Josh Eidelson | The Nation

Josh Eidelson

Josh Eidelson

Labor in the Walmart economy.

AFL-CIO Convention Closes With Obamacare Critique and Call for 'Bipartisan Political Action'

March 6, 2012, AFSCME President Lee A. Saunders speaks in Albany, New York. (AP Photo/Stewart Cairns)

Los Angeles—The nation’s largest labor federation closed its quadrennial convention Wednesday by challenging President Obama on the Affordable Care Act, pledging international solidarity and bipartisan politics, and promising to make good on the week’s themes of opening up and doubling down.

An hour before gaveling the convention to a close, AFL-CIO delegates passed a resolution expressing support for aims and accomplishments of the Affordable Care Act and deep concerns over its implementation. The resolution urges that the act “should be administered in a manner that preserves the high-quality health coverage multiemployer plans have provided to union families for decades and, if this is not possible, we demand the ACA be amended by Congress.” It calls for more penalties for employers who cut hours to shirk coverage, curtailing some new taxes and fees applied to union health plans, and extension of tax credits to them. The debate on the resolution stood out for the number of union presidents who personally took the floor to press their case and, more so, for the pointed comments they directed at the White House.

Noting Obama’s pledge to fix what was broken in healthcare and build on what was working, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers President Ed Hill told the hall, “The ACA as it currently stands is not meeting his promise.” “If an employer wanted to transfer money from a nonprofit, successful healthcare plan to a for-profit insurance company,” said Hill, “we’d be on the streets.” Paraphrasing Vice President Biden’s famous whispered comment on the ACA’s passage, Laborers’ International Union of North America President Terence O’Sullivan warned, “It’s gonna be a big fricking deal if our members lose our health insurance.”

While urging support for the resolution, O’Sullivan voiced his concern that “it does not go far enough,” because “If the Affordable Care Act is not fixed, and it destroys the health and welfare funds that we have all fought for and stand for, then I believed it needs to be repealed.” Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union President Joe Nigro warned that the ACA, if not fixed, would decimate union membership: “I guarantee you, by your next convention four years from now, you won’t need a quarter of this room. You won’t be here.”

The ACA resolution had been repeatedly revised and debated in private meetings of union leaders this week, including one held at 7:15 am Wednesday. It ultimately passed with little public disagreement, save a speech by Catherine Donahue, a delegate from the California Nurses Association who opposed the resolution on the grounds that the AFL-CIO’s focus should be on winning a single-payer system instead.

The Hill’s Kevin Bogardus reported Wednesday that the Obama administration had placed calls to union leaders asking them not to pass the resolution. In convention addresses this week, both White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett and Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez emphasized the administration’s commitment to working through ACA administration issues with union leaders. Sean McGarvey, who leads the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Division, described the resolution to delegates as one that “arms our leader and our team of leaders” in such talks.

Interviewed shortly before the vote, American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees President Lee Saunders, whose union is the AFL-CIO’s largest, told The Nation, “We’re going to sit down with the president and have some constructive discussion with him and try to impress on him the importance of you know, making some changes to it and have this as a work in progress.” Asked about LIUNA’s stance raising repeal as a possibility, Saunders said simply, “That’s not anywhere in the resolution.”

Soon after a voice vote passing the ACA resolution, delegates passed a series of others, including one on “Bipartisan Political Action.” That resolution—submitted by the BCTD, not by one of the AFL-CIO’s pre-convention committees—stated that “the labor movement is charged with using all of its resources to advance its members’ interests in respect to job creation and the availability of sustainable wages, benefits, and working conditions” and committed the AFL-CIO to a “pragmatic, bipartisan approach” to electoral efforts “that focuses primarily on candidates’ positions on issues of direct importance to workers.” That contrasts, at least in emphasis, with resolutions like the one passed by delegates on Monday stating that “The labor movement’s engagement on issues like voting rights, mass incarceration, student debt, paid sick days and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act shows the labor movement’s commitment to issues important to our members and our allies.”

The “Bipartisan Political Action” resolution was introduced by International Association of Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger, who said his union has already implemented “this simple principle, by saying if you’re with us, we’re with you.” No delegates rose to speak in support or opposition to the resolution, which passed easily on a voice vote; one delegate could be heard yelling “no.” The AFL-CIO referred a request for comment about the resolution to the BCTD; a spokesperson did not immediately respond to a Wednesday evening inquiry regarding what would qualify as “issues of direct importance to workers.” In an e-mail to The Nation, AFSCME’s Saunders said his union supported the BCTD’s resolution because it “makes it clear that elected officials can no longer hide behind party affiliation” and “our support is going to be based on their record of support for working families.”

Sarita Gupta, who helms the labor-community organizing and advocacy group Jobs With Justice—American Rights at Work, said this week’s convention showed how recent years’ “alt-labor” efforts by workers excluded from labor law had earned serious attention and engagement within the AFL-CIO. “You have to build a bit of a track record in order for traditional labor to really say, ‘Oh, there’s something happening here, and how do we relate to it,” Gupta told The Nation. She cited “the incredible work that the domestic workers did to make themselves visible, and to make their organizing visible, and to win some real victories,” which she credited with instigating a greater “appreciation for the informal economy and workers in the informal economy” among AFL-CIO leadership.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

John Borsos, the secretary-treasurer National Union of Healthcare Workers, told The Nation that unions certainly “should do a better job” of building community alliances, and that many alternative organizations like workers’ centers were “coming in and filling a vacuum that the labor movement really hasn’t addressed.” But he argued that much of the convention conversation on labor-community partnerships seemed to be “not talking about a trade union movement or a labor movement, as much as it’s talking about a political lobbying operation.” “It may be, in these days and times, perceived as old-fashioned,” said Borsos, “but the power of the union comes from the worksite.”

