The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, August 09, 2013

AFL-CIO seeks strategies to reverse labor movement’s losses

By The Building Tradesman

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer 

WASHINGTON (PAI) – Leaders of the AFL-CIO will ask delegates at its convention, scheduled Sept. 8-11 in Los Angeles, to enact a massive revamp of the labor movement, the federation’s Executive Council learned on July 24.

The revamp is a result of hundreds of forums and discussions unions have hosted for months, discussing reasons to revitalize the movement and how to restore worker power.  What convention delegates must do is figure out the nuts and bolts of the reconstruction, in small-group sessions in Los Angeles.

“What we’ve been doing sure hasn’t been producing the results that we would like to see, and we have to change,” said AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka to The Wall Street Journal.

The revamp dialogue drew 4,700 people to forums hosted by state feds, unions and central labor councils, along with 75,000 AFL-CIO Convention 2013 page views and almost 3 million Facebook and Twitter posts, “shares” and “retweets.” Trumka presented the preliminary results to the council.

“It was ‘Let a thousand flowers bloom,’” Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s Occupational Safety and Health Director, told reporters about the results of the listening sessions.

The revamp is needed, Trumka says, because the labor movement faces a huge crisis, as private-sector union density is at its lowest point since the 1920s.  That lessens labor’s influence and hurts workers, union and nonunion, nationwide, by removing a counterweight to corporate greed.

Only 7 percent of private sector workers are unionized. And public-sector unions, whose growth helped lessen the slide in overall U.S. union density, have also seen membership declines since the Great Recession hit. Overall, the percentage of both public and private unionized workers in unions dropped from 11.8 percent in 2011 to 11.3 percent in 2012.

“The labor movement is organized around the workforce that was, not is.  With the growth of the service sector, the self-employed and contingent workers, the labor movement needs to change,” Seminario says.

All that led the AFL-CIO into discussing whether the federation should transform itself into a voice for workers, organized and unorganized, with an eye towards eventually organizing and bargaining for the newer members.

The big goal everyone put first was that labor should elevate one issue, quality jobs, to the top of its list and keep it there, an interim report to the council says.

And respondents said labor should not abandon or downgrade the key way to achieve that goal, collective bargaining, but supplement it with other avenues to good jobs and other goals.  And that labor can’t do it alone and with its present structure.

The quality jobs goal ties in with another theme respondents want: Pushing an “agenda of shared prosperity and of holding corporations accountable” for their actions.  That includes re-instituting progressive tax rates, a financial transactions tax and “a massive jobs program” the report explains.

“This was about organizing and broadening the labor movement, increasing political power and involvement and also about how to deal with a global economy,” Seminario said.   “We need to look at new initiatives to enable more people to become part of the labor movement.”

What the delegates must decide is how to get there, she admitted.

“Participants were nearly universal in calling for more organizing, even as they collectively suggested many things that ‘organizing’ might mean,” the report says.  “Perhaps the most widely held opinion is that we need a more open conception of what it means to be part of the labor movement” including “organizations for workers that are outside the tortured paradigm of the National Labor Relations Act.”

Seminario said respondents frequently cited Working America, the AFL-CIO’s group for people who won’t or can’t join unions, as an example of how to add members.

The report also recommends labor reach out more to community allies, religious groups, women, people of color and the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender community. 

That communication must be a two-way street, Seminario said.  “We have to be more aggressive and affirmative” in both joining together with those groups and in agreeing on and campaigning for a joint agenda and each other’s causes, she added.

Participants also reiterated – strongly – that labor should make it clear it is not tied to the Democratic Party, and vice versa.  They said labor’s political operations should emphasize issues, such as higher wages, a living wage, the rights of public workers and shared prosperity, and not politicians.  

But they split on the nuts and bolts.  A minority argued for stronger ties to the Democrats, while holding Dems accountable for votes on workers issues.  The majority split over whether labor’s political operation should concentrate on “competitive races we can affect” or undertake a 50-state strategy, with more emphasis on the heavily non-union, and growing, South.  There was no discussion about Republicans in the report.

Political structure is also a problem, the report says.  Much of labor’s political campaign apparatus is channeled through state federations and local central labor councils and “many are not well-resourced and staffed for increased activity”