The Year in Headlines: Organized Labor to Become a Movement Again

WASHINGTON—The big news in organized labor in 2013 is that labor has decided to become a movement again, not just a confederation of unions.

In a decision foreshadowed by months of discussions, town hall meetings and on-line forums, the AFL-CIO convention opened the ranks of organized labor to all workers, holding union cards or not.

The objective: To increase workers’ clout in U.S. society in their fight for decent wages, safe working conditions, pensions and preservation of the middle class.

Oh, sure, there were other developments, legislative and otherwise, that heavily involved unions in 2013, but this was the big one, even if the national media didn’t recognize it.

The decision means that – among other things – workers have had it up to here with the growing chasm between the rich and the rest of us and are fighting back in the streets as well as in Congress and state legislatures.  And it’s absolutely necessary.

That’s because organized labor now includes only one of every eight workers nationwide and only one of every 14 in the private sector.  The diminished private sector clout leads to losses at the bargaining table and among lawmakers, too.  “We can’t do it alone,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says.

AFL-CIO PRESIDENT RICHARD TRUMKA, shown here in a file photo with President Barack Obama, said the labor movement would now be a movement for all workers, union and non-union.  “Who will speak for them?  We will,” he told the fed’s convention in Los Angeles.  PAI File Photo.

AFL-CIO PRESIDENT RICHARD TRUMKA, shown here in a file photo with President Barack Obama, said the labor movement would now be a movement for all workers, union and non-union. “Who will speak for them? We will,” he told the fed’s convention in Los Angeles. PAI File Photo.

“Tonight in America, a child will be going to sleep with a stomach growling with hunger, with an immigrant parent sitting behind bars waiting to be deported, or with a father who is falling out the middle class and a mother who is struggling as a minimum wage earner,” Trumka told the convention in his acceptance speech after re-election.

“The question is who will speak for them?  The answer is we will.

“We must stand up and speak up for everyone who gets up and goes to work every single day….We must work as one and rise as one.  Together, we can take” the U.S. “back and make it a nation again of the people, by the people and for the people.”

The mechanics of including non-unionists in labor’s councils are still being worked out and will be a work in progress, Trumka said.  But the point is to bring the unorganized and unrepresented into one mass movement.  Working America, labor’s affiliate for those who can’t or won’t join unions – because of laws or because of lack of available unions, will be a key part of that effort.  It will expand into all 50 states within the next five years, Trumka announced late in the year.

The mass movement of workers that organized labor envisions follows other mass movements that jumped into labor’s headlines in 2013:

  • LARRY COHEN, CWA PRESIDENT, led a Democracy Initiative, which garnered support from 51 organizations nationwide, to campaign for worker rights and – as a first goal – to curtail GOP Senate filibusters.  PAI File Photo.

    LARRY COHEN, CWA PRESIDENT, led a Democracy Initiative, which garnered support from 51 organizations nationwide, to campaign for worker rights and – as a first goal – to curtail GOP Senate filibusters. PAI File Photo.

    The Communications Workers led a 51-group Democracy Initiative that empha-sized making government work for the people, not corporations, as its first goal.  It eventually forced the U.S. Senate to overcome GOP filibusters and confirm a full 5-member National Labor Relations Board for the first time in a decade.

  • When the GOP kept filibustering other key nominees, Democracy campaigners convinced Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to trash the 60-vote rule to override filibusters against executive branch nominees, as well as judges, except for the U.S. Supreme Court.  The 60-vote filibuster rule remains a blockade, however, for legislation such as the Employee Free Choice Act.
  • Labor got involved in a big way in the mass movement for comprehensive immigration reform.  It culminated in a “fast for families” at the foot of Capitol Hill, led by former SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Eliseo Medina – who stepped down from that post to concentrate on the immigration fight.  A bipartisan Senate majority passed the comprehensive reform bill, with a13-year path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented people, including 7.5 million workers.  The measure would also immediately bring all who register for “blue cards” as provisional immigrants under U.S. labor law, thus cutting down employers’ exploitation of both the undocumented and of native workers.  Despite the fast, the ruling anti-Hispanic, anti-immigrant House GOP refused to even consider comprehensive reform.
  • Fast food and Wal-Mart workers nationwide launched mass movements for living wages, decent working conditions and the right to organize.  Wal-Mart faced walkouts at 1,500 stores, along with NLRB charges from its illegal retaliation against leaders of smaller walkouts in 2012.  The fast food eateries saw their workers hit the streets in D.C., Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, New York and other cities, demanding $15 an hour, not the minimum wage of $7.25.