Asked about such concerns, Gupta said that while not all AFL-CIO unions “even have the tools or know how to engage community,” some of the unions most serious about organizing in the workplace were the same ones aggressively seeking stronger partnerships beyond it. Given the legal obstacles and intense employer opposition facing workers who organize, she said, “there are lots of unions saying we can’t take this fight on by ourselves, so we need to actually be working with community in a different way.” She added that the growing number of workers “who just aren’t in traditional workplaces,” like taxi drivers or domestic workers, “requires a broader community approach to the organizing.”

National Guestworker Alliance Director Saket Soni, who attended the convention with a pair of striking sub-contracted cleaning workers, said he saw a marked contrast between this year’s event and the previous one in 2009. That Pittsburgh convening, he said, “was really about preserving the labor movement as it was.” In contrast, said Soni, “I think this convention is about building a worker movement that’s equal to the challenges of the economy.”

Read Josh Eidelson’s interview with Labor Secretary Thomas Perez.

US Labor Secretary: 'The American Workplace Has Evolved'

US Labor Secretary Thomas Perez (Photo courtesy of Flickr/ryanjreilly)

Los Angeles—In a Tuesday interview, US Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez promised effective enforcement of federal employment law, celebrated US unions’ increased collaboration with non-union non-profits, and defended the administration’s appearances at events with Walmart. “The right to organize is a big part of what needs to happen, in my judgment,” Perez told The Nation, “as we grow the middle class and recover from the worst recession of our lifetime.”

Perez was interviewed after addressing the AFL-CIO on the third day of its quadrennial convention, which was also marked by passage of resolutions on trade and immigration, and behind-the-scenes maneuvering over Obamacare.

Perez: “We’re Working With Everyone”

Perez, who was confirmed by the US Senate in July, told The Nation his department has “made use of every tool in our arsenal” to “make sure that we are protecting workers and lifting wages and encouraging best practices, and that’s what we’re gonna continue to do.” He called the likelihood of federal labor law reform in Obama’s second term “unclear,” saying that the president’s current domestic focus was immigration reform: “It’s an economic imperative. It’s a law enforcement imperative. It’s a humanitarian imperative.”

Asked about potentially imminent Department of Labor rule change—first proposed in 2011—extending employment protections to many currently excluded domestic workers, Perez said he couldn’t comment while the regulation remained under review at the Office of Management and Budget, except to say it addressed “an issue of concern”: “to make sure that people who are working in a very important industry, in an industry where there’s a serious worker shortage both today and projected into the future, are paid the wages that they’re owed.”

“The American workplace has evolved,” Perez told The Nation. “The old paradigm were the large multi-story factories. Today the workplace could be the home.” Looking beyond the “companionship” exception change now at OMB, Perez said that while “every case is fact-specific…. it’s important to take a look at how the evolving definition of a workplace implicates the federal government’s ability to protect workers” when it comes to wages and safety.

Perez’s address to convention delegates touted the recent, long-awaited issuance of a proposed OSHA rule tightening regulation of silica dust. Noting that, “The gold standard of labor secretaries [Frances Perkins] warned of the dangers of silica” as early as 1930, Perez told the story of a silicosis-afflicted union member who told him, “If I walk a half a mile, I’ve got to sleep thirteen hours.” “The issue has been studied and studied and studied,” Perez told the crowd that workers' "fear is that, in his case, the issue will be studied quite literally to death. I don’t want that to happen.” Asked afterwards when the remaining steps for the silica rule could be completed, Perez told The Nation, “You know, whenever you try to give a precise date, you always end up being wrong.”

Asked whether the DOL could revisit a proposed-and-withdrawn regulatory move restricting teenage employees’ assignment to certain farm jobs, Perez referred The Nation to the regulatory agenda list published twice a year (such a change is not on the most recent list), and said the DOL was “continuing to hear from people in the child labor context.” He called compliance with child labor laws “a basic covenant that we have with workers and their children.”

Perez is the former board president of CASA de Maryland, a nonprofit membership organization advocating for immigrants and low-wage workers. He told The Nation that what he’d found “remarkable” at the current AFL-CIO convention was the “acute recognition of the critical importance of these non-profit partners in building a vibrant middle class, and the community of interest that exists between the labor movement and these non-profits.”

Perez also told delegates that while the word “misclassification”— claiming workers are independent contractors who actually are employees—“sounds like a paperwork error,” in reality, “it’s fraud. It’s cheating.” “If you quack like an employee,” he told The Nation, “and act like an employee, and dress like an employee, and are controlled [like] an employee, you can put all of the labels in the world on that person, but chances are you’re an employee.”

Asked about organizing efforts by Walmart employees, and the recent firings of twenty workers who had participated in a June strike, Perez said he hadn’t “studied the situation in sufficient detail,” and thus wasn’t, “really comfortable opining about the specifics of a particular action.” Members of the Obama administration have repeatedly appeared with or praised the retail giant, most recently when Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker took part in a Walmart US Manufacturing Summit in Orlando the same afternoon that fired Walmart workers were mounting civil disobedience in Washington. Asked whether such appearances send a signal about Walmart as an employer, Perez answered, “Well, we’re working with everyone on the issue of growing this economy, and we’re working with employers large, medium and small to bring jobs back to the US.”

