Reinventing Labor

Although I’m not on the scene, the pressure that labor faces this week at the AFL-CIO Convention in Los Angeles is palpable across the nation. The labor movement is at a crossroads, and major changes are on the horizon. We will soon see if the federation can implement a radical plan to revive a labor movement that, left to continue its decline, is headed to the ashbin of history.

ImageThe evidence for labor’s possible demise is depressingly clear, given the depths to which this vital counterweight to corporate power has sunk since 1970. Once representing a robust 37 percent of American workers in 1954, the U.S. labor movement now represents less than 11.3 percent of the labor force – only 6.6 percent of the private sector.

As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka noted in his keynote address this morning, “At the end of the day, it’s on us to build a movement not for the 99 percent, but of the 99 percent. Not just the 11 percent we are right now – the 99 percent.” Trumka is proposing major changes in the structure of the federation to achieve this broader base of support, a bold move to inject formal religious, environmental, civil rights, women’s rights and other progressive advocacy into the federation’s structure.

These groups are natural allies, although sometimes the common grounds have been rocky. It remains to be seen how much a majority of unions in the AFL-CIO are willing to cede to outside organizations in the drive to survive. Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times reports here.

Leaving aside for the moment the all-important corporate assault on labor law, a little history is in order.

Back in 1984, union presidents voted to create a “Committee on the Evolution of Work,” chaired by Secretary-Treasurer Thomas R. Donahue, to anticipate changes in the workforce so the labor movement could adapt and succeed in the 21st century.

ImageThe resulting final report in 1985, “The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions,” served as a blueprint for important structural changes for the federation over the next several decades, including:

Union Privilege, a benefits program that increased the purchasing power of union members, from credit card and home mortgage to travel and dental care discounts.

Working America, an associate membership program that allowed nonmembers to participate in the political and community activity of the labor movement.

Those programs, as important as they have been to giving labor a toehold among workers who would not or could not join unions, have not been enough to stem the tide swamping the labor movement. But Working America, in particular, is now seen as a model for the kind of affiliation that could transform labor into  “a movement of the 99 percent,” in Trumka’s words.

By walking neighborhoods and organizing for community issues, Working America has kept millions of Americans informed and energized for election campaigns. Karen Nussbaum, the founding director of Working America, used her 9-to-5 organizing skills to organize for political action, especially in Ohio where those votes have been critical in recent elections.

These millions of Americans who are not union members have signed up to join Working America, for a nominal fee, because they want to participate in a campaign to help working families, to create good jobs and services in their communities. Using email and Twitter, plus viral marketing with YouTube and the social media, an expanded labor movement built on the Working America model, with millions of potential new members, can rival MoveOn or Organizing America to promote collective action.

Image

Trumka: “We need to organize ourselves in ways that fit with the jobs people do now and how the economy works now.”

You don’t have to be a member of a bargaining unit to be a part of the movement for social and economic justice, Trumka says. People want a culture shift, “We heard that all over America, workers are organizing in all kinds of ways and they call their unity by all kinds of names – workers’ unions, associations, centers, networks. We need to organize ourselves in ways that fit with the jobs people do now and how the economy works now.”

This may seem obvious, but many institutions have failed to adjust to a new environment, and simply faded away. Labor must tailor its organization to match the needs of workers and the economy, and not demand that they fit the organization. We must change. Steve Smith of the California Labor Federation outlines how a broad-based associate membership for nonunion allies might work here.

How that idea is translated into practice remains to be seen. Some unions are concerned about organizations at cross-purposes on some issues – the building trades and the Sierra Club over the Keystone XL pipeline, for example – and how those differences are resolved.

ImageBut strange bedfellows can be powerful allies, as witness the blue-green alliance, which for the past decade has promoted green industries, retrofitting and community redevelopment. The advantages of forging more formal alliances far outweigh any other consideration. The only question is how much will it cost to join this super labor movement.

And will it have the punch to lure back those big unions that abandoned the federation eight years ago? One of those unions, the Teamsters, has used its “independence” to raid several AFL-CIO unions, organizing the organized at American Airlines. This kind of power grab was specifically outlawed in Constitutional Article XX, another good recommendation by the Donahue Committee.

Article XX could have undergone a facelift as a result of the unfriendly actions by the Teamsters, which still works bilaterally with other AFL-CIO unions and coordinates some political activity. But the proposed constitutional amendment to allow the federation to punish non-members for raiding member unions was left on the table. The suggestion of a new era of union hostilities certainly is not the message Trumka wants to send as he tries to grow the federation. But what is to be done with the Teamsters?

Trumka prefers to highlight the return of the United Food and Commercial Workers, a million-member union that was welcomed back to the federation with much pomp and ceremony at the opening day session on Sunday. Another prize would be the Service Employees International Union, which led the disaffiliation charge eight years ago but is also the mover and shaker behind the one-day strikes for higher wages by fast-food workers, and other campaigns for a living wage and immigrant rights.

But the big story out of the convention will be what is the shape of the labor movement going forward. There must be some concrete steps to expand the vision and the organization of the AFL-CIO. This is a time for change, and there’s really nothing to lose.

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