Ask the Officers: State of the Union

By Stuart Elliott

Thursday afternoon, one year after their election, the leadership team of the AFL-CIO, President Richard Trumka, Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker, and Secretary Treasurer Liz Shuler, held an online chat billed as “Ask an Officer: the state of the unions.”

The three leaders answered selected questions submitted by email, text, and video. In addition to the video via US stream and the use of Twitter (#sotu2010), the chat used a new-to-me internet tool, Cover It Live, twhich allows chat viewers comment with text messages or twitter feeds while watching an on-line video feed.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

While sessions like this are choreographed, it would be a mistake to see them as just PR bullshit. And it would be a mistake, equally, to see the Trumka-led AFL-CIO as simply Sweeney 2.0. There are some new things happening in the AFL-CIO and it would be wrong not to be open to what is happening.

First, there is a real effort to get out and be in touch with the membership. The Trumka leadership team has been out on the road a lot and is trying new ways to reach its members—and non-union workers. The Young Worker Summit and the Ask an Officer are two examples.

Second, the Trumka AFL-CIO is very serious about reaching out to young workers — inside and outside unions. Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler has made this her project. In yesterday’s chat Shuler made some very interesting remarks that the labor movement must incorporate a “young worker lens” into everything we do.” She asked how could union meetings could be made more fun! Young workers don’t see simply going to meetings as active unionism. How can we give young workers more activities that are in tune with their experiences and expectations?

Third, the Trumka AFL-CIO seems open to new forms of organizing and types of alliances. Trumka made a strong point that the old way of approaching allies didn’t work. The old way was to form an alliance around a specific, pressing issue and when the issue was one or lost, the alliance was over. Instead, Trumka said, labor needs permanent on-going alliances. Arlene Holt Baker talked about participating in the campaign of the Atlanta anti-foreclosure coalition, in which Atlanta DSA has played a leading role. Trumka was enthusiastic about Working America, workers centers, and U-Cubed (the Machinist initiative to organize unemployed workers).

I thought Trumka did a good job of defending the AFL-CIO political strategy of the last two years and laid out a strong case for the progressive achievements of the Obama administration. Trumka chose to answer a question about whether unions should form a labor party. He said it was a valid viewpoint, that should be discussed and debated, but strongly defended the labor-Democratic Party connection.

Other nuggets from the conference:

  • Trumka hinted that there will be legislative action on the Employee Free Choice Act before the end of the year
  • AFL-CIO has the largest grassroots program in the US; five cities are targeted for media-based campaigns that will continue  after the election.
  • Liz Shuler said that the AFL-CIO Labor Day ad was based on research on anti-union attitudes and was just the beginning of a new  communication strategy to improve labor’s image.
  • Arlene Holt Baker, Trumka, and Shuler all made a strong pitch for the October 2 One Nation Working Together rally in DC.

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