The effort, waged by the national staff and aimed at encouraging and building stronger local central labor councils as a spur if not a counterbalance to the International unions that historically dominated the federation could be epochal. One hopeful observer in attendance, the National Organization for Women’s Terry O’Neill, said that she saw the effort she strongly endorses as “not just transactional, but transformational.” Or, it could lend itself to a cynical reading by those of us who’ve long advocated a broad, fighting social justice unionism as just one more effort to extend a late-summer vacation in sunny southern California to fulltime union officials.
Certainly the rhetoric is bracing and welcome. A foretaste of the new course came at a solidly attended Sunday morning preconvention “diversity conference” under the name “Building a Diverse Movement for Shared Prosperity: In Our Workplaces—in Our Communities —In Our World.” In a late morning press briefing, where Trumka assured the media that the effort “didn’t begin here and won’t end by the time the convention closes on Wednesday.”
Symbolizing the intended change in direction is the high convention profile given to emerging union leader Tefere Gebre, the Ethiopian-born, youthful and magnetic head of the Orange County California Federation of Labor, whose organizing successes among new immigrants in an area that bred Richard Nixon and long-epitomized reactionary attitudes among the over-privileged are meant to be instructive; he is slated to be the AFL-CIO’s new executive vice president.
It’s an ambitious project, and chockablock with difficulties. Forget the biggest hurdle: the immense opposition to any but the most servile labor leaderships on the part of corporate America. Already Trumka’s “y’all come” call has attracted opposition from a key constituent element of the Federation, who bridle at having to be yoked to such war horses as environmentalists, including the rather non-threatening Sierra Club, which opposes the energy industry’s many oil and gas projects. Some unions see environmentalism as killing jobs. That’s not a predominant sentiment, but negotiating that road will make for a bumpy transition.