Labor’s days in La La Land

September 18, 2013

When the AFL-CIO held its convention in Los Angeles earlier this month, there were lots of congratulations for the federation's effort to build relationships with individuals and organizations outside the existing union movement. Steve Early, a former national staff member of the Communications Workers of America and author of Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress and The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor: Birth of a New Workers' Movement or Death Throes of the Old? asks if the AFL-CIO's love affair with "Alt-Labor" will leave existing members behind? A shorter version of this article appeared previously at Labor Notes, where Early is an advisory board member.

AS AFL-CIO leaders packed up to leave Los Angeles a week ago, they basked in the glow of favorable media coverage of their five-day convention. The meeting concluded, per usual, with fulsome delegate praise for President Rich Trumka's carefully scripted chairing and bold personal leadership.

But these accolades were apparently not enough. Writers Guild of America-East President Michael Winship claimed he had just witnessed the "the most radical restructuring of labor since the AFL and CIO merged nearly 60 years ago." Cribbing from Labor Notes' own 30-year-old slogan, another national union president told the New York Times that the federation had finally "put some movement back in the labor movement." Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson agreed that AFL-CIO had made an important "strategic shift" in how it intends "to advance workers' interests."

Feedback was also quite positive from the hundreds of invited guests from worker centers; labor support coalitions; public policy groups; student, feminist and community organizations; and "social change" foundations--present in larger numbers than ever before.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (Alex Hogan)

These enthusiastic "solidarity partners"--from constituencies younger and more diverse than the delegate body--got to make "action session" presentations, hold press conferences and side rallies, and network with unions and foundation funders. Sometimes, rank-and-filers from "Alt-labor" groups even got airtime on the main stage, for moving celebrations of their difficult organizing work among fellow immigrants.

Who wouldn't like to believe that a more exciting convention format prefigures a major turning point for labor? Unfortunately, greater inclusiveness, closer ties with non-labor allies and the adoption of pleasingly progressive resolutions only begin to address the real organizing challenges facing labor, whether "alt" or traditional.

Missing from the festivities last week in LA was much-needed focus on successful strategies for defending and revitalizing labor's existing membership base.

Workers who already belong to unions are under attack, on the job, at the bargaining table and in the political arena everywhere. So the convention's heavy emphasis on conventional political strategies and new forms of "growth"--through diluted forms of "membership"--hardly seem "transformative" enough to meet the challenges of the day.

Déjà vu all over again?

The proceedings did have a progressive buzz and grassroots sheen not seen since "New Voice" candidate John Sweeney won the federation's first contested presidential election in a century, in 1995.

Sweeney's team, which included former UMW leader Trumka, pledged to promote new organizing and political initiatives, community-labor alliances and anti-globalization efforts, while expanding the role of women, immigrants and people of color. Yet as former AFL headquarters insider Bill Fletcher reported in his book, Solidarity Divided, these reform efforts ran out of steam by 1998. A decade after Sweeney's election, his stalled agenda became frustrating to several leading affiliates, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), his own union.

In 2005, SEIU, the Teamsters and five others bolted the Church of New Voice for a Change-to-Win storefront, just down the street, that seemed to have livelier music. In recent years, three of those defectors have returned to their original AFL-CIO pews, one by one. The largest of them, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), was just re-baptized as a federation affiliate last week in LA. The UFCW's 70-year-old President Joe Hansen dutifully expressed confidence that his new pastor, Brother Trumka, would "fight like hell to fix the Affordable Care Act," an act of Congress (not God) now much afflicting its own faithful labor supporters.

Alt-Labor Uber Alles

Pushing 80 today, Sweeney didn't officially retire until 2009. On his way out, he tossed the keys to "The Man from Nemacolin," as Trumka dubbed himself in a vanity film about his life screened at the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh that year. With a mustachioed, more energetic 64-year-old at the helm--and two under-45 staffers on his new leadership team--last week's convention proceeded to recycle New Voice ideas almost 20 years old. Delegates and guests again embraced the need for community-labor coalition-building, greater independence in politics and, of course, more members--preferably in the millions.

It was taken as a given in LA that these additional working Americans can't be recruited into traditional bargaining units. The "new thinking" is that labor can boost its membership stats--and political clout--through closer structural ties to the Sierra Club, NAACP, National Council of La Raza or MomsRising. This would enable the house of labor to count as "members" people on their mailing lists, too.

