AFL-CIO Makes it Official: Labor Movement Opens Itself to Non-Union Workers, Too

LOS ANGELES—The labor movement has made official what federation officers forecast for months: It’s opening itself to non-union workers, too.

In resolutions and speeches at the AFL-CIO Convention in Los Angeles, the federation’s delegates decided organized labor would represent – and speak for – not just the organized workers in union locals, but 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 (his emphasis).

“The AFL-CIO hereby invites every worker in the United States to join the labor movement,” its authorizing resolution says.

“Greed and privilege and hate have always been with us,” Trumka explained.  “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.”

In concrete terms, leaders said, that means working continuously with community allies – in womens’ rights, Latino, lesbian-gay-bisexual transgender groups and more – for campaigns to represent the 99%, not the 1%.

“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, he said, is to broaden the federation so that it represents, in size, organizational and individual membership and goals, something similar to the CWA-led Democracy Campaign that has been going for approximately two years.

That campaign marshaled a 51-group 50-million member coalition for several specific goals.  The first 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 is one model for reaching the non-unionists.

But the fed also emphasizes permanent alliances and coalition-building with community groups, including letting non-union workers in, Cohen says.  “It’s not just about me and my union.  For 99% of the people, that’s not going to work.”

But 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 that 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 or oppose creating jobs.  They singled out the environmentalists.

“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.”

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 said.  “I’m not in a union,” added 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 fed recruits non-union workers, with or without their aid.  Convention 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 Steel Worker from Pittsburgh.  “We are losing our density and our leverage.  We as a movement bargain a social contract and we cannot bargain it alone.”

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer