Labor Day 2013: Unions determined to remake themselves

Walmart warehouse protest

As Labor Day 2013 approaches unions in America are re-assessing themselves in a way they never have before.

The reassessment comes at a time when wages for the bottom 70 percent have been on a downward spiral since the Great Recession hit in 2007.

Only one of every nine workers nationwide is a union member and, in the private sector, only one in 14 hold union cards.

As the AFL-CIO prepares to open its convention in Los Angeles next week, the federation's president, Richard Trumka, is saying something few labor leader have been willing to admit. He is saying that unions themselves are partly to blame for the fall off in their membership.

"I'll point the finger at us," he said at a special press event hosted by the Christian Science Monitor this week. "We did not keep pace with the change in the economy, with the political environment and with young people. Things are different than they were 30 or 40 years ago."

That was when unions represented at least one fourth of all private sector workers and had the clout to raise wages not just for their own members but for all workers.

"But some of the problem is external," Trumka said. He pointed to the attacks on labor by the Republicans and he reminded the reporters that even the nation's highest court has jumped onto the anti-labor band wagon: "The Supreme Court says money is speech, and corporations should be allowed to work their will in political campaigns," he noted.

The plan to solve both the internal and external problems cited by Trumka involves restructuring the labor movement to bring in allies including previously unorganized workers and other progressive groups. Present at this year's AFL-CIO convention, in addition to unions, will be environmentalists, civil rights organizations, gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender groups, immigrant rights organizations, women's rights groups and organizations of young people.

Representatives of many of these groups attended AFL-CIO-sponsored "listening sessions" in the run-up to the convention - sessions that tackled the question of how to remake the labor movement.

"We're going to create a process where we can sit down and talk, and then not go our separate ways," Trumka said. "We are saying to them - both unionists and outside groups, 'tell us what we need to be, tell us what we need to change."

"One of the big reasons we need to change," said AFL-CIO counsel Craig Becker recently, "is that the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision opened the gates for a tsunami of corporate cash flooding into politics... If the court is saying corporations are people, then we need to counter that by fostering the organization of real people.

"The old model of unions and locals no longer fits in the era of Walmart, Manpower and McDonald's," Becker added. "Labor law hasn't changed quickly enough and labor unions haven't changed quickly enough to adapt. So now the labor movement has to be part of a social movement - a democracy movement."

Labor's plan to remake itself in no way means it will abandon its current policy of fighting out its issues in the electoral arena. Plans are underway, in fact, to use the coming convention to help mobilize the full force of the unions and their allies for the 2014 mid-term elections.

Trumka told the reporters that unions will focus hard on governors' and state legislative races in the coming elections, particularly in those states where the governors and the lawmakers went on the attack against workers' rights. He singled out GOP Govs. Scott Walker (Wis.), Rick Snyder (Mich.) and John Kasich (Ohio). He said that unions would be on the move also in some states they have not previously dealt with, notably Texas.

"It's a big state," Trumka said with a grin, adding, "It's the only state in the nation without fire codes - a threat to workers lives. And it's a majority-minority state, with the minorities denied a voice."

Trumka repeated labor's support for a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented in the U.S. - 7.5 million workers and 3.5 million children. "When they are able to come out of the shadows the Department of Labor will be able to come out and enforce their rights. And that's important for all of us."

Photo: Union members and faith-based activists join Walmart warehouse workers in protests against wage theft, October 2012. (John Bachtell/PW)



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  • There are very real differences around what it takes to move forward. These need to be discussed openly as the attempt to rebrand labor and move forward is discussed. They should not be pushed under the carpet because they represent some issues that, I beleive, will determine whether there is any going forward by labor or not.

    however, at the same time, we need to have these discussions in an atmospere of democracy, unity against our common corporate foe. charges of 'sell-outs,' etc, in today's situation are harmful & off base. the entire labor is toady looking for real ways to move forward. we are ALL in this together & even those labor leaders many thought of as 'conservative' recently honestly are interested in developing progressive allies. remember John L was an extremely conservative union leaders that became a great leader.

