Whither Labor

Four years ago, in Pittsburgh, the American labor movement was retooling for the challenge of an economy gone terribly wrong. Rich Trumka, the fiery former coal miner and inveterate boat rocker, was assuming the helm of the AFL-CIO with a warning shot across the bow of Wall Street and K Street. And he elevated two feisty women, labor leaders in their own right, as his top lieutenants.

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Arlene Holt Baker, Rich Trumka and Liz Shuler taking the reins of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations in 2009. Holt Baker announced her retirement at the 2013 convention

This was not your father’s labor movement. Liz Shuler, the tough and polished Oregon legislative aide, electrical worker, editor and union leader was elected Secretary-Treasurer, and Arlene Holt Baker, daughter of a Texas domestic worker who rose through the ranks of AFSCME, the nation’s largest public employees union, was elected Executive Vice President. Trumka, the new president of the AFL-CIO, was introduced with a video biography, which I’m proud to say I helped to create.

I drafted all of the speeches for Trumka and his new leadership team as they left that convention and stormed into Cleveland, site of some of the worst foreclosure rates and neighborhood blights; Atlanta, where the religious community was rallying around minorities who were being “redlined” by the mortgage industry; and Wall Street, scene of the crime. In Cleveland, as in every location, Trumka decried the human cost of globalization: “The real tragedy of globalization,” he said, “is that corporations have lost their sense of community. They’ve turned their backs on America. … The system is broken.”

In the boisterous rally before tens of thousands on Wall Street, Trumka recited the litany of abuses by the titans of Wall Streets and said, “we’re going to fight you!” “We’re going to tell the truth about what you’re doing,” he said. “And we’re advocating for new regulations to make sure the financial sector is the servant to the real economy, and not its master.”

In that one whirlwind weekend, Trumka also addressed labor-environmental issues in a New York international confab and supported a New York borough community-based development campaign spearheaded by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), a former member of the federation.

It was a brilliant beginning, but many wonder whatever happened to that determined leader and his team. True, they’ve spent a lot of time cultivating a “new base,” younger workers, students and low-wage workers. But little has been done to heal the wounds of the labor movement, except for Trumka’s recent announcement that the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) will rejoin the federation.

That is big news, and it will not go unnoticed at this convention. The UFCW represents more than a million retail workers at America’s groceries and other services, and it’s a mature union with a storied history within the overall labor movement. And it’s no coincidence that the UFCW is the parent union of the RWDSU. Trumka has been persistent in his pursuit of the Food and Commercial Workers and calls Joe Hansen, UFCW’s president, a good friend.

The UFCW was one of the major unions that defected from the AFL-CIO in 2005 – a ceremonious “disaffiliation” led by the Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters. Trumka’s professed goal in assuming the presidency in 2008 was to reunite the labor movement. The UFCW decision is a small first step.

Still, the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union (ILWU) announced last month that it is leaving the federation, and the East Coast-based International Longshoreman’s Association could follow. Others have indicated their irritation at Trumka and current federation policies, and particularly the AFL-CIO’s close affiliation with President Obama.

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Trumka and President Obama have made no secret about their fondness for each other.

Trumka’s political moxie definitely is at issue given his strong support for President Obama, who he has hailed a hero for working class Americans, someone who is working for our best interests. The jury is still out on Obama, who has consulted with labor even as he ignored its counsel. Obama has fallen far short of labor’s proposals for financial reform, among other issue.

As the 2013 convention gets underway this week, Obama’s promise and resolve are very much on the line as he prepares to address the delegates on Monday, Sept. 9. Obama has received his share of criticism among unions for his less than wholehearted support for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and its champion, Elizabeth Warren, now senator from Massachusetts who will deliver what is described as “one of the keynotes” of the convention.

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Elizabeth Warren, apostle for bank regulation.

Obama also has been slow to address major concerns raised by unions about his signature health care program, Obamacare. Unless changes are made, the law will penalize multi-employer plans that provide good benefits at minimal cost. Also, we need to know what avenues exist for people who fall through the cracks of states that refuse to extend the benefits.

Four years ago, I was at the AFL-CIO convention working on the speeches for Trumka, Shuler and Holt Baker in Cleveland, Atlanta, Columbus and New York’s Wall Street. It was an exciting time in which everything seemed possible. Four years later, while I may wish I were there in L.A. with the gang, I’m thinking I’m in the best position now to take stock in what is happening.

Join me here over the next week or so to learn more about the history and the future of the American labor movement. They are indelibly linked.

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