by Wade Rathke
New Orleans I watched a brief interview for USA Today with Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, on the eve of their coming convention, as he argued that with the diminishing numbers, there were changes coming at the federation. The changes he talked about mainly were some kind of broader affiliation program that was enrolling the NAACP and the Sierra Club.
Both groups have been allies of labor from time to time, and both to some degree are membership organizations with chapters around the country. But, when Trumka was asked about whether they would be full members, pay dues, or affiliate on the local level, the answers were all, essentially, “maybe” or “we’ll have to see,” both of which are euphemisms for “no,” I’m pretty sure.
This isn’t a change of strategy, but a recognition that the only power that the AFL-CIO or labor in general can pretend to still have is political power, not worker power. The Sierra Club and the NAACP are political allies, not organizational allies. This kind of new strategy is the equivalent of asking them to come to the convention, speak for five minutes, and get an award.
Nor is it new. With great fanfare before John Sweeney’s last AFL-CIO convention, they paraded out Pedro Alvarado and announced an affiliation of the National Day Laborers’ Organizing Network known as NDLON, arguing that this was a new strategy of embracing worker centers as an organizing tool. The years pass and there are now 225 worker centers, some of whom focus on day labor, most of them focus on immigrant rights, but none of them in reality are changing the organizing strategies of institutional labor. These are public relations moves to soften the popular, outdated picture of big labor looking out for themselves and no one else.
There is no new AFL-CIO strategy. It’s the same strategy that the federation has used for over a 100 years. This is a political organization and any power it has left is political power. This is the lobbying headquarters for labor nationally and at the state level, and its role in that arena is critical and irreplaceable.
The one thing we will not hear or read in this coming convention is anything real that talks about serious work to actually organize workers and turn back the decline that now has only a bit more than 6% of the US workforce actually dues paying, card carrying members of unions.
Sad, but true.
Wade Rathke founded the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). He served as ACORN’s chief organizer for thirty years. He is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Social Policy, a quarterly magazine for scholars and activists. He blogs here, where this post originally appeared.