Perez added that the late Senator Ted Kennedy, whom he served as a special counsel, had taught him “that idealism and pragmatism are not mutually exclusive,” teaming up with Republicans to pass hate crime and healthcare bills. “I think it’s important to bring a wide array of shareholders to the table,” said Perez, “to engage in a meaningful way in how we grow a vibrant middle class.”

Interviewed Tuesday evening, United Food & Commercial Workers President Joe Hansen, whose union is backing non-union organizing efforts at Walmart, called the White House’s public events with the retail giant “a sore spot.” While “we still want to work with this president” on many issues, said Hansen, “it could flare up somewhere along the line. Or it could be embarrassing to him, or to me…I don’t know what his thought is on Walmart. It worries me.”

Trade, Immigration, and Obamacare

Along with hosting Perez, AFL-CIO delegates Tuesday heard from economist Joe Stiglitz; formally elected current AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and other officers—all unopposed—and approved eight resolutions on topics including trade, immigration and global labor standards.

Introducing a resolution urging a “new approach to trade and globalization,” United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard told delegates that his union’s membership ranks—currently 850,000—would be over 1.2 million if not for “these rotten trade policies.” Kicking off a series of delegate speeches backing the resolution and slamming the secrecy and the content of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal currently being negotiated by the Obama Administration, Gerard added, “We need to stand up and fight back.” Gerard told The Nation last week that the federation has “a good relationship with the administration. Do we always get things the way we want them? No, but we always get a chance to have our voice heard, which is different from what we get under Republicans.” Gerard said it was “too early to try and blame the labor movement” for not averting corporate-friendly provisions in TPP proposals, and that “the fact of the matter is that we’re going to fight that.”

Asked Monday about DOL regulations and executive orders sought by labor that hasn’t yet become law, and trade deal language opposed by unions that may, American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees President Lee Saunders told The Nation, “Well, clearly we have had success in dealing with the Administration on some issues and we have not agreed on every issue. But one thing for certain is that at least we have an open door so we can talk about the issues that confront working families…and we’re aggressive in pushing our agenda.” Saunders said that disappointments did not “give a reason to say that the relationship is sour, or the relationship is bad.” He added, “When there’s a disagreement, we’ll agree to disagree, but that’s not going to stop us from moving our own agenda.”

Fourteen years after a convention that was defined by the AFL-CIO’s dramatic shift to support a path to citizenship, this year’s convention approved an immigration reform resolution Tuesday with no dissent from the floor. “Immigrant workers ought to be able to breathe free,” Coalition of Black Trade Unionists President Terry Melvin said in one of a thirty-minute string of supportive speeches. “Free to come out of the shadows and to be full members of our society, not in fifteen or twenty years, but now.” Trumka pronounced the voice vote unanimous.

The only signs of disagreement on immigration policy Tuesday came from the left. A resolution introduced by the Alameda Labor Council would have gone further than the one submitted by the AFL-CIO Executive Committee, including committing the federation to reject “electronic employment verification systems” like e-Verify, whose use the AFL-CIO conditionally supports. Rather than sending the Alameda resolution to the floor for its own vote, the AFL-CIO Resolutions Committee declared it “subsumed” by the final version of the Executive Committee resolution on the topic; according to the AFL-CIO, that move followed the addition of more language on immigration reform to the Executive Committee’s version.

Speaking from the floor, Alameda Labor Council Executive Secretary-Treasurer Josie Camacho urged support for the AFL-CIO leadership’s resolution, but also echoed themes from the one her council had proposed, condemning “the terrorism of e-Verify” as well as immigration enforcement programs funded by taxes which “the undocumented have to pay to hang themselves.” Camacho told The Nation that she planned to follow up with members of the Resolution Committee “to better understand what had happened” to her council’s resolution, but said “the fight is not there. The fight is really, ‘How do we have an impact on what’s going on in DC?’” She added that she had been “inspired” this week to see the AFL-CIO shift “from its traditional way of looking at workers,” to, “a much broader vision.” The Alameda Labor Council also joined two other regional labor federations in submitting a proposed resolution calling for defense budget cuts; Camacho said she received a text message Tuesday afternoon, which “said they were not going to be addressing it.”

Disagreement from the floor is possible today, when delegates will consider a recently drafted resolution expressing discontent over the Affordable Care Act’s impact on current union members’ insurance plans. Laborers’ International Union of North America President Terence O’Sullivan told reporters mid-day Tuesday that he would personally speak from the floor Wednesday on the resolution, which he believed “doesn’t go far enough” because it did not threaten to support repealing the ACA if issues were not addressed. O’Sullivan said he had not yet decided whether he would propose rejecting or amending the resolution.

Asked about the impact of repeal on currently uninsured non-union workers, O’Sullivan told The Nation, that while there were “positive aspects to the act,” “the men and women that I represent, it could have a devastating impact on our ability to provide health insurance to them and their families. So in my capacity as general president of the Laborers...that’s my major concern.” O’Sullivan added that under LIUNA union contracts, 25 to 30 percent of hourly health contributions currently go towards “cost-shifting for those who don’t have insurance.” He called expecting LIUNA members to also pay a new ACA Transitional Reinsurance Program tax “repulsive to us” and “bullshit.”

