Labor’s Makeover

Live from the AFL-CIO convention: Federation President Richard Trumka has a dream.

David Moberg

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka urged unions to embrace new forms of membership at the federation's 2013 quadrennial convention. (Linh Do / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, told the federation’s quadrennial convention in Los Angeles on Monday that he wants the federation of unions to broaden itself into a new movement that includes all working people, not only those in traditional labor unions. And he wants that working-class movement to be the cornerstone of a more closely knit, broadly based progressive movement.

'If you work for a living in this country, our movement is your movement,' Trumka said. 'It’s time to tear down the barriers, remove the boundaries between workers.'

Coming shortly after the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Trumka’s effort to inspire leaders of an embattled labor movement invited comparison with Martin Luther King’s famous I have a dream” speech. By that measure, it fell short- — and not just of the unrealistically high bar for public rhetoric. More significantly, the declining labor movement has little of the energy of the ascending civil rights movement 50 years ago.

Persistent corporate and political attacks since the 1970s have weakened unions and put them on the defensive; they’ve not yet found a foothold for a counteroffensive. As a result, over the past several decades, the labor movement lost much of its former power to improve all workers’ lives and create a more egalitarian and democratic society. Many non-union workers came to see unionized workers’ advantages not as the standard that they might share, as they did during the 1940s through the 1960s, but as simply union privilege. And rather than improve the pay of non-union workers to match the union standard, employers increasingly demanded union concessions to match non-union—or overseas — standards. Unions thus lost some ability to protect their gains, and the class solidarity inspired by union-spurred improvements to the lives of all workers was fractured.

Since 1980 or so, Trumka said, the world of the American worker has been turned upside down: The richest Americans took all the new national income, and consequently, The working class is not the middle class any more.”

To reverse the decline, Trumka urged unions to embrace new forms of membership, from organizing workers even when the law or circumstances make it difficult to form traditional unions (such as taxi drivers or domestic workers) to expanding Working America, the decade-old community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

He proposed a new effort to organize traditional unions in the South, the poorest and least unionized region in the country; he also stressed the importance of revised procedures to avoid conflicts among union-organizing campaigns.

To turn America right-side-up,” he said, we need a real working-class movement.” That would be a movement of the 99 percent,” he said, as opposed to the 11 percent now in labor unions, most of whom work under negotiated collective bargaining agreements.

Any worker could — and every worker should — join this new movement, Trumka continued. Neither the government nor employers, both of whom now heavily influence who forms unions, should be able to decide whether a worker can join this movement.

The new working-class movement would include organizations of day laborers, many already partners of the AFL-CIO, and worker centers. It would also encompass workers who left their union jobs as well as union supporters in a workplace where a majority voted against unionizing. Working America, which has already signed up 3.2 million non-union supporters by knocking on doors in working-class communities, plans to target both groups.

In keeping with its emphasis on non-traditional worker organizations, the AFL-CIO gave its Meany-Kirkland Human Rights Award to the International Domestic Workers’ Network (IDWN), which recently succeeded in getting the International Labor Organization to set standards for domestic work.

Though Trumka’s vocal support of organized labor alternatives met with little dissent, his additional pre-convention suggestion that some allies, such as the NAACP or Sierra Club, could become members of the AFL-CIO and share in decision-making ran into resistance and was thus not formally proposed.

Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) General President Terry O’Sullivan said he had no problem working in coalitions or seeing the AFL-CIO as part of a progressive coalition, but he strongly objected to outside groups” having a voice in decisions affecting his members’ job prospects. O’Sullivan has clashed with environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, over building the Keystone XL pipeline, which LIUNA strongly supports. He also advocated restraint by other unions without equity in the jobs, saying they should either support the union with jobs at stake or keep quiet.

On the other hand, Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) division of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which just recently left the Change To Win federation to return to the AFL-CIO, was thrilled” by proposals for closer relationships with non-union allies. We don’t have an option,” he said. In many recent campaigns, including organizing car washers, he pointed out that the union and community groups shared decision-making, which he found useful even though the union did not always prevail.

The future of the labor movement is to be inclusional,” he continued. I’m more optimistic now than I’ve ever been.”

In this vein, the AFL-CIO, along with individual unions, continues to work to include in both the ranks and leadership of the labor movement workers who have been left out in the past — and to address issues particularly germane to them. A higher percentage of delegates at the convention — though still less than their share of union members — were women and people of color than at the last convention. Gay rights — and for the first time, transgender rights — found ready approval in resolutions. The convention adopted the strongest language yet on women having control of their bodies and choice in medical treatments. And there was strong support for a resolution calling for an end to policies, including prison for non-violent drug offenses, that have resulted in mass incarceration,” especially of young men of color.

The AFL-CIO also made an effort to include young workers at the convention and to encourage leadership training for typically underrepresented constituencies. Trumka’s own slate, elected without opposition, included Liz Shuler, 43, re-elected as secretary treasurer, and an Ethiopian political refugee, Tefere Gebre, 45, as executive vice president — both of whom are much younger than most AFL-CIO leaders in the past.

Trumka’s keynote speech exemplified the fact that the labor movement is changing — and talking of even bigger changes to come.

If you work for a living in this country, our movement is your movement,” Trumka said. It’s time to tear down the barriers, remove the boundaries between workers. It’s time to stop letting employers and politicians tell us who is a worker and who isn’t, who’s in our movement and who isn’t. Working people alone should decide who’s in the labor movement.”

But is labor changing enough? Are the changes the right ones? I’ll take up those questions and more in my next report from the convention.

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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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