AFL-CIO redefines labor movement

From the November-December 2013 issue of News & Letters:

AFL-CIO redefines labor movement

Detroit—At the AFL-CIO convention, held for four days beginning Sept. 7 in Los Angeles, there were new elements that greeted the convention delegates. Many new and impressive posters towered over those present; there was an emphasis on social networking, and resolutions passed that departed from the usual themes of the past.

The first thing that greeted the delegates when they went through the convention doors were booths staffed by young people to inform the delegates about using Facebook and Twitter. This introduction presaged the content of the rest of the convention to reflect changed realities, modernity and the need to adopt new perspectives and goals.

The primary thrust for all of this was articulated by AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka, who outlined a review of the deficiencies of past practices and projected an entirely new view of what was needed to “put movement back into the labor movement.” Central to this, he said, is to open membership of the AFL-CIO to others who are not members of unions but share the same objectives.

This perspective was evident in the convention invitations to groups like the NAACP, National Organization for Women, the Sierra Club, the National Council of La Raza, Moms Rising, and a variety of other labor-oriented councils and youth groups.

Just how non-AFL-CIO members would be incorporated, and if they would be required to pay dues, has yet to be decided. But the aim of this effort is clearly to increase the membership of the AFL-CIO, which consists of 57 labor unions whose membership has been steadily declining. That reflects the fact that unions in the private sector have dropped to just 6.6% of the workforce, down from over 33% at the height of a vital labor movement in the 1940s and 1950s.

The delegates redefined the labor movement as more than union members. They passed a resolution to include within the labor movement all workers who are fighting to improve their standard of living. They elected Bhairavi Desai, the woman executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, to the AFL-CIO executive council. They elected Tefere Gebre, a Nigerian immigrant, as executive vice president, the number three position in the union.

It remains to be seen if the building of coalitions will produce results. While many initiatives of the union were applauded, there were several criticisms of the lack of any nuts and bolts issues of workers on their existing working conditions. Only one report was devoted to the vital areas of speed-up, discrimination, safety and harassment.

The deplorable condition of the organized labor movement is due primarily to the past failure of the union bureaucracy to provide the militant leadership reflecting the fighting spirit of the rank-and-file workers. This huge separation between the workers and the union bureaucracy is today so large that many workers see the bureaucracy as the enemy rather than protector.

For decades the bureaucracy has become more identified with the corporations than the aspirations of the workers. That has resulted in the opposition of the workers to their so-called leadership and the tragic decline of the labor movement in the nation.

—Andy Phillips

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