Michigan — October 4, 2011 at 8:14 am

Exclusive interview with Karla Swift – newly-elected president of the Michigan AFL-CIO


Yesterday at their two-day state convention in Detroit, Michigan AFL-CIO members elected Karla Swift as the organization’s new president. Swift replaces Mark Gaffney who led the group for 12 years.

Karla Swift (pictured right with UAW president Bob King in Lansing), is a long-time organizer for the International Union, the UAW and for various community groups. Most recently she was the state director for We Are the People, a progressive coalition of labor and other groups in Michigan.

I spoke with Ms. Smith by phone last night to ask her about her new position and her vision for the Michigan AFL-CIO.

Eclectablog: Congratulations, Karla. This is a big day for you, I’m sure. Let me start by asking why the change in leadership now? Did Mark Gaffney leave on his own or was this a decision that it was time for new leadership?

Karla Swift: Mark served the organization very, very well for 12 years. He made the decision to move on and this was an opportunity for me. My heart and soul is with the labor movement and this was a chance for me to continue to serve. I’ve been working for several months now with the We Are the People state unity table and there’s is a lot of work that needs to get done to stand up for the middle class and working people in Michigan, trying to hold legislators accountable, and rebuild & organize a strong base for holding these elected officials accountable.

Eclectablog: Are you from Michigan, will you live in Michigan?

Swift: I’ve been in Michigan since 1972 and came here after I graduated from high school.

Eclectablog: What will change with new leadership? How will the AFL-CIO look different under Karla Swift than it did under Mark Gaffney?

Swift: One of the things that we are going to work very hard at is having a clear strategic plan, with clear goals that are focused on protecting working men and women and fighting for good jobs with fair pay & benefits. So, we’ll be very goal-driven and a significant part of the work that we’ll do will be building a strong and diverse activist base around working people’s issues. Not just union members’ issues but all working people.

Eclectablog: Labor unions seem to be a major target in Michigan right now. Teachers, in particular, are being besieged by Republicans in the legislature and there is an effort afoot to make Michigan a “Right to Teach” state, if not a “Right to Work” state. What will the AFL-CIO be doing to combat this attack on unionized Michigan citizens?

Swift: Well, you’re absolutely right. There’s a lot going on in Lansing that really has nothing to do with creating jobs. There’s divisive politics and political politicians and CEOs and corporate interests that are setting an agenda that has nothing to do with rebuilding Michigan’s economy. This is time that is wasted on things like tax increases on seniors’ pensions, making cuts to education and giving tax breaks to corporate interests, so there’s a lot of work to be done. Any time Lansing politicians are spending time on anything but creating jobs, it’s really time squandered when Michigan doesn’t have much time to waste.

As for so called “Right to Work” or better-named “Right to Work for Less” legislation, if you look at it, it really isn’t about workers at all. It isn’t about more jobs and it isn’t about higher wages. It’s about Lansing politicians and their powerful corporate interests — it’s a power grab that’s going to hurt the middle class. States that have “Right to Work” have seen their wages drop. The average wage is lowered by about $1,500 for both the union and non-union workers. Seven of the ten states with the highest unemployment today are Right to Work states, so there’s no evidence that Right to Work is an economic strategy that works. It’s a strategy that’s used by corporations and their political friends to lower living standards. And, you know, those are the same corporations that are outsourcing jobs and shipping jobs overseas.

So we’re going to work very hard to hold elected officials accountable and the base that we’re working with, which is both union members and others in the community that care about the same issues, we’re going to be looking ultimately to 2012. Between now and then we’re building toward a new legislature in 2012.

Eclectablog: That leads exactly to my next question, actually. A big part of stopping the attack on unions will be to elect more union-supporting legislators in November of 2012. What role do you see the AFL-CIO playing in the 2012 election? How do you see you and your members participating in that effort?

Swift: Well, we’re starting NOW! Again, we’re working to build a broad, community-based coalition and we’re working in and focusing on areas of the state where we need to shift the control of the legislature; we need to shift control of those seats. So, that’s what we’re going to continue to do. We’re not going to wait until three months or four months or five months before the election to go out to talk to voters and to build our supporter base. We’re doing that now.

Eclectablog: I’m glad to hear that. I’ve been involved with Organizing for America (OFA) and I know that during some of the rallies at the state Capitol, We the People and OFA were working together to get people signed up, basically. Do you plan to use that database that you’ve been assembling? Is that part of a long-term strategy in terms of the 2012 election to get those people engaged?

Swift: Yeah. You know, we had tens of thousands of people at those rallies in Lansing and tens of thousands of people that couldn’t come on those particular days but who feel just as strongly about fighting back and standing up for their interests. So, all of those efforts are going to combine and we’re going to aim all of our ammunition at the targets, as they say, in 2012.

Eclectablog: That seems like a powerful weapon to have, to have a database like that of people who are charged up about an issue. If you can motivate those people to GOTV (Get Out The Vote) their hearts out, that could make a big difference.

Swift: Yep, yep. But it’s not just GOTV. It’s getting people to start having conversations 13 months, 15 months, 18 months before ahead of time with the other people in their lives. In their workplaces and family, friends, and neighbors. That’s really at the heart of base-building.

Eclectablog: Okay, last question: A couple of unions, for example the teachers’ union and the nurses’ union have gotten involved in various recalls around Michigan and in the effort to repeal the Emergency Manager Law which allows Emergency Managers to unilaterally throw away union contracts. The AFL-CIO has chosen not to get involved in any of these efforts. Why is that and do you see this changing?

Swift: Some of our affiliates have been involved at various levels in those activities. I’ll speak prospectively about that. What we want to do, again, is get very focused on what we need to do to make changes in Lansing in 2012. Because we have finite resources and scarce resources, we want to make good strategic choices about how to spend those resources. So, we’ve got affiliates that are doing very good work in those areas but we’re going to do what we can to provide good leadership and stay the course on that set of strategic goals.