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

UFCW’s Hansen told The Nation that there was “a lot of anger about ACA. But anger isn’t going to get anything done.” He added, “Let’s try to figure out what the right fixes are, and if they can be done by executive order. There’s a difference of opinion on that right now with the White House, although they’re listening.” Hansen said that House minority leader Nancy Pelosi has “been wonderful” in meetings with labor leaders on the issue, while so far he’s, “not quite sure [Senate majority leader] Harry [Reid] understands all of the implications of it.” Given that Obama is the president of the United States, said Hansen, “It doesn’t look like threatening him is going to get a good response.”

Like White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett, Secretary Perez raised the Obamacare controversy in his speech to the AFL-CIO, telling delegates that while “challenges remain—as should be expected when working through a challenge as big as this—we are committed to continuing to sit down in good faith to work through solutions.” “I’ve seen this president,” he told the labor federation at the close of his address. “He’s here for you.”

Read Josh Eidelson on Walmart employees’ plan to strike on Black Friday.

AFL-CIO Pledges Prison Reform, Partnerships and Accountable Organizing Plans

Richard Trumka (AP Photo)

Los AngelesThe largest federation of US unions, the AFL-CIO, passed resolutions Monday slamming “the big business behind mass incarceration,” promising intensified collaboration with alternative labor groups and granting its leadership new oversight tools designed to spur more effective organizing by its fifty-seven unions.

“Politicians and employers want to divide us,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told delegates in a morning keynote address. “They want to tell us who can be in the labor movement and who can’t. We can’t let them.”

New Partners and Prison Reforms

Monday morning brought a floor vote on a resolution backing closer cooperation between the AFL-CIO and “worker centers” that organize and mobilize workers who lack collective bargaining rights, and a greater role for Working America, the AFL-CIO’s own affiliate for non-union workers. As I’ve reported, the vote represented the latest ratification of the federation’s increasing work with such “alt-labor” groups, whose growing ranks include both workers (like taxi drivers) who lack the legal right to unionize, and others (like restaurant workers) who so far haven’t wrested union recognition from their bosses. The vote on the resolution, though limited in its immediate impact, had also become a proxy for disagreements within the federation about whether tightening ties to a broader progressive movement—including civil rights, feminist and environmentalist groups as well as alt-labor—would help or hinder embattled unions.

“We reached sort of an equilibrium point,” Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen told The Nation before the vote, “where the people who are going to do more of that stuff are going to do it, and the others won’t.”

While some unions had expressed public and private concern that labor’s self-governance or political leverage would be threatened by formalized alliances or affiliations with liberal groups, none urged a “no” vote from the floor. Instead, two delegates from the International Association of Fire Fighters rose to urge “caution” in the execution of any plans. California Professional Firefighters President Lou Paulsen said there was a risk of undermining current organizing efforts by embracing alternatives to collective bargaining: “We do need to be effective, bold and innovative, but we don’t want the walls to be knocked down as we’re trying to fix the foundation.” A series of delegates from other unions rose in full-throated praise of the resolution. “We have tried exclusion,” said North Shore (Massachusetts) Labor Council President Jeff Crosby. “It has failed us. It has brought us to this bitter point in our history.”

Several delegates at the convention drew connections between their vision of a more inclusive labor movement with stronger community ties and the AFL-CIO’s new stance opposing mass incarceration, set forth in a strongly worded resolution passed Monday afternoon. “Mass incarceration is a betrayal of the American promise,” Trumka told the crowd before taking comments from the floor. “The practice hurts our people and our communities, it keeps wages low, it suppresses democracy, and we can’t afford to imprison so many people. Nor can our families, our communities or our country afford the loss of productivity of these people.”

The resolution was supported by the AFL-CIO’s largest union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents some prison guards and has sometimes clashed with prison reform activists. In a Monday e-mail to The Nation, AFSCME President Lee Saunders said increased incarceration “has had a devastating and disproportionate impact on communities of color.” He noted that the resolution “strongly opposes the for-profit companies that make money when more and more people are put in jail,” and “just as important…calls for proper staffing in jails and prisons and condemns the inhumane conditions that frequently face both workers and those who are incarcerated.”

One delegate made an apparently off-the-cuff suggestion from the floor that the resolution should go further, to also oppose pre-employment criminal background checks. That proposal was defeated in a floor vote, after which the original resolution passed.

National Black Worker Center Project Founder Steven Pitts, who spoke prior to the vote on the mass incarceration resolution Monday, told The Nation that its passage was “incredibly good” news, but that the federation still “can’t tell the affiliates what to do.” “The real issue in terms of working with community groups,” he said, “is going to be a function of the affiliates doing that, and so the question is which affiliates want to do that, and on what issues.”

Organizing and Accountability

While committing to work more closely with alt-labor and liberal allies, AFL-CIO delegates also passed a resolution—essentially ignored in mainstream pre-convention press—authorizing a more active federation role in overseeing unions’ efforts to win collective bargaining for more workers. Under the resolution, which passed—to the surprise of some—without vocal opposition, each union in the AFL-CIO will be required to submit an annual confidential organizing plan to AFL-CIO President Trumka that “will include areas of focus, resource commitments, strategies and tactics and projected timeline.” Based on the plans, the AFL-CIO leadership will then “prioritize strategic and material assistance,” and identify potential conflicts or cooperative opportunities between unions; the AFL-CIO is also directed to develop “incentives for compliance.”

