AFL-CIO Repositions Itself to Speak for All Workers

Fletcherby Bill Fletcher Jr. and Jeff Crosby

The AFL-CIO Convention in September took an important turn to reposition unions toward speaking for all working people in the United States. This was a correction to the narrow focus on its dues-paying members and traditional electoral work that has cursed the movement for most of its history.

To argue that this turn represents an abandonment of current members, as Steve Early does here , is factually false and politically wrong.

It helps to understand what the federation is and is not. It is a collection of unions “held together by a rope of sand,” as a former federation president put it. From the central labor councils to the national organization, affiliates that don’t like the turn of events just quit. Continue reading

10 Important Initiatives Coming Out of the AFL-CIO National Convention

10 Important Initiatives Coming Out of the AFL-CIO National Convention

The AFL-CIO quadrennial 2013 convention in Los Angeles was a flurry of exciting activity that promises to remake the labor movement in the United States and build a movement for all working people to deal with the new challenges and political landscape working families must navigate. While there were many important discussions and plans made at the convention that will be expanded on in the coming months and years, here are 10 important initiatives that came out of the resolutions passed by the convention delegates that you should know about:

1. Opening Up and Broadening the Labor Movement: The delegates recognized the need to expand the labor movement to be more broad and inclusive and to recognize all working families, whose rights have been under assault. No fewer than six resolutions were passed to expand the labor movement and partner with allies in new ways. The first invites every worker in America to join the labor movement, either through affiliate unions or through Working America. Another one provides for supporting political campaigns that protect and expand workers’ rights to organize. A third related resolution calls for expanded efforts to help workers organize around the globe. Other areas of renewed focus would be on organizing in the southern United States, in building lasting community partnerships with organizations that share our values and expanding and protecting voting rights so working families have a say in choosing those who pass laws that affect their rights. Continue reading

AFL-CIO Convention Days 3 and 4: Inspiring Resolutions & Internal Tensions

by Michael Hirsch

Not-at-the-AFL-CIO-Convention-Join-the-Conversation-Online_blogpostimageLOS ANGELES–If you go by a strict reading of the resolutions passed at the AFL-CIO convention that concluded Wednesday, this is a solidly progressive organization ready to speak with brio for all working people and not just its millions of current members and retirees. Calls for a smooth transition to citizenship for new immigrants, an alternative to the politics of austerity, organizing and acting in solidarity globally, significantly improving Obamacare leading to health care for all, ending mass incarcerations, organizing the South, and supporting workers of all sexual preferences are great stands.

So is building up the state and local labor federations as active community organizations, supporting higher education and ending student debt and—most of all—actively and uniformly cooperating with militant social movement organizations on their goals, too. These resolutions marked the just concluded Los Angeles convention. In key ways affiliated unions, especially in the public sector, are already on board in practice. Continue reading

Delegates Commit AFL-CIO to Grow Labor Movement Through Diversity, Inclusion

On the heels of last week’s groundbreaking young worker and diversity conference, delegates to the AFL-CIO 2013 Convention reaffirmed the federation’s commitment to grow an inclusive labor movement dedicated to issues that will build strength for and share prosperity with women, young workers, people of color and LGBT workers.

The trio of first-day resolutions addressing inclusion in the labor movement focused on the need for the AFL-CIO itself to continue and increase its efforts to ensure that the face of the union movement and its decision-making bodies at all levels—national, state and local—reflect the face of today’s diverse workforce.

The AFL-CIO Women’s Initiative Convention resolution says women’s equality is a “shared struggle” and despite a half a century of major gains, “women still don’t have equality.”

From the resolution:

We stand with women and insist on: Equality in pay and opportunity for all; the right of women to control their own bodies and be free from violence; and the right of every woman to meet her fullest potential and the opportunity to serve—and lead—her community. Nothing less.

It also commits the AFL-CIO to work “toward shared leadership to represent the makeup of our membership.” About 45% of union members are women. The resolution outlines four vital strategies to “grow the labor movement, revitalize democracy, respond to the global economic crisis and build durable community partnerships.” 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

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

AFL-CIO Convenes in Los Angeles, Day 1

by Michael Hirsch

Not-at-the-AFL-CIO-Convention-Join-the-Conversation-Online_blogpostimageWelcome to the City of Angels, where Richard Trumka, the federation president and former minerworkers’ union leader promises the beginning of a new, militant and more inclusive labor federation. The slogan: “Dream, Innovate, Act.” The plan: organize the unorganized, including much of the 89 percent of the U.S. workforce that is not in a labor union. And do it in tight and mutually beneficial co-ordination with movements of feminists, youth, people of color, the LGBTQ community and those in the workforce who are among the lowest paid and whom even many of the Federation’s own affiliated unions have traditionally ignored.

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.” Continue reading

Hey, AFL-CIO Is Listening to Us

by Jackie Tortora

In the months leading up to the 2013 AFL-CIO Convention, we’ve been listening to people online and in our communities during listening sessions, hearing your ideas on how we can build a more robust movement for working people now and in the future.

Check out this new video in the post to see what happened during these sessions, and don’t forget to leave your comments online at

If you want to take a look at some of the proposed resolutions we’ll be debating at the convention, check them out here: