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.

David Moberg, a senior edi­tor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the mag­a­zine since it began pub­lish­ing in 1976. 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 has 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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