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.

It’s Not Over Except for the Shouting

There it was – a full day without political commercials. Wasn’t it lovely? No 30-second snippets of vitriol, tightly engineered messages of hate and innuendo. Mostly lies, no matter which side of the aisle you come down on.

I approve this message even though in the past I’ve been part of the creative teams who drew up and executed these political “hits.” Find out the candidate’s vulnerability, based on public opinion surveys, then hammer, hammer, hammer. None of it’s real, except for the real impact it can have in persuading otherwise rational people that, yes, so-and-so really is a liar/cheat/incompetent fool. Or, conversely, so-and-so really is a great person, a savior of the people.

Or a real beast …

OK. That’s not real, except for the “Mao” part.

The remarkable thing this year is that there may have come a point of diminishing returns. With the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision unleashing more than a billion dollars in misleading TV ads, mostly from a gang of billionaires led by the Koch brothers, voters apparently were able to tune them out.

How else can we explain the screaming ineffectiveness of the waves of last-minute TV spots? The marketers’ mantra is if you say something enough – particularly if you use engaging images and comforting voices – then people will come to believe it, no matter how improbable. So over and over and over again we got the same messages – particularly the ones about Obama not measuring up to the job, he tried but failed, we need a change.

No doubt that was the message that tested best. We even got it from women sitting at their kitchen tables, without the Harry and Louise dialogue but still with that personable “at home” quality. “My family just can’t take another four years.”

Well, they will. And we don’t have to listen to you again for at least another two years.

There is some relief, then, that the shrill political barkers are gone. But the adverse impact of Citizens United will be with us for many years – until we can get rid of a couple of those business-oriented justices and put the issue to a new judiciary test.

It was interesting to see that Republicans this year avoided challenging California’s requirement that the political shell groups identify their donors – apparently concerned that the billionaire sponsors of the right-wing claptrap would have to drop their masks. Justice Kennedy, the swing vote in the Citizens United decision, clearly stated that unbridled political spending should not be done in secret.

While we wait for the right moment to challenge Citizens United and remove the scourge of big money from our politics, it’s worth noting that we had at least one positive effect of the ruling: It allowed unions to spend money to talk with nonmembers about candidates and issues during the campaign. Thus, while unions were unable to match the firepower of big corporate sponsors in the ad wars, they were able to take their message door-to-door.

That’s the strength the labor movement always has had in politics – people. Even though union membership is on a 40-year slide – from 35 percent of the workforce in 1970 to less than 12 percent today, and less than 7 percent in the private sector – union participation in politics remains high.

Nearly 22 percent of all voters this year identified themselves as being from union households (union members and their families), a number that has been remarkable consistent even as the number of union members has dwindled. Nearly 60 percent of those voters cast their ballots for Obama and other Democratic candidates, also consistent with previous elections.

In Ohio, Wisconsin and Nevada – three crucial swing states – union participation was higher and more pro-Obama, lending credence to claims by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka that the labor movement was instrumental in delivering the election to the president, and key Democrats running in those states. In those states, 65 percent of union members voted for Obama, 70 percent in Ohio.

The automobile industry bailout also helped Obama in Ohio and other states in the Midwest, particularly after Mitt Romney’s people ran ads claiming that Chrysler was planning to ship Jeep production overseas, taking those jobs with them. Chrysler was so incensed by the claim that it gave its union workers Election Day off to go vote their pocketbooks.

While unions have always been able to turn out their numbers – generally voting for candidates they endorse – the difference this year, because of Citizens United, is that they could also work to turn out nonmembers. They used phone-banking and door-knocking to reach these voters, working through their community affiliate Working America, which now has 3 million members.

In the last five days of the campaign, unions and community allies knocked on 800,000 doors in Ohio alone, the AFL-CIO said, with more than 10 million door-knocks and phone calls nationwide.

Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, who spent the last month of the campaign crisscrossing the swing states, credited the activists who poured their heart and soul into the campaign, reaching out to tell their stories about why we need to give President Obama another four years to finish the job. “That’s what cuts through the noise of all those negative ads,” she said.

As we recover from the bitter campaign and ponder the years ahead, don’t expect the earnest sounds of kumbaya to continue. The sense of renewed hope will get a quick reality check as we head into a lame duck session of Congress, always an adventure. There is a “fiscal cliff” on the horizon, as you may have heard.

In fact, labor is already developing plans to fight tax cuts for the wealthy and efforts to cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. House Speaker John Boehner may be smiling and cooing right now, but he has designs on the shape of any “compromise” to resolve the debt issue.

So the fight between two competing visions for our nation goes on. But it will occur much more quietly for a while, which is a relief and a danger. Don’t stop paying attention.