The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, September 20, 2013

Trumka strongly defends including outside groups into labor movement

By The Building Tradesman

By Mark Gruenberg

PAI Staff Writer 

LOS ANGELES (PAI) – AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is strongly defending his plans to include outside groups – environmentalists, civil rights groups, women’s rights advocates, immigrants’ groups and more – in the labor movement, despite criticism from many unions.

A group of unions, led by the building trades, are extremely upset by Trumka’s plans to bring other progressive groups into the labor movement, even in as yet-to-be-defined roles.  Other opposition may be from unions that work closely with both political parties.

Broadening the labor movement is a main topic at the AFL-CIO Convention in Los Angeles, which ran Sept. 8-11.

Tefare Gebre, a California union leader who will succeed Arlene Holt Baker as the fed’s executive vice president, described the broadening even more bluntly. “We’re on the verge of creating a labor movement that speaks for all workers,” he declared.  “It doesn’t matter if you have a (union) card in your pocket or not.”

Trumka said the AFL-CIO’s leaders “know we’re in a crisis right now,” adding “none of us are strong enough” or organized enough to change the U.S. anti-worker, pro-corporate political climate.

“None of us are big enough” to create those changes, he told a pre-convention press conference on Sept. 8, speaking of unions, environmentalists, immigrant groups, community groups, civil rights groups, women’s groups, gay-lesbian-bisexual-trans-gender groups.  All participated in six months of listening sessions before the conclave.

“We want to change our relationship” with the other groups “from transactional to transformational,” Trumka explained. “What we used to do is to get a plan and go to our allies and say ‘Here’s a plan, sign on.’  Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t.  Now we’ll say, ‘Here’s a problem.  Let’s create a strategy.’”

But even while creating that new strategy and structure is still a work in progress, several unions are very upset about it.  Led by the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department, those unions – and other unions whose membership is more evenly split politically – object to giving the non-union groups a huge voice in labor’s decision-making.

The building trades, specifically, charge that environmental groups in particular oppose construction projects that would create jobs.  One of every 11 construction workers is officially unemployed, latest federal data show.  Construction union leaders say that understates joblessness in their sector.

“We will have conflicts” with the other groups, Trumka admitted.  “We’ll work them out.  And we’ve worked out the details and provided safeguards” for the dissenters’ concerns, he added, without elaborating. But the solution is not going into a room, and putting your hands over your ears and saying ‘Aaaa…’” Trumka said.  “We’re not going to have a labor movement.”

Other unions that know they must work with both political parties say the alliances with other progressive groups risk tying labor too closely to the Democrats – a position Trumka implicitly rejected at the press conference.

“There are many representatives in the Democratic Party who are friends of labor, and some who are acquaintances and some who are less than friends,” he said.  “We’ll work with people and candidates that support us.  When they are right, we’ll support them, and when they’re not we’ll oppose them.”