The other method is to count, as "new members," anyone ever solicited on their doorstep by a canvasser from the AFL-CIO's own, soon-to-be-expanded Alt-labor vehicle, known as Working America. This outfit, set up originally for political action purposes, now claims 3.2 million "members." Very few pay dues or have any workplace connection to each other. Yet the federation spends more than $10 million a year on Working America, which is also subsidized by national and local union donations.

To keep convention messaging on track, AFL headquarters helpfully prepared "general talking points." The most frequently heard refrain was, "This convention will be the most innovative and diverse in history. It's an exciting time as we open our doors and engage with allies and the non-union community as never before." Unfortunately for federation spin-doctors, some avatars of the AFL's more traditional labor organizations didn't stay on message and their political influence was still much felt behind the scenes.

The Old Boyo Network

In an interview with Josh Eidelson from the Nation, firefighters union president Harold Schaitberger sounded the alarm about the AFL-CIO becoming "the American Federation of Progressive and Liberal Organizations." Schaitberger said he didn't want the AFL to be just "an extension of one ideological part of our society" because "our responsibility is to represent workers' interests on workers' issues."

Harold's colleagues in the always "non-ideological" building trades have a long history of such prog-phobia. But as the convention debate revealed last Wednesday, they fumbled the ball in 2009-10, on the very critical "workers' issue" known as health care reform. With the AFL-CIO's active support, the Obama administration came up with an Affordable Care Act (ACA), which now threatens to put labor-backed Taft-Hartley trust funds, covering 20 million people, at a fatal disadvantage and possibly out of business altogether. (See "Union Health Plans Will Suffer Under Obamacare" at

On September 11, delegates finally got a chance to discuss Resolution 54, which calls for fixing the ACA so all forms of union-negotiated health coverage don't end up being "regressed to the mean," as one Congressional staffer described the impact of Obamacare, in a meeting with UNITE-HERE.

Take an Alt-Laborer to Lunch?

The labor oratory on Resolution 54 ranged from the overly deferential (to Obama) to the downright fearful and apocalyptic. IFPTE president Gregg Junemann, Maine AFL-CIO leader Matt Schlobohm and RN Kathryn Donahue from the California Nurses Association all made the point that labor's ultimate solution is Medicare-for-all, not job-based private insurance coverage. Only UNITE-HERE's .D Taylor injected any organizing perspective into the debate; he called for union member mobilization to confront the politicians responsible for the current mess.

One speaker on Resolution 54 was able to say, "We told you so." Terry O'Sullivan's Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) saw enough trouble coming its way in the form of the ACA to break ranks with the rest of Change to Win (CTW) and the AFL-CIO when both were cheering for Obamacare. Now, he warned, "It's going to be a big frickin' deal if our members lose their health insurance!"

At the convention, President O'Sullivan spent much time ranting to the press about labor's betrayal by environmentalists, who have earned "solidarity partner" status despite their opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline project backed by LIUNA.

Nevertheless, Terry is still scheduled to get a big award from Jobs with Justice/American Rights at Work for LIUNA's work with day laborers. His own union awarded him total compensation of $621,388 last year, so let's hope Terry took a lot of Alt-laborers to lunch at his own expense! (Base salary for the LIUNA president was $454,225 in 2012; he also received $16,832 in reimbursements for official business and $150,331 in other forms of income.)

Amid O'Sullivan's colorful fulmination about Sierra Club back-stabbing and the back-firing of ACA, he did make one worthwhile observation. "We came here to talk about a new movement," he said. "But let's not forget about the old movement."

Going Where Need is Greatest?

Back in June, when Trumka was addressing the Labor Research and Action Network (LRAN) in Washington, D.C., he made his own preferred focus quite explicit. "The labor movement needs to be not where we've been, but where workers are most in need," he told a LRAN conference at Georgetown Law School.

At the same meeting, a Cornell professor circulated a paper which implied that labor's shift in focus might be okay because existing union members weren't really that needy anymore. According to this campus expert, "the labor movement is stronger than it looks...and most unions are doing an effective job at the bargaining table"--a truly astounding claim given management's quite successful, nonstop drive for givebacks in both the private and public sector.

