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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.