By ED FINKELSTEIN
& MARK GRUENBERG
Los Angeles — Pointing out that workers put in longer hours, are more productive than ever before yet earn less, the AFL-CIO made official what federation officers forecast for months: It’s opening itself to non-union workers and allied groups.
In resolutions and speeches at the AFL-CIO Convention in Los Angeles last month, the federation’s delegates decided organized labor would represent – and speak for – not just the organized workers in union locals, but also the unorganized on the streets, in workers’ centers, in immigrant rights’ groups and more.
“We must begin, here and now, today, the great work of reawakening a movement of working people – ALL working people,” federation President Richard Trumka declared in his keynote address.
“The working class is not the middle class any more,” Trumka said, noting that in talking with union members, they tell him, “I’m not middle class” so much anymore, instead they say, “I work, if I can find a job. Middle class? That’s what my parents were.”
That concern was echoed throughout the convention; workers concerned that their children will earn less and live a different lifestyle than what they lived, which is just the opposite of what a worker hopes for his children.
“Greed and privilege and hate have always been with us,” he stated. “The question is – what are we going to do about it? …We are a small part of the 150 million Americans who work for a living. We can’t win economic justice only for ourselves, for union members alone. It’s just not possible right now. All working people will rise together, or we will keep falling together.
“It’s time to turn American right side up,” he exclaimed, adding to do that, “we need a real working class movement. And if that’s going to happen, we – our institutions – havew to do some things differently.”
TO REPRESENT 99%, NOT THE 1%
In concrete terms, union leaders drafting the implementing resolutions said, that also means working continuously with community allies – in women’s rights, Latino, lesbian-gay-bisexual transgender groups and more – for campaigns that represent the 99%, not the 1%.
“The AFL-CIO and … (our) unions exist to make real the promise of America for all working people.”And to do that, Trumka stressed, the AFL-CIO has to broaden its reach beyond just our union members.
“We have to join together with partners and allies who share our values and our vision for America. An America of shared prosperity.
“It’s time for a new and stronger movement. What we’ve done yesterday cannot limit what we do tomorrow… we must make our movement and our leadership as diverse as the workforce we speak for.
“If you work for a living in this country, our movement is your movement,” he shouted to the roar of the audience.
In announcing the new effort to bring in non-union workers and groups with goals aligned with the labor movement he said, “It’s time to tear down the barriers, remove the boundries between workers.”
TO BROADEN THE LABOR MOVEMENT
“It’s pushing us all to look for ways to much more quickly broaden the labor movement,” explained Communications Workers President Larry Cohen, who co-chaired the effort.
The goal, Cohen said, is to broaden the federation so it represents, in size, organizational and individual membership and goals, something similar to the CWA-led Democracy Initiative that has been going for approximately two years.
That campaign, led by CWA, the Sierra Club, the NAACP and others, marshaled a 51-group 50-million member coalition for several specific goals. The first immediate one, which they won, was to break the Senate GOP’s filibuster tactics that trashed the National Labor Relations Board and other Obama administration nominees.
That coalition is still going, and has become one model for reaching the non-unionists.
But it also emphasizes permanent alliances and coalition-building with community groups, including letting non-union workers in, he says. “It’s not just about ‘me and my union,’” Cohen adds. “For 99% of the people, that’s not going to work.”
Cohen acknowledged there is opposition to the idea of letting other constituencies – if not other workers – into the AFL-CIO’s decision-making process.
Talking to several reporters afterwards, he said only those other groups, such as Jobs With Justice, who are full-fledged dues-paying members of state feds and central labor councils – the organizations that will do the heavy lifting in integrating non-unionists into the movement – will get votes on policies.
Trumka’s initiative to open the labor movement to non-union groups, if not his parallel movement to open the fed to non-unionized workers, upset the Building Trades and several other unions. They raised questions about voices and votes in labor’s councils.
The building trades in particular objected to allowing particular groups whose goals differ on or oppose creating jobs. They singled out the environmentalists.
‘IT’S GOING TO BE MESSY’
“It’s not checkers,” Cohen admitted. “It’s going to be messy.”
Working America, the federation’s affiliate for people who can’t or won’t, join local unions, will also be key to broadening the labor movement, its executive director, Karen Nussbaum, told the same press conference before the convention delegates voted.
“As our members became more active, we found them more eager to connect with other people on issues in their communities,” she explained.
“So we’re building a new relationship for our affiliates” – union locals, state federations and central labor councils – “to reach out to those who have been laid off or privatized or those who are strong union supporters who vote ‘yes’” on labor’s side “in election campaigns.”
MODELS TO COME
Several such relationships are already going on the local level, notably in the Twin Cities, with another planned in Portland, Ore. They’ll be models for the federation’s outreach and inclusion of non-union workers, Nussbaum added.
“I’m not in a union,” said Denise Watts, a St. Paul, Minn., retail food worker. “But I’m really grateful to have a place to discuss issues” important to workers – without managers looking over her shoulder. Working America, she explained, provides that.
That still leaves the problem of how to integrate the outside groups into the AFL-CIO, even as the AFL-CIO recruits non-union workers, with or without the groups’ aid. Delegates who marched to microphones in an unending parade advocating integration looked beyond that. They said it’s absolutely needed, and never mind the details.
“We owe it to our active members to broaden this coalition,” said Guillermo Perez, a Steelworker from Pittsburgh. “We are losing our density and our leverage. We as a movement bargain a social contract and we cannot bargain it alone.”
(Ed Finkelstein is publisher of the Labor Tribune. Mark Gruenberg is the staff writer for Press Associates, Inc., the outstanding labor press news source.)