CWA’s Cohen, who co-chaired the pre-convention committee that crafted that resolution, said it means each of the AFL-CIO’s unions are “gonna have to have some kind of plan,” or else “they’ll be meeting with Rich or one of us about why have no plan.” More importantly, he said, “The federation can take a look at what people are trying to do and then, as [the] organizing component of the federation, how do we support those things.”

LA County Federation of Labor Executive Secretary-Treasurer María Elena Durazo called that resolution’s passage “a huge step forward.” Durazo, a member of the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council, told The Nation she thinks the AFL-CIO’s focus shifted towards politics and away from workplace organizing over “maybe the last ten or fifteen years.” “In a lot of industries,” she said, “it just became so difficult that a lot of union leaders felt we’re just not going to be able to unionize, we’re wasting our time…until we change the law, and until then let’s just put all of our focus on a political program” and “change the environment.” Durazo said the combination of certain unions’ organizing successes despite the difficult environment, and the failure to pass labor law reform despite Democratic control of the White House and Congress, was a wake-up call not to “wait for labor law reform to happen before we re-invest in organizing.” She described Monday’s resolution as “sort of an acknowledgement that we have to do workplace organizing, more workplace organizing.”

Asked Sunday about the view expressed by some academics and activists that the AFL-CIO during his term has reduced the percentage of its resources devoted to workplace campaigns and increased the percentage devoted to political campaigns, Trumka told The Nation, “I don’t think that’s correct. We’ve been looking at campaigns on a number of different levels. In order for workers to succeed—in order for workers to have a voice—they, one, need to have a voice in the workplace; they have to have a voice in the economy; they have to have a voice in American politics.” Trumka noted plans for “reaching out over the next several years” beyond current union members as part of efforts, “to work at all three of those.” “We haven’t given up in the least on traditional organizing,” he added. “We continue to do that, and try to create…an environment where it’s possible for workers to have a voice in all three of those things.”

Wayne State University Business Professor Marick Masters told The Nation Monday that based on his review of data from the AFL-CIO’s federal filings, the labor federation spent 23.54 percent of its total disbursements (not counting PAC funds) on politics in 2012, up from 15.46 percent in 2008. Masters noted that such filings are self-reported and inherently inexact, and that the categories provided by the government were not conducive to assessing the resources devoted to workplace organizing fights. An AFL-CIO spokesperson said the federation does not release budget information beyond what’s contained in federal filings.

Kate Bronfenbrenner, who directs labor education and research at Cornell University, compared the resolution’s passage to a pledge made at an AFL-CIO Organizing Committee meeting in the early ’90s, at which she said unions agreed to provide confidential reports regarding the percentage of their international unions’ budgets devoted to organizing. According to Bronfenbrenner, she was tasked with drafting a survey to actualize that pledge, but once she presented it to the group, that plan fizzled, because some union leaders “really didn’t know how much they spent,” and others “were uncomfortable.”

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

“The resolutions are goals that they set, but there’s no enforcement,” said Bronfenbrenner. Still, she said, what’s “different about this time is that they actually had a new strategy” for the federation to play the kind of active role in coordinating affiliates’ organizing campaigns that is sometimes played by state or local labor councils. She predicted that the extent to which individual unions provided honest information in the plans pledged under the new resolution would depend on each union’s seriousness about organizing, level of trust in Trumka and level of distrust of other AFL-CIO unions that could seek to organize the same turf. “I think the actively organizing unions will do it,” she said. Whereas, “If they’re not organizing, then what interest would they have in participating in it?”

Monday afternoon also brought a contentious and impassioned exchange over one of the most provocative questions surrounding the federation’s role in organizing: how and to what extent it should avert or enter conflicts among multiple unions seeking to represent the same workers (that issue was also highlighted in an August 29 letter announcing the International Longshore and Warehouse Union would depart the AFL-CIO). Speaking from the floor, International Association of Machinists Vice President Sito Pantoja objected to a Saturday vote in which the AFL-CIO’s Constitution Committee had voted to refer amendments proposed by the IAM— involving the federation’s alleged failure to defend its unions against “raids” by others—to its Executive Council rather than putting them up for a floor vote at this week’s convention. The Executive Council called for Trumka to appoint a special committee which would bring recommendations on raiding issues by next February.

“Brother Chairman, hundreds of delegates are here today,” Pantoja said, addressing Trumka directly. “They travelled thousands of miles so that they could discuss and debate these amendments in a democratic way…. I’m upset because we will not have the ability to do that today…. I ask that this committee not hijack this amendment from the delegates.” Trumka responded that he, “couldn’t agree with you more about raiding,” and that the AFL-CIO would incorporate feedback in taking on the issue in a “comprehensive way,” potentially including changes to the “Solidarity Charters” that allow unions which have left the AFL-CIO to affiliate with local labor councils. “I appreciate your sentiment,” said Trumka, “and I appreciate your good will, brother.”

Read Josh Eidelson on day one of the AFL-CIO convention.

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.”


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.


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.”


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.”

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

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?

