How Do We Create a Robust Movement for Working People? Here’s What You Said


For the past several months, the AFL-CIO has been asking you how we can create momentum around the commitment to building a stronger future for working people.

In mid July, we examined what people have been telling us in our in-person listening sessions and online. To date, more than 4,700 people attended in-person listening sessions, including four regional state federation and central labor councils and more than 950 comments were posted to www.aflcio2013.org.

Here are some highlights of those conversations:

Collective Bargaining and Bread-and-Butter Issues Are Important to Workers

As long as people have bosses, they are going to have problems with them. People would like an institutional buffer between their bosses and themselves. People would like to have strong seasoned negotiators winning them better conditions and pay.

Participants inside and outside the labor movement were clear in the belief that collective bargaining is important and that the labor movement should add to the things it does, not replace them. Representation on the job and collective bargaining for the best possible wages and benefits are incredibly powerful tools for working families and communities, and the degradation of pay and the growth of precarious employment deeply concerns broad swaths of America’s society. Collective bargaining is a unique source of power for the labor movement, our connection to the real economy and the lives of union members, and it makes labor distinct. Participants think it is important that the training and infrastructure are in place for younger workers to take over these tasks. Attention to bread-and-butter issues has importance outside of collective bargaining and provides a key opportunity to fight injustice and build a presence in the community. Many examples of labor support for worker centers and independent worker actions have been identified, and many commenters believe this is a key to a broader conception of a successful labor movement. Participants approve of the labor movement’s call for shared prosperity as a way to bring a public focus on pocketbook issues but believe the messaging should be sharpened and amplified. Confronting low wages as a social problem would build a direct connection to nonunion workers.

Enable More People to Be Part of the Labor Movement and Create New Models of Representation—While Putting More Effort into Workplace Organizing; Change the Structure of Unions to Mobilize Workers and Strengthen the Movement

Actually we will have to change our structures just in order to survive as meaningful working-class institutions. Today, more and more working people are considered ‘independent contractors,’ work multiple part-time or temporary jobs, work for very small employers, etc. We are atomized and divided from each other—what people call the ‘precariat.’ We need a labor movement that can engage all working people.

“From worker centers to Working America affiliates to innovative labor-community coalitions to anti-eviction actions to immigrant rights battles to groups like Domestic Workers United, there are models out there that we can learn from and bring to a larger scale.”

Reach and Engage Women, Young People, People of Color and the LGBT Community

It’s extremely important that the labor movement make a concerted effort to grow leaders that are younger and of color. The labor movement has been at the forefront of many a progressive cause, but the perception is that regardless of what the rank-and-file look like, white men continue to dominate the upper ranks.

Many participants advised unions to engage women, people of color, young workers and LGBT workers and change the stereotype that union leadership is dominated by white men of middle age or older. There were not many explanations offered for why this is the case, but commenters widely believe it is an issue that holds labor back and has a chilling effect on the deep community relationships needed to rebuild our movement.

Educate Members and the Public

The face of union labor in the media is this big greedy bully who pushes a button for $40/hour at the expense of minimum wage workers and business owners everywhere. How does unionizing benefit workers and business owners? The public needs some serious re-education. Especially on the connection between workers’ rights, income inequality and social ills that affect everyone.

Work to build a labor curriculum in high schools, universities and trade schools. If we don’t educate young people about what the labor movement is beyond its history, then they will never know that everyday parts of being a worker have to do with labor struggles.

Another very common theme is the call for more education—among members, in the schools and to the public—about the basics of what unions are and how they help union and nonunion working families. Many see internal education and labor education in the schools as must-do tasks.

Read more comments and feedback from the listening sessions here.

Don’t forget to check out www.aflcio2013.org to leave your comments.

Jackie Tortora is web editor for the AFL-CIO Now blog where this post first appeared.

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