Most in Trumka's Alt-labor-oriented audience welcomed his remarks as another sign of labor's creative rethinking of "what it means for working people to have a collective voice and real power...outside of traditional collective bargaining." At the convention last week, this de-emphasis on the workplace problems of current dues-payers was reflected in what workshops were offered and/or rejected. You could learn about the pressing occupational health and safety needs of workers in Bangladesh, but there was no equivalent brainstorming about building more union safety committees in the U.S. or the COSH movement here. Fighting givebacks, dealing with technological change, organizing and winning strikes, mobilizing members on the job, creating a "stewards' army" (face to face, as opposed to online)--none of these topics got much attention in the AFL's "action session" lineup.

Labor's biggest and most transformative public-sector struggle since the 2011 "Wisconsin Uprising" was allotted a single presenter on the one panel about contract campaigning. (There were 45 workshops in all.) Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) organizer Matt Luskin recounted how CTU reformers rebuilt their local union, as a precursor to taking on Mayor Rahm Emanuel, with strong community support, in the second-largest strike in the last two years.

The moderator of this panel, a retired AFL-CIO headquarters staffer, seemed to miss Luskin's message, however. He expressed the hope that greater militancy among existing union members might be inspired by low-wage worker strikes--when it's the CTU model of organizational change, rooted in union democracy and reform, that's far more relevant to other unionized teachers (and union members generally) than Fight for 15 or OUR Walmart activity.

As dissident academic Stanley Aronowitz noted several months ago, "Organized labor is still more than 15 million strong. 'New' labor movement? Why not seek reform of the existing unions?"

But that topic is verboten at any AFL-CIO convention. There, affiliates like the American Federation of Teachers worry that the success of militant locals like CTU might breed more local- or national-level leadership challenges of the sort that brought real change to the UMW and Teamsters in the 1970s and 1990s respectively.

Minority Union Reality Check

U.S. unions aren't going to meet the challenges they face by further abandoning the workplace terrain still occupied by their own members. The very embarrassing post-convention rebuff received by Trumka and the building trades at their September 15 White House meeting about Obamacare calls for the widest possible membership mobilization response. (The business press was happy to gloat about it.)

Gay rights activists and DREAM Act campaigners have shown how to get this administration's attention, but it's not clear that organized labor is up to that task. The same AFL-CIO media relations operation that was going full-blast for five days in Los Angeles--and six months before that--suddenly fell silent last Friday, issuing only a meek "no comment" after top administration officials dismissed labor's health care reform concerns.

Finally, dumbing down the very concept of "membership," Working America-style, is not a "strategic shift" by the AFL-CIO. It's a shell game that has little to do with serious long-term efforts to build workplace organization in the absence of employer recognition and bargaining rights. One example of those struggles is the decade-long "minority union" campaign at T-Mobile. In a convention plenary report and later "action session" presentation, fired T-Mobile worker Josh Coleman and Communications Workers of America (CWA) President Larry Cohen provided a much-needed reality check on the AFL's recent hype about "nontraditional" forms of organizing.

As Cohen and Coleman acknowledged, building and sustaining TU, a voluntary membership organization of T-Mobile workers, has not been easy. The effort has received strong support from ver.Di, the German union that is the CWA's "solidarity partner" there and that represents 100,000 workers at T-Mobile's parent company.

Yet even with active involvement of many CWA locals and their member organizers, it has taken 10 years of work to recruit 1,000 TU supporters in a union-eligible workforce of 20,000 or more. Only 15 T-Mobile workers in Connecticut have been able to win contract protection so far. But workplace education, cross-border networking, direct action, publicity, legal complaints and community support have produced other non-contract gains.

For similar union-building candor, plus equally valuable information sharing about organizing, bargaining, and strikes in sessions more geared to real action, I strongly recommend attendance at Labor Notes' own upcoming international conference. It's not a meeting place that's going to change the world of labor all by itself either. But the workplace perspective so MIA at the AFL convention will be on far greater display in Chicago next April 4-6. Alt-laborers and "old union movement" members alike will find common ground there that is far more solid than the official terra firma in La La Land last week.

First published at Labor Notes.

Further Reading

From the archives