Trumka’s Ploy: How the AFL-CIO president proposed revolution in order to get reform

by Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson

The AFL-CIO Convention concluded Wednesday, having made some major structural changes in the way labor will operate—though nowhere near so major as the changes that the Federation’s top leader was advocating in the weeks leading up to the convention.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka iterated and reiterated that labor would no longer limit its members to those who had successfully convinced their employers to recognize their union. With employers able to flout labor law with impunity, illegally firing workers who sought to organize and refusing to sign contracts with those whose unions had won recognition elections, the number of workers who actually emerge with a contract grows smaller with each passing year. So the Federation’s unions would welcome workers who had tried to organize their workplace but didn’t prevail. It would welcome workers such as cab drivers, who were misclassified as independent contractors and legally proscribed from forming a union, though they were actually employees. It would welcome domestic workers, who also had been excluded from National Labor Relations Act coverage, and day laborers.

Trumka didn’t stop there. With labor unable to make the fundamental changes to society and the economy that could jump start a new middle class, unions would have to form far closer and more enduring coalitions with other progressive organizations—the National Organization for Women, the NAACP, and the Sierra Club. It would make joint decisions with them in support of one another’s agendas; it would welcome them into labor’s governing body …

            It would welcome them into labor’s governing body??

That’s what Trumka said, not once but in roughly half-a-dozen interviews. Entirely predictably, this last suggestion prompted protests from unions that had interests they felt other progressive groups sometimes opposed. The building trades made clear they weren’t going to let environmental organizations, with whom they agreed on some issues but mightily disagreed on others (such as the Keystone XL Pipeline), into labor’s deliberative bodies. But even unions that didn’t have disputes with other progressive organizations looked askance at Trumka’s proposal. Even unions whose leaders, as individuals, belonged to nearly every other progressive organization, were dubious. In the four days I spent at the Federation’s convention, I didn’t find a single union leader, activist, or staffer who thought that giving, say, Planned Parenthood a seat on their local labor council made any more sense than giving, say, the Auto Workers a seat on Planned Parenthood’s board.

Now, Trumka had to have known that his musings would trigger this reaction. To be sure, the merging of progressive organizations might be his vision of the liberal millennium, but he knows that that moment is decidedly not at hand. I suspect (and I’m not writing this on the basis of any inside information) that what he was doing in talking about bringing other groups on to labor’s governing bodies was deliberately going so far in front of the pack that his other suggestions would seem acceptable by comparison.

And that’s pretty much how the convention played out. The Federation resolved to form more permanent coalitions with its feminist, civil rights, immigrant rights, and environmental allies. By so doing, it bolstered organizations like Jobs With Justice, which in some cities has served as the progressive municipal coalition in which labor and other groups plot joint strategies for political change. The Federation also passed a resolution making clear that it was open to bringing more groups like the Taxi Drivers and the Domestic Workers Alliance—workers’ groups, though not unions—into its governing bodies. There was some opposition to this latter reform—the building trades have been wary of including organizations of day laborers, or the workers’ centers that advocate for day laborers, on to the unions’ decision-making councils. The resolution the convention enacted on this question gave the national, state, and local labor bodies a good deal of flexibility in determining which groups they could extend membership to. But even by creating that flexibility, labor was taking a major step forward, recognizing that in the hodgepodge labor market of the 21st century, with millions working on the fringes of the economy, restricting membership only to traditional union members, and restricting affiliations only to traditional unions, made less and less sense.

And that, I suspect, is exactly what Trumka wanted to come out of the convention. Having laid out a battle plan that virtually everyone in labor thought went several bridges too far, he persuaded the AFL-CIO to cross any number of bridges it might not have crossed at all—at least, not as easily as it did.

Meanwhile, as the convention wound down, California Governor Jerry Brown announced he was backing a bill about to pass the state legislature that would raise the hourly minimum wage in America’s mega-state from its current $8 to $10 by January 1, 2016. That would give California the highest state minimum wage in the nation. May I suggest that this is the first real victory of the fast-food and Wal-Mart workers who have been staging job actions across the country over the past six months demanding higher wages? The organizers of these campaigns didn’t believe that either McDonald’s or Wal-Mart was about to sit down with their workers, recognize a union and give them a raise—not any time soon, in any case. They did believe, or at least hope, that dramatizing the fearsome rise of poverty-wage work in America would lead state and local governments to raise their minimum wages. Now, the biggest jurisdiction in the country (save the country itself) is about to do just that.

A good week for American workers all around.

Harold Meyerson is the editor-at-large at The American Prospect, a columnist for The Washington Post, and a vice chair of Democratic Socialists of America.

Read Talking Union posts by Harold Meyerson.      We recommend his article in The American Prospect, The Socialists Who Made the March on Washington

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