Richard Trumka (AP Photo)
Los Angeles—The AFL-CIO opened its quadrennial convention Sunday with discussions and resolutions on diversity, addresses by Senator Elizabeth Warren and White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett and signs of a coming floor fight over the federation’s relationship to other progressive groups.
“It’s a real live class war we find ourselves in as we meet here,” LA County Federation of Labor Executive Secretary-Treasurer Maria Elena Durazo told delegates from the fifty-seven unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Noting the corporations and Koch brothers arrayed against organized labor, Durazo paraphrased boxer Mike Tyson: “Everybody’s got a plan until I hit ‘em in the face.”
Prior to the convention’s formal convening, about a thousand delegates, activists and allies gathered Sunday morning for a mini-conference on inclusion in the labor movement. Approval of three resolutions regarding diversity also made up the main business of the convention’s opening session Sunday afternoon. In both venues, a slew of speakers emphasized twin themes. First, as AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler told delegates, that greater inclusion was not just “the right thing to do,” but rather, “for the labor movement to survive and thrive our leadership has to reflect the changing face of America.” And second, in the words of outgoing Executive Vice-President Arlene Holt Baker, that “we’ve come along way…but none of us will say we’ve come far enough.”
United Mineworkers of America President Cecil Roberts, who chaired the convention’s Credentials Committee, announced in the afternoon session that a record-high 46 percent of the convention’s delegates were women or people of color, up from 43 percent in 2009, and urged a standing ovation for the progress. (That figure means that 54 percent of this year’s delegates are white men; research by UC Berkeley Labor Policy Specialist Steven Pitts suggests that about a third of all union members are white men.)
In one of the fieriest speeches of the morning session, UCLA Labor Center Director Kent Wong took a different tone. Pointing into the crowd with both hands, he said that, despite progress, a review of the executive boards of the unions represented there would show “the leadership bodies of the American labor movement are still too male, too pale and too stale…. It hurts us all.”
Among the morning’s speakers was Connecticut AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Lori Pelletier, who in 1999 became the first out LGBT officer of a state-level labor federation. “The labor movement is a big ship, and to get it to change course or change direction takes some time,” she told The Nation. “I can remember being at an AFL-CIO event less than fifteen years ago and if the LGBT people were going to have a meeting, you had to literally go through, around, and through curtains, and through a back door.”