Partnerships, Politics and Purpose: Key Questions to Watch at the AFL-CIO Convention

Tomorrow the AFL-CIO will kick off its quadrennial convention, a four-day Los Angeles gathering intended to shape the course of the country’s largest labor federation for the next four years. The convention follows months of meetings by pre-convention committees of labor leaders, allies and academics, and dozens of listening sessions across the country, all aimed at seeking solutions to organized labor’s widely acknowledged crisis. Delegates from the AFL-CIO’s fifty-seven affiliated unions will hear from labor and liberal leaders (including Senator Elizabeth Warren and US Secretary of Labor Tom Perez), elect top officers to lead the federation (current President Richard Trumka and his slate are expected to win uncontested) and vote on resolutions and constitutional amendments regarding the federation’s programs and priorities.

I’ll be covering the convention from LA over the next four days. Here—based on conversations with a dozen insiders and outsiders—are a few key themes to watch.

Non-Labor Allies and Alt-Labor

Much of mainstream media coverage of the AFL-CIO’s pre-convention process has focused on the federation’s talks with other progressive organizations about deepening their relationship, perhaps including a formal role for groups like the NAACP or Sierra Club in the AFL-CIO’s decision-making process. The Wall Street Journal’s Kris Maher reported August 29 that “Pushback from member unions” led the federation to “scale back” the proposal; AFL-CIO chief of staff Jon Hiatt told Maher that a governance role was never the plan. The New York Times’s Steven Greenhouse reported Saturday that Trumka wanted to “let millions of nonunion workers—and perhaps environmental, immigrant and other advocacy groups—join the labor federation” and would ask convention delegates for “a green light to pursue these ambitious reforms.”

In an August interview with The Nation, AFL-CIO General Counsel Craig Becker acknowledged “reasonable concerns” about offering decision-making power to groups that take corporate contributions, and said it “at some fundamental level is clearly true” that dues-paying union members “should control our organization.” Still, he said, “if we want to serve our members, you have to have some more deep and continuing relationship with your allies.”

In an apparent sign of skepticism, the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department and the International Union of Operating Engineers introduced a proposed constitutional amendment under which some AFL-CIO decision-making votes could be restricted to “the members of the Executive Committee whose members’ employment opportunities and jobs are directly affected,” on the grounds that “it is unfair to the affiliates and their membership whose employment opportunities are directly impacted…to have others with no direct jobs impact to impose their views that may be based, in part, on alliances with non-labor organizations.” BCTD President Sean McGarvey told Maher that Sierra Club efforts to discourage AFL-CIO support for the Keystone XL pipeline “just highlighted the audacity of people in the radical environmental movement trying to influence the policy of the labor movement.”

Meanwhile, since the AFL-CIO’s 2009 convention, major unions, big business and mainstream media have all been paying greater attention to the rise of alt-labor organizations: labor groups that organize and mobilize workers without formal union recognition or collective bargaining. The AFL-CIO has signed partnership agreements with two such groups, the National Day Labor Organizing Network and the National Domestic Workers Alliance; has issued a formal charter to another such group, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, as an AFL-CIO affiliate; and recently announced a major expansion of its own top alt-labor experiment: Working America, an affiliate for non-union workers which is expanding to all fifty states and taking up workplace organizing. “The alt-labor stuff has been huge in the whole conversation,” one participant in an AFL-CIO pre-convention committees told The Nation. In the past, he said, the conversation around expanding the labor movement beyond union membership was limited to “Can people who aren’t currently in a union get a credit card that says AFL-CIO on it?”

Becker told The Nation that he hopes the AFL-CIO will pursue “some limited, thoughtful experiments” backing additional alt-labor efforts. Unions already provide—along with foundations—a substantial portion of the funding for many such organizations. Trumka told The Nation in April that while collective bargaining remains “one of the best ways” to “actually bring down inequality,” “there are other tools that we will experiment with.”

Alt-labor will also be on display when the AFL-CIO presents its George Meany—Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award to the International Domestic Workers’ Network, which in 2011 scored a major victory with the passage of a landmark new International Labor Organization convention on the right of domestic workers, who do cleaning and caring work in the home. Such workers are among the growing portion of the US workforce that’s implicitly or explicitly excluded from the legal collective bargaining rights established under the New Deal.


A transformation of those New Deal labor laws is among the priorities set forth in convention resolutions filed by the federation’s decision-making body. A resolution from the AFL-CIO Executive Committee and one of its pre-convention committees a pledges a “multiyear” campaign for labor law reforms that would echo the three key planks of the failed Employee Free Choice Act, and also go much further: extending collective bargaining rights to many currently excluded workers; guaranteeing organizers the right to visit the workplace and workers the right not to attend anti-union lectures; allowing states to pass more sweeping pro-labor laws or barring them from passing “right to work”; and addressing the “who’s the boss?” problem facing increasing numbers of workers by ensuring “that the entity that holds the real authority over workers’ terms and conditions of employment, even if it is not the workers’ direct employer, comes to the table in bargaining.”

The Executive Council has also backed resolutions supporting Dodd-Frank implementation, progressive bankruptcy reforms, immigration reform, voting rights, campaign finance reform, and filibuster reform, and a resolution decrying that “our nation’s profit-driven justice system is producing a level of mass incarceration that is anything but just.” “It’s foolhardy to focus on economic justice and not democracy” as well, Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen told The Nation this summer. “That’s impossible. You’ll get crumbs as a result.”

UC Berkeley Labor Specialist Steven Pitts, who founded the National Black Worker Center Project and served on one of the AFL-CIO’s pre-convention committes, told The Nation he was “super-excited” about the mass incarceration resolution, comparing its potential impact to the AFL-CIO’s leftward shift over a decade ago on immigrant rights. Still, he said, “the real question is, are there are any sort of legs behind the resolution?”

