paying member.  Given the diversity of the workers in the house of labor, they'd still be doing pretty well for themselves.

In Solidarity,


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