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?? Continue reading

Unions—Not Just for Middle-Aged White Guys Anymore

Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson

During the floor debate yesterday on a resolution expanding the AFL-CIO’s commitment to take the workers excluded from labor law’s protections into its ranks—domestic workers, taxi drivers, day laborers, and the like—one delegate to the union’s quadrennial convention likened the proceedings to the 1935 AFL convention, when a sizable group of unionists wanted the Federation to expand its ranks to include factory workers. The more conservative Federation leaders, including its president, William Green, believed that unions should represent only workers in skilled trades—carpenters, masons, plumbers, and so on. But John L. Lewis of the Mine Workers and Sidney Hillman of the Clothing Workers believed that there were millions of factory workers who would flock to unions if given the chance.

Lewis and Hillman’s motion to organize factory workers was put to a vote and lost. They were not happy. Indeed, Lewis decked Big Bill Hutchinson, the president of the Carpenters, and stormed out—to form the CIO, a labor organization pledged to organize factory workers and that organized millions of them over the next couple of years.

No such dramatics attended yesterday’s proceedings, but the delegate who harked back to 1935 had a point. The issues before this year’s AFL-CIO convention, like the issues before the convention 78 years ago, concern opening labor’s ranks to a whole new group of workers—disproportionately minority, immigrant, and female. There was an ethno-cultural dimension to the factory-worker debate of 1935 as well: The AFL trade unions (though not the Mine and Clothing Workers) consisted disproportionately of men of Northwestern European descent, while the factory workers were often of Southern and Eastern European descent. Some were even black or, horror of horrors, women. Opening labor’s ranks to these workers was something that many in the AFL would simply not countenance.

Continue reading

Day 2 at the AFL-CIO Convention: “broad and inclusive” and scripted

by> Michael Hirsch

Not-at-the-AFL-CIO-Convention-Join-the-Conversation-Online_blogpostimageIt’s official. The key resolution committing the giant labor federation to work collaboratively with a host of organization outside of its traditional mandate passed overwhelmingly on Monday morning. “The labor movement must be broad and inclusive,” the resolution read

[It] cannot be confined within bargaining units defined by government agencies or limited to workplaces where a majority of employees vote ‘yes’ in the face of a ruthless campaign by their employer to deny them representation. The labor movement consists of all workers who want to take collective action to improve wages, hours and working conditions. Our unions must be open to all workers who want to join with us. The AFL-CIO and affiliated unions must continue to innovate and experiment with new forms of membership and representation to achieve the ultimate objective of assisting all workers to bargain collectively through an affiliated union.

Given that the AFL was founded as a cluster of craft unions aimed at restricting the number of workers enjoying access to skilled jobs, this statement alone is a revelation. Now the Federation wants to work hand-in-glove with “a diverse group or organizations [that] has emerged to meet the urgent needs and advocate on behalf of the unrepresented, particularly low-wage and immigrant workers.” (See here for the full text of the resolution and here for the text of all resolutions passed.)

One indication of just how keenly the need to reach out to community allies is felt was the pointed response to ending mass incarceration. James Boland of the Bricklayers offered remarks in support of the resolution that targeted the private prison industry for supporting some of the advanced industrial nations’ most punitive prison laws. In what was plainly a fine textbook presentation of what is wrong with the system critics rightly call “the school-to-prison pipeline,” Boland cited massive overcrowding, horrific sentencing laws, prolonged pre-trial incarceration and virtually no system of integrating felons back into the working world.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka damned the practice as “locking up people left behind,” adding that “we’re not locking up individuals; we’re locking up demographics … We have to stop investing in private prisons and start investing in working people.” Continue reading

Labor Goes Community

by Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson

Community is the new density,” AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Elizabeth Shuler said yesterday, just moments before the labor federation’s quadrennial convention was gaveled to order in Los Angeles. For those who follow labor-speak, the remark was both an acknowledgement of American labor’s crisis, and a guide to the strategy with which it hopes to recover.

For unions, and more fundamentally for workers, density is power. In a market with considerable union density, wages and benefits are high—or at least higher than they are in a nonunion market. In the three cities with the highest density of unionized hotel workers, for instance—New York, San Francisco, and Las Vegas—housekeepers make upwards of $20 an hour. In a city where just half the big hotels are unionized—Los Angeles, say—their wage is close to $13 or $14 an hour. In a city in which no hotels are unionized, as in the case in most of the South and Southwest, housekeepers make barely more than the legal minimum.

But more and more American cities and industries fall into that last category, and with the law protecting workers’ right to organize shredded beyond recognition, unions have shrunk to the point that virtually every delegate to this convention concedes that they no longer have the density or the power to defend their members interests. Even if they could, their members now constitute just a sliver of the workforce: 6.6 percent of the private-sector workforce is unionized, down from a third of the workforce 60 years ago. Continue reading

Will Better Convention Staging Produce a New AFL-CIO? As The Curtain Rises in LA

propose_a_sessionLos Angeles–I’ve only been to two national AFL-CIO conventions in forty years of union activity. The one four years ago was pretty dreary—setting a low bar for improvements this year. In 2009, the California Nurses Association  (CNA) and several other unions held a big reception highlighting their support for single payer health insurance—not a bad cause to emphasize when Congress was still concocting the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which is now backfiring on union members of all kinds. (See http://www.labornotes.org/2013/08/obamacare-opens-business-shuts-out-labor)

The CNA side-event was followed by the premiere showing of Capitalism: A Love Story. About 1,000 delegates and guests paraded through the streets of Pittsburgh calling for “Single Payer Now” and health care as a “human right.” When they reached a downtown movie theatre, director Michael Moore held court in his usual humorous fashion and a lively discussion with the audience ensued. The rest of the AFL-CIO convention had far less educational content—and near zero entertainment value.

One keynote speaker in 2009 was Senator Arlen Specter. The soon-to-be-defeated Republican-turned-Democrat from Pennsylvania got a particularly warm welcome from Rich Trumka, then secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO and a native of the Keystone state. Specter was invited to discuss labor law reform just a few months after publicly denouncing “card check”—a central feature of labor’s proposed Employee Free Choice Act. With friends like this, EFCA didn’t need enemies. Less than a year later, both EFCA and Specter were consigned to political oblivion.

This year’s meeting in the Mecca of the global entertainment industry gave AFL headquarters the chance to employ a more uplifting convention script. As a backdrop for their current production, federation officials and staff are wisely showcasing a city much lauded for the revitalization of its local labor movement, headed by Maria Elena Durazo. Continue reading