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What Counts as a Workers' Issue? Day One of the AFL-CIO's 2013 Convention | The Nation

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Josh Eidelson

Josh Eidelson

Labor in the Walmart economy.

What Counts as a Workers' Issue? Day One of the AFL-CIO's 2013 Convention

Richard Trumka (AP Photo)

Los AngelesThe 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.”

Diversity

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.”

Two dozen convention delegates spoke Sunday afternoon in support of three resolutions intended to diversify the federation and its leadership, each of which passed by near-unanimous voice vote. Given the number of female workers and the workplace challenges they face, Cathy Chavez of the American Federation of Teachers told the convention hall, “One might ask why the gates have not opened wide to take them in equally” into leadership. Among their provisions, the three resolutions commit the federation to add a young worker representative to the AFL-CIO’s General Board, to conduct a “comprehensive review” of diversity in the labor movement, and to take up “legislative and policy advocacy on issues of importance to diverse groups of workers to demonstrate our commitment to these communities.”

No one rose to speak in opposition to those resolutions. But one theme referenced both in speeches and the now-ratified resolutions—that building an inclusive and effective labor movement requires leadership on issues like mass incarceration and women’s bodily autonomy—touches on what’s so far been the convention’s highest-profile controversy.

Divisions

The plurality of pre-convention coverage, as I noted Saturday, has focused on the AFL-CIO’s talks about tightening ties with other progressive organizations, which this summer some outlets reported could involve a decision-making role for groups like the NAACP or the Sierra Club. “I’m concerned about a formal partnership and a formal structure,” International Association of Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger told The Nation in a Sunday afternoon interview. Noting the AFL acronym—American Federation of Labor—he said, “I don’t see it as the American Federation of Progressive and Liberal Organizations.”

Schaitberger, who presented Sunday’s diversity resolutions in his role as chair of the AFL-CIO Resolutions Committee, told The Nation he worried that formal ties to liberal groups could hurt unions’ political leverage as well as their ability to attract new members. He said he didn’t want his union or the AFL-CIO to become “an extension of one ideological part of our society,” and that “our responsibility is to represent workers’ interests on workers’ issues.”

Asked specifically about a series of political issues, Schaitberger said that workplace discrimination against LGBT workers, Obamacare and aspects of immigration reform would qualify as “workers’ issues,” and inclusion of contraception in employer insurance plans might, while abortion rights, environmental issues, same-sex marriage and missile strikes in Syria would not. Asked about voting rights issues, Schaitberger said they “go to the core of our political responsibilities” and so “assuring that workers, our members, have a fair and equal right to vote is an issue we’d focus on.” Asked about the proposed convention resolution regarding mass incarceration, Schaitberger declined to take a stance on the grounds that he had not yet had time to thoroughly study it.

Schaitberger told The Nation that proposed resolution language related to partnering with progressives had been softened in response to concerns like his, but that he remained worried it would leave leeway for federation leaders to pursue formal ties that would hurt organized labor. Due to such concerns, the IAFF delegation plans to argue from the floor Monday against adoption of at least one related resolution, which concerns the AFL-CIO’s relationship to worker centers, student groups and its affiliate for non-union workers, Working America.

In contrast to Schaitenberger, Pelletier, a co-president of the AFL-CIO’s LGBT affiliate group Pride at Work, described equal marriage rights as “absolutely” a “workers’ issue,” “just as women’s healthcare is a union issue.” “If my wife can’t get my pension or social security,” said Pelletier, “that’s an issue.” Working America Director Karen Nussbaum said the back-and-forth about the AFL-CIO’s ties to liberal organizations was “a healthy debate and I’m glad we’re having it,” but disputed the idea that such ties would turn off workers currently outside the labor movement. When Working America canvasses non-members at home, she told The Nation, “they’re not wondering who our partners are…. they want to know whether we’re relevant to the concerns they have about jobs and the economy.”

At a noon press briefing, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters his goal was “to transform our relationship with our progressive allies from transactional to transformational,” and that the members of the federation’s Executive Council all recognize that “we’re in a crisis right now, and none of us are big enough to change that crisis…. it takes all progressive voices working together.” (Schaitberger rejected the term “crisis,” saying the word didn’t reflect the high unionization rate among firefighters and was counterproductive in convincing workers to “come and let us represent your interest.”) Whereas the AFL-CIO used to “go to our progressive allies and we would say, ‘Here’s our plan, sign on,’” said Trumka, now the goal is to say “it’s a joint problem…let us jointly create a plan.” “I think when we do that,” he added, “and we are able to get all of our progressive friends and allies together, we are the vast majority in this country.”

Trumka also told reporters that “we’ve provided safeguards” that address some affiliates’ concerns about such plans. He compared potential conflicts with allies over issues like the Keystone XL pipeline to disagreements within a marriage. “Yes, there will be problems,” said Trumka, “but we’ll work through those problems.” Given the magnitude of the challenge facing unions, he said, “going in a room and shutting yourself in and putting your hands over your ears and yelling ‘aaaah’ isn’t going to get this done, and we aren’t going to have a labor movement that does that.” The AFL-CIO President confirmed that building trades unions were meeting Sunday morning (unrelated to the diversity discussion underway at the same time), but said he didn’t believe the progressive ally question was the issue at hand there.