In contrast to some unions’ call for a broad progressive political agenda, the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Division has introduced a resolution committing the federation to take “a pragmatic, bipartisan approach” to political work, “that focuses primarily on candidates’ position on issues of direct importance to workers,” and, in congressional districts favorable Republicans, to “encourage moderate candidates who support fairness and equality for workers…”

One issue that may go unaddressed at this week’s convention is President Obama’s call for missile strikes in Syria, which may come before the full US Senate on Wednesday (the Syria situation led the president to cancel a planned AFL-CIO convention address). While the AFL-CIO is monitoring the situation, it has taken no position, and no convention resolutions on the issue have been introduced. Gene Bruskin, who served as secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO’s Food and Allied Service Trades department and a decade ago helped found US Labor Against the War, said the federation’s silence on the issue demonstrates how it “essentially becomes the advocate for the lowest common dominator approach to things, and that ends up being a killer.”

Three local AFL-CIO bodies have introduced resolutions urging cuts in Pentagon spending and withdrawl from Afghanistan by the end of this year. One has introduced a resolution which would end the AFL-CIO’s qualified support for the “e-Verify” program used to check employees’ immigration status, and would urge immigration reform that is “not contingent upon border security measures.” The convention also comes as some major unions have been increasingly vocal in calling for changes to the Affordable Care Act’s treatment of union members’ health insurance plans.

Those issues are tied to the larger question of the federation’s relationship to President Obama and the Democratic Party. “It’s very much, very much being discussed…,” said Becker, who served as a member of the National Labor Relations Board in Obama’s first term. “There is a lot of frustration with the administration, with the failure to get labor law reform at a time when it seemed possible in the House and the Senate.” Becker added that there was “also a recognition that the administration has faced a very difficult situation in Congress, in the House and also in the Senate.” Becker noted the sense that, “rather than continue to build up the Democratic Party structure, or a particular candidate’s structure, that you know, we ought to support the candidates who we think will further the interests of working families through our own structure.” Trumka has used similar language in describing changes to the AFL-CIO political program unveiled last year.

But Columbia political scientist Dorian Warren, who participated in a pre-convention committee, said a more dramatic shift is needed: “If you just look at the immigrant rights movement, the LGBT movement, and the labor movement, two of those three have been willing to break with the president and push him hard, and have won shit. I can’t say the same for labor.”

Asked if he wants to see a reorientation in how the federation deals with Democrats, United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard said, “We have a good relationship with the administration. Do we always get things the way we want them? No, but we always get a chance to have our voice heard, which is different from what we get under Republicans.” Gerard, who chairs a pre-convention Committee on Shared Prosperity in the Global Economy, called for a “much more aggressive” popular education program to engage non-union and union workers on issues like global trade and healthcare, saying, “I think that that’s going to lead us in a much better direction. And we’ll have to be much more assertive with Democrats who don’t want to participate in that.”

What’s a Federation For?

The Obama question, in turn, touches on a larger one: What’s the purpose of a national labor federation? The AFL-CIO is, in many senses, more the servant than the master of its fifty-seven affiliated international unions, whose ideology, priorities and effectiveness vary widely. “It’s a federation,” said CWA’s Cohen. “It’s not a unified organization.”

Some within and outside the AFL-CIO argue that the federation’s emphasis has veered too far into electoral politics and policy, rather than funding, staffing, coordinating, or supporting unionization or collective bargaining fights. Bruskin, who worked for several unions before and after his tenure at the AFL-CIO under then-President John Sweeney, argued that supporting workplace organizing campaigns “doesn’t seem to be a priority for Rich [Trumka], and it was initially for John [Sweeney], but then he sort of let it go.” Instead of the current approach, said Bruskin, “what if we said that next year, we are going to take 10 percent of all the money that we would normally give to the Democratic Party, and use that ten per cent to develop a national movement to organize the unemployed, or to initiate a significant program to begin to organize the South?”

Cohen took a different view: “I think it’s wrong to separate organizing work from political work. They have to be joined. And when people separate them—which is mostly what’s done—everything goes wrong.” Cohen told The Nation he hopes the convention will fuel better “linkage between the two,” where “you have to have workers’ rights in the political work, and you have to have political work in the organizing.” “For low wage people,” he argued, “they need to be part of a political movement to have any hope. It’s not going to change on scale anything if they’re not…. But I also think there’s a deeper kind of political organizing that needs to go on that generally is missing right now.”

The Committee on Growth, Innovation and Political Action, which Cohen co-chairs, introduced (with the AFL-CIO Executive Council) a resolution that would direct the AFL-CIO to advance organizing through steps including “convene and coordinate large-scale [organizing] efforts at the requests of affiliates that have made significant commitments on their own” and “deepen its strategic campaign research capability,” and would also require affiliate unions to submit annual confidential organizing plans to Trumka. The resolution also references “incentives for compliance.”

Mark Brenner, who directs the media and organizing group Labor Notes, argued there’s much more the AFL-CIO could do if it were willing to “ruffle some feathers.” Charging that top leaders of some national unions aren’t interested in engaging or empowering their members, Brenner said a key question for the federation is, “Are you going to break with a hundred years of history and decorum and start organizing around your affiliates?” “It would be progress on its own,” he said, “if you could find the AFL-CIO drawing locals of various affiliates into projects that they’re doing that aren’t necessarily whole-heartedly embraced by their internationals.”

