Good Vibrations in LA

Hope was a byword of the AFL-CIO Convention this year, and the positive vibe was contagious even long distance.  As the federation wrapped up its business in Los Angeles this week, the positive signs were all around, even with the challenges that lie ahead. Labor seems fit for the organizing, bargaining and legislative campaigns coming up.

As veteran AFL-CIO News staff writer David Perlman remarked, it was an impressive show. “The odds are daunting but there is real hope for a youthful new movement that can make a difference,” he wrote. “Quite a change from the conventions I remember.”

David remembers, as I do, how the leaders of the movement were derided as pale, stale and male – it wasn’t that long ago, in fact. This year, reporting on the convention was uniformly positive, including this column by Harold Meyerson of the Washington Post, which points out that the labor movement suddenly seems younger and more diverse.

As Meyerson writes, “This is the first AFL-CIO convention – meetings attended chiefly by union leaders, not rank-and-filers – that hasn’t looked like a bunch of middle-aged white guys. The union movement now looks like the new America – and is trying to figure out how best to champion that new America’s interests.”

Much of the credit for the youth movement goes to Liz Shuler, the federation’s No. 2 officer behind President Richard Trumka. Shuler’s election as secretary-treasurer four years ago was exhilarating precisely because she is young and female — and very smart. She and Trumka immediately set up the Young Workers Advisory Council to empower younger workers, and Shuler conducted a series of meetings with young workers around the country, including two national conferences.

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Liz Shuler went on a mission to raise the profile of young trade unionists.

By pushing young activists to the forefront, Shuler was successful in stirring the cauldron. Other leaders have emerged. Among the resolutions passed by the delegates was one that transformed the Young Workers Advisory Council into the Young Workers Organization with a mission to “empower the next generation of labor leaders to challenge, inspire, build and organize around issues that directly affect their generation.”

The resolution recognized “that the Young Worker Program will lead a diverse and vibrant young labor movement made up of rank-and-file union members, progressive allies, community groups and students that will advance social and economic justice and ensure that all people have the opportunity to secure a better future.”

Putting policy into practice, the delegates elected Tefere Gebre, a 44-year-old former Ethiopian refugee, to serve as the new executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, the No. 3 officer, succeeding Arlene Holt Baker, who raised a vigorous voice for civil and worker rights during her tenure.

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Tefere Gebre, a former Ethiopian refugee, became a political force as executive director of the Orange County, Calif., Labor Federation.

Gebre, as the executive director of the Orange County, Calif., Labor Federation, combined union organizing, community activism and political savvy to help convert notoriously conservative Orange County into a pro-worker bastion – now represented in Congress by Rep. Loretta Sanchez, herself a former union activist.

The AFL-CIO Executive Council also elected as a vice president of the federation the first leader not of a union, but a worker “center” — Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a nonunion group that battles for immigrant workers. She will bring a new perspective to the AFL-CIO leadership.

So the labor movement is prepared for a new dawn that draws on the energy and expertise of a younger, more diverse leadership – and also the more direct input from its natural allies in the civil rights, religious, environmental, women’s rights groups and other progressive standard-bearers. As the New York Times’ Steven Greenhouse reported, “at times the convention seemed like a mass group therapy session, with a consensus reached that major changes were needed.”

The devil is in the details, they say, and the exact framework of the new labor-community federation sanctioned by the delegates has yet to be defined. How will the allies from other progressive groups be integrated into the labor movement to expand the reach and raise the voice of ordinary workers?

How the new vision is framed going forward will determine the success or failure of the mission. It can’t stop with the adjournment of the convention. But for someone who has devoted much of his working life to the success of the labor movement, I am cheered by the actions of the delegates at the 2013 convention.

While the federation works at revitalizing itself, it is not abandoning the essential fight to preserve worker protections that have been enshrined in U.S. law for 75 years, but which have been chipped away steadily by the business lobby and its legislative ideologues at every level of government.

The first resolution passed by the convention deal with protections for the right to organize and bargaining collectively, calling for major labor law reform that, among other things, eliminate the state preemption of federal labor laws through so-called “right-to-work” laws. See the full recommendations here:

As the resolution points out, on two occasions the majority in Congress and the president had supported comprehensive labor law reform but both times it stalled when a minority of senators managed to tie it up with filibusters.

That’s why labor must continue to exercise its power at the ballot box, to use its energy and moxie to elect people who support workers’ rights and to defeat those who support corporate rights over employees. Because it has the people, and a capacity to energize and mobilize them, labor has always played above its weight class in election campaigns.

AFL-CIO leaders made clear they intend to recommit the federation to political action at the state level, aiming at states where governors and legislators have been hostile toward workers, suspending bargaining rights for public employees and enacting new anti-worker laws.

“We’ll get a huge influx (of energized workers) on state races because they lived under repressive regimes,” AFL-CIO Political Director Michael Podhorzer told a press briefing at the convention. AFSCME President Lee Saunders, who heads the AFL-CIO Political Committee, didn’t name names but clearly singled out Govs. Rick Snyder (R-Mich.), John Kasich (R-Ohio), Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Scott Walker (R-Wis.) for special attention. They all face re-election campaigns next year.

Our nation is better off if the AFL-CIO is alive and well. Join a union if you have a chance, but connect with the labor movement any way you can. It is a force for economic and social justice in America. We need it now more than ever.

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.