Trumka Strongly Defends Including Outside Groups Into Labor Movement

LOS ANGELES —AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is strongly defending his plans to include outside groups – environmentalists, civil rights groups, women’s rights advocates, immigrants’ groups and more – in the labor movement, despite criticism from many unions.

A group of unions, led by the Building Trades, extremely upset by Trumka’s plans to bring other progressive groups into the labor movement, even in as yet-to-be-defined roles.  Other opposition may be from unions that work closely with both political parties.

Broadening the labor movement is a main topic at the AFL-CIO Convention in Los Angeles, which runs from September 8-11.

Tefare Gebre, a California union leader who will succeed Arlene Holt Baker as the fed’s executive vice president, described the broadening even more bluntly, later.

“We’re on the verge of creating a labor movement that speaks for all workers,” he declared.  “It doesn’t matter if you have a (union) card in your pocket or not.”

Trumka said the AFL-CIO’s leaders “know we’re in a crisis right now,” adding “none of us are strong enough” or organized enough to change the U.S. anti-worker, pro-corporate political climate, or to make the economy work for the 99%, not the 1%.

“None of us are big enough” to create those changes, he told a pre-convention press conference on Sept. 8, speaking of unions, environmentalists, immigrant groups, community groups, civil rights groups, women’s groups, gay-lesbian-bisexual-trans-gender groups.  All participated in six months of listening sessions before the conclave.

“We want to change our relationship” with the other groups “from transactional to transformational,” Trumka explained.

“What we used to do is to get a plan and go to our allies and say ‘Here’s a plan, sign on.’  Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t.  Now we’ll say, ‘Here’s a problem.  Let’s create a strategy.’”

But even while creating that new strategy and structure is still a work in progress, several unions are very upset about it.  Led by the Building Trades, those unions – and other unions whose membership is more evenly split politically – object to giving the non-union groups a huge voice in labor’s decision-making.

The building trades, specifically, charge that environmental groups in particular oppose construction projects that would create jobs.  One of every 11 construction workers is officially unemployed, latest federal data show.  Construction union leaders say that understates joblessness in their sector.

“We will have conflicts” with the other groups, Trumka admitted.  “We’ll work them out.  And we’ve worked out the details and provided safeguards” for the dissenters’ concerns, he added, without elaborating.

“But the solution is not going into a room, and putting your hands over your ears and saying ‘Aaaa…’” Trumka said.  “We’re not going to have a labor movement.”

Other unions that know they must work with both political parties say the alliances with other progressive groups risk tying labor too closely to the Democrats – a position Trumka implicitly rejected at the press conference.

“There are many representatives in the Democratic Party who are friends of labor, and some who are acquaintances and some who are less than friends,” he said.  “We’ll work with people and candidates that support us.  When they are right, we’ll support them, and when they’re not we’ll oppose them.”

On other issues, Trumka:

• Said the convention would take no action regarding the Obama administration’s plans for a military strike on Syria, to let its leader, Hafez al-Assad, know the world would not put up with his gassing of civilians, including children.  “We know 100,000 people have been killed.  We know 2 million have been forced out of their homes and we want to make sure they’ll get help.  But we don’t have enough facts for a comprehensive resolution, so no, I don’t think so,” if there would be a convention stand.

A representative from US Labor Against War, which had a table in the exposition hall, was disappointed but not surprised.  “We don’t have any standing here,” he said.

• Admitted the Employee Free Choice Act, to help level the playing field between workers and bosses in organizing and bargaining, faces a tough road.  Democratic President Barack Obama has repeatedly said he would sign it, but has not lobbied for it, and a planned Senate GOP filibuster stalled it in the Labor Committee three years ago.

“We have a group of anti-worker people in both the House and Senate who have not only assaulted unions, but who are anti-worker, and anti-democracy,” Trumka said.

• Said labor will launch a major campaign to reform bankruptcy laws, which are greatly tilted against workers and for bondholders and investors.

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer