The federation has four new strategies to create a ‘new working-class movement.’ Will they work?

David Moberg

Donald Trump may be able to not only roll back many of Barack Obama’s accomplishments, but also change the face of labor law for decades to come. (AFL-CIO/ Facebook)

Dream. Innovate. Act.

The political climate looks grim now, but the AFL-CIO hopes uniting a broader working class movement and its allies around a program for shared prosperity can change the playing field.

That was the slogan for the AFL-CIO’s convention held in Los Angeles last month. It would have captured the mood of the gathering better if it had started with the word crisis.” The convention reflected a continuing struggle by labor leaders to find new strategies, triggered by a sense that the ongoing decline in size and power of their movement has undermined its ability to fight trends toward record economic inequality, more insecure workplaces, and stingy public provision of rights and rewards for working people. 

AFL – CIO President Richard Trumka expressed hope that a new working class movement, using tactics and organizational forms both old and new, can reach and include every working person in the country. All workers need a collective voice, Trumka said: They have to have a voice in the workplace, they have to have a voice in the economy, and they have to have a voice in politics.” 

Despite weak legal protection and employer hostility, Trumka hopes that more workers will join traditional unions, but he envisions many more participating through new organizations and forms of membership including groups open to all working people, even if they do not have a union contract at work. Our job is to create a working-class movement strong enough to lift up all workers in this country,” Trumka said, which would play a major role as well in building a stronger progressive movement. 

Our movement is greater than any particular organization,” the federation’s central resolution on economics declared. It is a movement of all who work and all who seek social and economic justice,” with the goal of shared prosperity.”

But what are the innovations that will make that dream come true? And what kind of action will be required?

Strategy 1: Organizing a New Working-Class Movement

Membership in the AFL-CIO has largely been limited to unions that represented workers on the job and negotiated contracts, but historically the labor movement has involved other institutions, from banks and cooperatives to labor parties. The convention accepted Trumka’s recommendation, reflecting trends already underway, to broaden the ranks of the AFL-CIO not only through conventional organizing but also through new forms of organization and recruitment among currently unrepresented regions, occupations and industries.

Neither Trumka nor anyone else holds out much hope that Congress will soon strengthen protection of workers’ right to organize and bargain with their employers. Yet even under these conditions, many labor leaders believe that unions can — and must — continue traditional organizing. Even in industries where unions have a foothold and a likely advantage in organizing — like auto manufacturing, hotels and hospitality, grocery stores, and hospitals — millions of workers remain unorganized.

Trumka focused, however, on expanding into new areas and using new tactics. For example, he encouraged organizing in neglected, barely-organized occupations and industries such as carwashing, an area that has recently seen some small-scale organizing victories in Los Angeles and New York. 

The AFL-CIO is also calling for more organizing of members into unions even when they cannot engage in collective bargaining. For example, many state laws, especially in the South, do not grant public employees bargaining or other rights that federal laws provide most private sector workers. Other unions, such as the Communications Workers (CWA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), have also organized such many workers who can advocate for their interests even if they cannot negotiate contracts.

Millions of pro-union workers also toil in workplaces where a majority voted against unionization or where there has not been enough support even to call an election. The AFL-CIO’s new strategy implicitly encourages unions to keep these pro-union workers as members, or at least steer them to its community affiliate, Working America. (However, it does not explicitly embrace the idea of pre-majority” unions that attempt to act like unions, even bargaining for their members, although they represent only a minority of employees.)

Trumka also wants union affiliates to help develop plans for organizing more aggressively in the South, an idea that goes back at least to the failed Operation Dixie of the CIO in the 1950s. The South remains a daunting challenge for unions, but a big win at a poultry processor in Alabama last year and the recent United Auto Workers’ announcement that half of the employees at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee have signed union cards both suggest that unionizing in the South is not impossible. 

Trumka wants each affiliate to submit annual organizing plans. The AFL-CIO has been making efforts since 1995 to play a bigger role in organizing, but the federation’s success has mainly been in bringing union organizing directors together to share ideas, providing strategic advice to small unions, and training new organizers. The federation’s individual unions have been reluctant to cede much authority over organizing, except for turning to the AFL-CIO to resolve conflicts over which union has the right to organize a group of workers or one union’s raiding of another’s members. (Even that does not always succeed. On the eve of the convention, the West Coast-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union, historically an influential and progressive union, resigned from the AFL-CIO, in part because it held that the federation had failed to protect it properly from jurisdictional challenges from other unions.) 

Ultimately, organizing workplace by workplace, whether in new industries or regions, may not work to stop unions’ slide without some political, economic, or cultural convergence that triggers a widespread worker upsurge. And that most likely will require as well sparks of militant action — possibly resembling the recent strikes of Wal-Mart, fast food, retail, and warehouse workers.

Strategy 2: Expanding Work With Non-Union Worker Organizations

Unions once saw non-union worker organizations as rivals; now, Trumka says, they want to be partners with such groups, and the AFL-CIO has great hopes for its own non-union union” as a key part of the new working class movement.

In recent decades, a network non-union worker centers” have emerged as advocates, service-providers, law enforcers, and often organizers of workers, many of whom fall through the cracks in labor law and union structures, such as undocumented immigrants and workers not legally permitted to organize (such as domestic workers). 

Initially, worker centers and unions were often wary of each other, but in 2006 the AFL-CIO embraced the National Day Laborer Organizing Network as a partner, and today, the federation and some affiliates work closely with groups such as the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (which has won a domestic worker bill of rights in New York and California) and the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. In an action that confirms the federation’s hopes for a new and closer relationship with these groups, the convention elected Bhairavi Desai, a young Indian woman who heads the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, as the first representative of non-traditional labor groups on the AFL-CIO Executive Council. 

Working America, the 10-year-old AFL-CIO community affiliate,” is one of the main inspirations for the idea that a new working-class movement can grow based on different forms of membership. Working America started organizing non-union workers by knocking on doors in their neighborhoods. Today it claims three million members — roughly one-fourth the number of AFL-CIO union members — and has proven politically effective.

Founding director Karen Nussbaum says that Working America plans within five years to become active in all 50 states (currently, membership is significant” in just half), more financially self-sustaining, and more involved with new forms of advocacy in the workplace and for workplace concerns.” That could involve, for example, creating associate memberships for people with an interest in the field,” as New Mexico Working America has done, working with the International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees to organize 1000 workers in the state’s film industry into Reel Working America. And Nussbaum says the group anticipates recruiting workers who have left union jobs or favored a union in a majority anti-union representation vote. 

Combining unions and non-union worker groups into this broader new working class movement” could in itself make a labor upsurge more likely. And it would likely give working class interests a stronger voice in any new progressive partnerships. 

Strategy 3: A New Progressive Alliance

At the end of the day, it’s up to us to build a movement not for the 99 percent, but of the 99 percent,” Trumka told the delegates. Not just the 11 percent we are right now. The 99 percent.”

That requires alliance — such as the way labor — a large part of it, anyway — allied itself with Martin Luther King, Jr., and vice versa. Dr. King did not hold a union card,” Trumka said. But he walked down a line of National Guard bayonets with us. And he died in Memphis with our union brothers and sisters.”

The labor movement has for many decades maintained alliances with select liberal groups, such as the NAACP or the advocacy group National Farmers Union. It also tried to broaden” its reach through groups that it closely controlled (for example, Frontlash, a 1970s youth group with a very small following). But it rarely joined coalitions or protests it could not effectively control (including the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 years ago). 

Unions and other groups often have allied temporarily and expediently, such as a union joining environmental groups in attacking a company as a polluter as part of a comprehensive campaign” against a corporate adversary, then dropping interest in the pollution once its fight is resolved. Trumka wants to replace these transactional” alliances with closer transformational” relationships that end up changing allies into partners.

Trumka seemed to give special emphasis to bridging our differences” with environmental groups. AFL-CIO political director Michael Podhorzer says that the federation will soon mount a major effort to work on a common agenda, more ambitious than the long dialogue Sweeney undertook with little success. 

But much as the apparent majority of unions support more coalition work, there are limits. Many union leaders shot down Trumka’s trial balloon in late summer suggesting that allies like the Sierra Club might take a seat on the Executive Council and become formally part of the AFL-CIO. We had concerns about the direct affiliation of outside groups,” said Terence O’Sullivan, Laborers’ International Union of North America, though he said making labor part of a progressive coalition sounds fine.”

O’Sullivan remains upset at the Sierra Club’s opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, which he saw as taking food off the table” of his members, but he was equally upset with other unions that took a stand against the pipeline, such as the Communications Workers, who see climate change as a legitimate union issue affecting their members. If it’s good for fellow union brothers and sisters, you have two choices: support it or keep your mouth shut,” said O’Sullivan, reflecting the tradition of deference in the AFL-CIO to whichever union is most affected by a policy.

Once a member of the BlueGreen Alliance, which considers climate change a serious labor issue, O’Sullivan is willing to work again with environmentalists under terms many of them might not like. If they want to talk about passing comprehensive climate change legislation with an all of the above’ [sources of energy] strategy, we’d be more than willing and interested to sit down with them. The energy sector is very big for us, but at this point, absent that discussion, there are not very many places where I see us able to work collaboratively with environmental groups.” 