While facing that disagreement with more conservative affiliates, the AFL-CIO leadership may have averted planned pickets from the left. Leaders and activists from the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which became formally tied to the AFL-CIO in January by affiliating with the California Nurses Association, had planned to leaflet and demonstrate Sunday outside of an “instant recess” convention break event sponsored by the California healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente. As Steve Early has reported for The Nation, the question of whether a two-decade-old, multi-union labor-management partnership at Kaiser represents innovation or capitulation took center stage in NUHW’s unsuccessful election effort to wrest legal representation of 45,000 additional Kaiser workers from the Service Employees International Union.

Asked by Early at Sunday’s briefing about Kaiser’s labor and consumer track record and its planned presence at the convention, Trumka answered, “There’s been a Kaiser Permanente partnership for some time and many of the unions have worked through that. Does that mean it’s perfect and there aren’t problems? No, it doesn’t mean that.” Then he added, “Kaiser won’t be here at this convention.” The AFL-CIO did not specify which party had cancelled Kaiser’s presence. NUHW Secretary-Treasurer John Borsos called Kaiser “one of the biggest violators” in California on patient care and access, and accused the company of “trying to take away people’s pensions and retiree health benefits” at the bargaining table. Borsos told The Nation, “Labor needs to stand with people who are standing with their patients and standing up for workers. And we appreciate the leadership of the AFL-CIO—at the eleventh hour—doing that.”

Democrats

Trumka was also asked about the AFL-CIO’s stance on President Obama’s proposed missile strikes in Syria, which led Obama to cancel a planned in-person convention appearance (a video address is expected instead). The AFL-CIO president said he didn’t expect a Syria resolution to be proposed this week, because “we haven’t had enough of the facts” to draft one. But Trumka did tell reporters that each killing in Syria was “a tragedy,” that “the international community is not responding effectively enough,” and that “the use of chemical weapons, or any kind of weapons like that, against your own people is a deplorable act.”

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As I reported Saturday, while the federation’s stance on Syria may not be debated on the convention floor, its relationship to Democratic politicians and positions is addressed in several proposed resolutions.

In an apparent replacement for the president, Valerie Jarrett addressed the diversity gathering Sunday morning (Secretary of Labor Tom Perez was already scheduled to appear tomorrow). Trumka introduced the White House senior adviser with praise for her character and résumé, and said, “We’ve never had anyone that we could rely on more at the White House than Valerie Jarrett.”

Jarrett pledged that “we are gonna get that rule done” on regulating deadly silica dust, and that raising the minimum wage was “a fight that we not only can win, but we will win.” She also referenced increasingly vocal union objections about Obamacare’s impact on existing union health plans, which Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen told The Nation will be amplified when a so-far unreleased convention resolution on health reform hits the floor this week. Jarrett noted that she and Trumka have discussed some of the “challenges that remain” on the Affordable Care Act, and said “we intend to work to solve those problems, big and small, and we’re committed to sitting down in good faith and working on solutions.” She urged attendees to carry a message back home “that the president and his administration are so firmly committed to working with you, to standing with you, because we care about you. You are us. You are the reason why the president got into politics in the first place.… he did everything he has done thinking about you.”

As Trumka escorted Jarrett out after her speech, they were met in the hallway by a pair of activists who shared their opposition to the Senate immigration bill backed by the AFL-CIO and the Obama administration. “Adding drones to the border and militarizing it will hurt people, women and children,” said Sacramento-based activist Desiree Rojas. Jarrett told the activists she was “running to catch a plane” but would convey their concerns. When she turned down a T-shirt offered by the activists, Trumka accepted it instead. Jarrett declined to answer a question from The Nation as she headed to the exit.

Jarrett was soon followed on the morning’s program by sit-in and Freedom Ride veteran Rev. James Lawson, whose speech outstripped hers in audience applause and clashed dramatically with it in content. “One of our tasks,” he told the crowd, “is we must change the Democratic Party from its fear.” He called the party “corrupt,” and said “they cannot support the simple right of the ordinary man and woman” to “the full dignity of their work.” Like LA Archbishop Jose Gomez in his afternoon convocation, Lawson decried potential military action in Syria, which he said “will kill more working people and more women and children than anybody else.” “We don’t need any more protest marches in America,” Lawson declared near the end of his speech. “We need systematic boycotts and strikes.”

While Jarrett drew hearty applause at the morning diversity conference, several of the morning’s other top applause lines were other speakers’ criticisms of the White House, from insufficient cabinet diversity to record deportations.

The day’s most popular Democrat was Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who delivered an energetic speech that celebrated organized labor’s role in winning past progressive reforms and contrasted popular support for proposals like raising the minimum wage and strengthening Wall Street regulation with corporate opposition to each. “Those with power fight to take care of themselves and to feed at the trough for themselves,” she said, “even when it comes at the expense of working families getting a fair shot at a better future.”

Warren credited Obama with backing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and cited his re-election as a mandate for progressive change, but did not name him in her speech’s critiques of Social Security cuts and anti-labor trade deals. “For big corporations,” she told the crowd, “trade agreement time is like Christmas morning.”

Warren closed her speech with an exhortation that “Our agenda is America’s agenda” and “If we don’t fight, we can’t win.” Afterwards, Trumka took the stage. “Ah,” he said, “if we could only clone her, and we had another sixty or seventy like her.”

Read Josh Eidelson’s essay “How Can Labor Be Saved?

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