There were other notable developments for workers and their allies in 2013:

  • Workers gained a powerful new voice abroad: Pope Francis I.  He denounced corporate greed, blasted trickle-down economics by name and said the rich can’t be trusted.  He also virtually ordered Catholic leaders to preach the same thing.  Whether they will practice it in the U.S. is another matter.  The headlines included two Catholic colleges, one in Pittsburgh and the other in Chicago, claiming before the NLRB that “freedom of religion” lets them ban unionization of their adjunct professors and their janitors, respectively.
  • UNIONISTS AND THEIR ALLIES SURROUND THE ALEC MEETING in downtown Chicago, spotlighting the secretive Radical Right cabal of corporations and GOP state lawmakers, and their schemes to strip workers and voters of their rights and livelihoods.  PAI File Photo

    UNIONISTS AND THEIR ALLIES SURROUND THE ALEC MEETING in downtown Chicago, spotlighting the secretive Radical Right cabal of corporations and GOP state lawmakers, and their schemes to strip workers and voters of their rights and livelihoods. PAI File Photo

    Labor spent much of the year exposing, denouncing and campaigning against Right Wing schemes and strategies to demonize and destroy unions and strip voters – especially women, minorities and unionists – of their rights.  That effort culminated with yet another mass protest, clogging downtown Chicago during a meeting of the secretive Right Wing cabal, the American Legislative Exchange Council.  But ALEC’s schemes succeeded in several state legislatures, with so-called “voter ID” laws, passage of so-called “Right to Work” statutes and a GOP-pushed law in Michigan that let the GOP governor name a financial czar to take over Detroit, trash retirees’ pensions and declare the city bankrupt.

  • Some 1,000 NLRB cases involving workers against their bosses remained in legal limbo.  The U.S. Supreme Court decided in June to hear a case – in January 2014 – about whether Democratic President Barack Obama legally named “recess appointees” to the board when Senate GOP filibusters blocked his regular nominees.  Those two recess appointees cast votes in approximately 1,000 cases.  GOP-named judges on the nation’s second highest court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C., called the recess appointees, and their rulings, illegal.
  • Sequestration – GOP-mandated budget cuts – kicked in and the nation narrowly averted a “fiscal cliff” of seeing the government default on its debt, thanks again to the House GOP Tea Partyites.  But they forced a 16-day government lockout of its workers.  That was solved by ordering key lawmakers to find an end-of-the-year budget compromise.  That scheme will increase pension pay-ins, but not payouts, for future federal workers.
  • Meanwhile, another 500,000-plus union workers – the ones who toil for the Postal Service – spent their year mobilizing mass popular support against congressional and Postal Service schemes to fire 200,000 of them, outsource many of their jobs and cut out a day of delivery.  The reason for the cuts?  Red ink, caused by a requirement that USPS pre-fund the next 75 years of health care costs for its future retirees, at a cost of $5.5 billion yearly.
  • The U.S. unemployment rate declined by almost a full percentage point, from 7.8% at the end of 2012 to 7% in November, but workers did not feel the slow recovery from the Great Recession, also known as the Bush Crash.  Long-term unemployment remained high and federal jobless benefits were scheduled to expire on Dec. 28.  The House GOP, as usual, opposed extending them.

-PAI