Other union leaders see more promise in labor-enviromental partnerships. CWA president Larry Cohen helped organize the Democracy Initiative with unions, environmentalists and other groups. They have fought to eliminate the easy Senate filibusters, and Cohen argues that without such a coalition working together last summer, Congress would not have approved the full slate of nominees for the national Labor Relations Board and other stalled nominations, including the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Union leaders are also excited about their closer connection with students, and after the convention, the AFL-CIO announced that its first community partnership would be with United Students Against Sweatshops. Students and unions have also come together over issues such as relieving student debt or supporting unionization of campus workers. 

The AFL-CIO has reached out aggressively to young workers since the last convention, as well as to women and people of color. This is the most energy I’ve seen from young people [at an AFL-CIO convention] and most diversity,” Steelworkers president Leo Gerard said. It’s really uplifting to see these younger people. It looks good for the future.”

But the enthusiasts for the laudable progressive coalition strategy may promise more than any partnerships can deliver soon. For example, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, one of many supporters of the new coalition strategy, declared that union and community together is the new density.” (“Density” refers to the share of an industry or local market that is unionized.) But much as support from community and issue allies can help the labor movement, especially on politics, it is no substitute for density of unionization.

It’s also important to remember that many progressive groups rely, as one community organizer noted, on smoke and mirrors” to amplify their message. Many groups with which labor wants to ally have a shallow relationship with members who do little more than send in a check, while others rely on large funders and have few members. For the progressive coalition to succeed, the actions will have to be more profound than clicking on an e-mail message. Labor could show the way by mobilizing more of its members, many of whom have a weak relationship to their union.

Differences will persist, Trumka acknowledged, be he added that differences can be bridged if the partnerships start with a good foundation. It seems as if planning for such relationships may be transforming the AFL-CIO, and other progressive groups will benefit if they incorporate more of a working-class perspective.

Strategy 4: A New Working Class” Politics?

The strategy adopted by the AFL-CIO may encourage new organizing, but ultimately it makes politics its priority — that is, giving workers a voice in government and economic policy through contesting elections, promoting legislation, engaging in direct action, and other tactics. 

The political climate looks grim now, but the AFL-CIO hopes uniting a broader working class movement and its allies around a program for shared prosperity can change the playing field.

The focus on politics, rather than, say, the workplace, partly reflects the limited role that the AFL-CIO plays in organizing, bargaining, workplace activities and internal union affairs. But politics plays a role in creating a climate for organizing and for expanding the social contract. Despite some differences, most unions manage to work together on politics fairly well and often more effectively through the AFL-CIO than on their own. 

When workers win political power, the entire nation gains, Trumka argued, citing the accomplishments of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the former metalworkers union president and the two-term president of Brazil from 2002 to 2010, whose policies made the economy grow faster and dramatically reduced poverty. Of course, Lula had a vehicle to political power in a parliamentary system — the Workers’ Party. With unions shrinking and the new working class movement still a dream, and with a political-legal system hostile to new parties, the AFL-CIO faces a difficult challenge within the U.S. politics. 

Without a clear political vehicle for unions or the broader progressive movement, the labor movement struggles with its political identity. Labor wants to lead a progressive coalition, and its program is not much different from that of major labor/​social democratic parties, but mainstream leadership of the Democrats are more conservative. 

Many union leaders feel a profound ambivalence about the leadership of the Democratic Party: They need them but cannot entirely trust them. I asked Gerard if he was satisfied with the performance of the Democrats. No, no, who the hell could be?” he answered, but he also strongly affirmed, I’m not going to support an attack on the president.”

The frustrations of labor’s political situation was most evident in the convention’s discussion of Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Although labor and the progressive movement played a big role in winning passage of Obamacare, they lost critical battles against not only business opponents but also top Democrats. At the convention, the hottest topic was over how forcefully to criticize Obamacare for its disadvantaging the multi-employer plans under joint union-employer management that exist in many industries, such as building trades and hospitality.

In the end, this convention’s resolution reaffirms strong support for single-payer health insurance. But Laborers union president Terry O’Sullivan believed that the critique of how the ACA treats multi-employer plans was too weak and called for repeal of the ACA if the administration refused to fix the problem — which it seems unlikely to do. AFL-CIO political director Podhorzer says the new progressive coalition might help voter turnout, noting that in the critical 2010 mid-term elections, union voters split 61 to 37 for Democrats, but overall turnout on the left dropped as it increased on the right. Similar coalitions could shake up local politics, as has already started in the old industrial town of Lynn, Massachusetts. We need stronger partnerships,” Podhorzer said. And an added benefit, he said, is that as we move forward and align more closely [in the new coalition], we will have more impact on the candidates.” 

The AFL-CIO affirmed that the key to labor’s new politics is building a bigger, stronger progressive coalition, but the resolutions and discussion at the convention also made it clear that greater solidarity among unions and their members is as important, if not more so. 

A union’s most natural support should come from other unions, which theoretically is why unions form federations. One top union staffer therefore saw the return of the United Food and Commercial Union to the AFL-CIO from the breakaway Change to Win as the most important development at the convention: that was concrete; everything else was aspirational.”

Through the AFL-CIO member unions do cooperate on political work (while often breaking ranks over primary elections), and in recent elections, the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, and the National Education Association have collaborated. 

Many unions still have a mentality that we can take care of our own fights,” reflecting bygone days of union power. While differences can impede solidarity, in egregious cases of employer attacks unions still often rally together, as in the recent case of a profitable coal company denying pensions to thousands of retirees by putting them in a shell corporation that declared bankruptcy.

After many years during which there was an undercurrent of resentment against foreign workers in industries exposed to global competition and against immigrant workers in the U.S., the labor movement has much more strongly joined the fight for immigration reform and has identified with the global union movement. Many unions have forged increasingly strong global alliances. The Steelworkers, for example, have merged to some degree with UNITE, a prominent British union, and work hard on behalf of Los Mineros, the Mexican miners’ union. And because of ties the Communications Workers have with the German union, Ver.di, thousands of Deutsche Telekom workers wore T-shirts recently saying We are all Josh,” in support of a fired worker, Josh Coleman, who was trying to organize call center workers in the U.S. subsidiary of the German firm T-Mobile. 

Still, as unions reach for partners outside the country and outside the traditional labor movement, they may be missing the greatest potential new source of strength through solidarity — their own members. 

Today, when unions call for rallies, pickets or protests, the turnout in even a big city labor stronghold — take Chicago — rarely adds up to more than a few hundred. There are exceptions, such as marches by thousands of teachers and hotel workers before recent contract expirations, but they are rare. 

Union leaders talk about how they may not have the money that the rich spend on politics, but they have people power. However, they still mobilize a tiny fraction of their potential. It may be true that it’s hard to get more members involved, as union leaders and staff claim, but a few unions have made progress. 

More important, if members can’t be motivated to become engaged in labor and political action for themselves and for other union members, how do unions imagine their new partners will mobilize support for unions?

The obstacle to greater member motivation may not be solely lack of interest or solidarity: Often, leaders don’t want highly engaged members who might be hard to control.

Ultimately, the new strategy is unlikely to succeed if the AFL-CIO unions cannot turn at least one percent of members — just 130,000 workers — into active volunteer organizers of unorganized workers, other current members, and the progressive coalition.

Taking action

Will all the affiliates get behind the new program? Those who are interested will do it,” says Cohen. It’s not about everybody. But it is a signal that the only way to growth is through organizing and partnerships.”

The convention adopted a new common sense economics” education effort that will argue — as both Trumka and Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz told delegates — that the economy is not like the weather. It can be changed. We created this inequality,” Stiglitz said, and the economy is working poorly as a result, It is plain that the only true and sustainable prosperity is a shared prosperity.” 

It is no surprise that many of the ideas under discussion amount to rediscoveries or reinventions of earlier practices, some of them harkening back to the Knights of Labor, a powerful organization in the 1870s and 1880s that aimed to unite all working people, including all trades, industries and skills along with producers,” such as shopkeepers and farmers. It focused on politics, not strikes, to overthrow wage slavery” and build an economy based on worker cooperatives. 

On the other hand, the innovations proposed at the AFL-CIO convention owe less — and less than they should — to another labor ancestor that also dreamed of uniting workers in one big union”: the Industrial Workers of the World. The Wobblies largely eschewed politics in favor of industrial action at work, from strikes to sabotage. 

Strikes are rare and difficult to win these days, but a union movement that does not challenge employers on the job, in the streets and at the ballot box is not likely to revive the workers’ movement. 

Workers need a voice at work, in politics, and in economic policy, Trumka said. But in order to do so, both history and contemporary experience suggest that workers need to have the ultimate voice in their own democratic organizations. And they need the full toolbox of tactics that maximize their power, from stopping production to forging worker solidarity and creating ideologically coherent, progressive majority coalitions. The time is ripe for the message and strategy the AFL-CIO adopted, but only if it includes energizing and organizing the union members themselves, the necessary foundation for its success.

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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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