    the disagreements which I've seen come to the fore include real differences on types of 'models' of organizing, fighting, and they go to the core of what we are. while some top leaders see 'working america' & staff-run campaigns as labor's way forward, sending in the latest colllege educated professional with little or no actual on the shop floor working experience, paiding them handsomely while they push 'labor's' latest plan, then leave as soon as the effort is finished. for this sector, the listening sessions were much less about actual listening and more about pushing their own agenda. saying all the above & starting from the premise that I see this as a failing approach, those supporting it are NOT enemies, only friends with different ideas!

    others have, are developing, grass roots based approaches which rely on the real, and flawed, actual people in the communities where we are, using funds to spread around to put these real folks on to help run fights and being involved helping communities win THEIR OWN fights, not just one's labor nationally chooses to buy into. they are, as well, people live and are invested in their own communities. I see this as a more successful model!

    As well, there are true differences between those who see the need to find ways to 'push the envelope,' developing goals to fight for and building movements, while at the same time being involved in the defensive struggles being forced on our people now & those who see the defensive struggles and electoral battles as the main, and many times ONLY, approaches that labor can be attached to. I identify with the first approach, but absolutely NOT to the exclusion of the other.

    These are real differences and need to be aired, discussed, debated and actually tried. this debate MUST be carried out in an atmosphere of (actual) listening to each other and, mainly, joint struggles. Too many times, 'listening' is really only lining up 'your side,' 'joint struggles' are only on paper. the new labor will be born, but not from discussions in rooms, but as workers, as many are now beginning to, taking fights into the streets, councils and boardrooms!

    Posted by bruce bostick, 09/06/2013 10:36am (2 years ago)

  • Finally. When it comes to Unions what comes to mind is usually construction, steel workers, coal miners, etc. etc. Basically those with some sort of technical skill etc. I really hope they do take a new direction and spice things up and bring some national attention (they already have) to working conditions of large sectors of the economy. Those at the bottom of the pay roll, those who need organizing help most. Taking on Wal-Mart or McDonalds is so exciting because it affects so many people at one time, under one roof. It gets the cameras snapping and the columnists writing. In short, taking on Goliath brings Energy to the movement and brings people in to join the ranks in the pursuit of justice

    Posted by TD, 09/02/2013 10:23pm (2 years ago)

  • Some so-called union "leaders" have been more a part of the problem than part of the solution. Unions have not all been models of democracy. These "leaders" get elected (by a small minority of the overall membership--if they even have union-wide elections), move into opulent offices, pull down large six-figure salaries, hob-nob with the political and business elite, and frankly forget where they came from (that is, if they actually worked in the industry. Many "leaders" rose through the ranks of the staff). Workers have been turned off by these "leaders," with their indifference weakening labor's strength. There are still too many unions that need a thorough program of democratization.
    Also, there is no mention in the article as to whether peace groups will participate in the AFL-CIO convention. If they will be missing, that is a serious oversight because the demand for a significant cut in the military budget should be at the center of labor's agenda. Every dollar being spent on death and destruction by the Pentagon is a dollar taken from the needs of the people.

    Posted by David G, 09/02/2013 12:20pm (2 years ago)

  • Trumka claims "things are not the same as 30-40 years ago. He is wrong. As a new union organizer in 1973 I saw what was coming after 6 months on the job.

    Corporate Amerika had plans to wipe out organized labor and so-called "leaders" like George Meany et al didn't have a clue. The corporate class war battle plan has worked very well for the capitalists. 1955 saw 35% of workers in unions and 2013 - 11% and only 6% of private sector! Awful!

    Unfortunately as a retired union organizer I really don't see that the current crop of International Union or AFL-CIO staff get it either. The failure of organized labor over the last 50 has been such that they can no longer ignore it but they still have no plan of action.

    Their failure since 2008 to organize and deal with the millions of unemployed Americans is testimony to an inability to think out of the box.

    Posted by Bill Johnston, 08/31/2013 11:34am (2 years ago)

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