The AFL-CIO’s Becker offered a new multi-union effort at workplace and political transformation in Texas as an example of the role the federation can play in organizing: “Through the convention and beyond, the task is to put the facts on the table, to put people in a room, such that a discussion can be had that leads people to a conclusion that you know, we can’t keep going it alone in this highly fragmented way.” Lacking “centralized power” over affiliate unions, said Becker, the federation instead needs to “create a discussion which facilitates a conclusion that we have to work together in a systematic way in places that make sense.”

Becker also cited the United Auto Workers’ organizing in the South, CWA’s campaign at T-Mobile, the United Food & Commercial Workers-backed effort at Walmart, and Service Employees International Union-backed strikes against fast food corporations as examples of labor exploring and experimenting with “how can we move into the areas we need to move and be effective?” (UAW, CWA, and—since its return to the federation last month—UFCW are all AFL-CIO affiliates; while SEIU is not, the AFL-CIO and some of its affiliates have played roles in supporting the fast food strikers.) He added, “It’s exactly what we have to do.”

The convention could also see discussion of the AFL-CIO’s role in discouraging “raids”—a term for efforts by one union to organize members or industries claimed by another. The International Association of Machinists introduced three proposed constitutional amendments all designed to push the AFL-CIO to more aggressively defend AFL-CIO unions from raids, while the International Union of Police Associations submitted a resolution branding the Services Employees International Union (which left the AFL-CIO in 2005) a “pariah organization,” and calling for some SEIU locals to be kicked out of local labor councils for raiding. (The International Longshore and Warehouse Union recently announced it was departing the AFL-CIO in large part over allegedly insufficient support against raiding by other AFL-CIO unions.)

Interfaith Worker Justice founder Kim Bobo, who served on the pre-convention Committee on Community Partnerships and Grassroots Power, told The Nation she sees four key roles for the federation: a “bully pulpit” in representing labor’s perspective in public debates; a “convening role” in bringing unions together to discuss priorities, values, and shared projects; a “sanctioning” role in discouraging raiding; and “the potential to really drive forward some new directions by investing in promising areas.” Noting a recent rise in experimental efforts like the fast food strikes, Bobo said, “I think we need to do just a bunch of them in different ways” and then “see what’s working.”

Labor Notes director Brenner, a frequent critic of national union leaders, said he believes their existential crisis has increased major unions’ openness to new strategies and allies. Whereas fifteen years ago “you wouldn’t see institutions like unions eager to take the lead from someone other than themselves,” he argued, now “people are a little more comfortable with discomfort than they used to be.”

Walmart Workers Plan 'Widespread, Massive Strikes and Protests' for Black Friday 2013

Protesters picket outside a Walmart store as holiday sales commence in San Leandro, California, November 22, 2012. (Reuters/Noah Berger)

In twelve weeks, on the busiest shopping day of the year, Walmart workers will mount what may be the biggest-ever US strike against the retail giant. In an e-mailed statement, a campaign closely tied to the United Food & Commercial Workers union promised “widespread, massive strikes and protests for Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving. A Black Friday strike last year, in which organizers say over 400 workers walked off the job, was the largest and highest-profile action to date by the union-backed non-union workers’ group OUR Walmart, and the largest US strike in the company’s five-decade history.

“We’re standing strong,” Maryland Walmart employee Cindy Murray told The Nation Friday morning, after being held in jail overnight with other activists for a civil disobedience protest. “The Black Friday strikers are going to be back for Black Friday, if things don’t change before that. And we’re stronger than ever.” Asked whether more Walmart workers would walk off the job this coming Black Friday than did last year, the campaign told The Nation that it expected a very strong showing, but that planning had just begun and it was too early to offer numbers.

Workers first formally announced this year’s Black Friday strike at demonstrations held yesterday in fifteen cities across the country. According to organizers, hundreds of Walmart employees and thousands of supporters participated in yesterday’s mobilization; 109 protesters were arrested for acts of civil disobedience in eleven cities, including Baton Rouge, Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. Photos show some police wearing riot gear while removing activists seated in the street.

Asked this morning about yesterday’s protests and the planned Black Friday strike, a Walmart spokesperson questioned OUR Walmart’s turnout figures, e-mailing, “Did they give you those numbers with a straight face?” In a statement e-mailed Thursday morning, another company spokesperson dismissed yesterday’s demonstrations as a “union-backed publicity stunt,” and said, “At many 2012 protests there were no Walmart associates to be found at all…except of course the more than 1 million people who chose to work that day, helping to contribute to Walmart’s best Black Friday ever.”

As The Nation reported Tuesday, yesterday’s demonstrations were the latest escalation in OUR Walmart’s efforts to punish the retail giant for firing twenty activists who participated in a June strike, and for disciplining more than fifty others. Walmart has denied illegally retaliating, saying it “applied the time and attendance policy to the individual absences in the same way we do for other associates.”

Murray told The Nation that Walmart’s alleged retaliation “has scared people, because of them not being held responsible by the federal Labor Board. But there are still workers that are now tired and fed up, that joined us yesterday.” OUR Walmart has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board over the alleged retaliation, and sought a federal injunction to expedite handling of the allegations; the NLRB did not respond to a request for comment last month.

Along with reinstatement of fired workers, yesterday’s demonstrations also demanded the company offer an annual wage of at least $25,000; they come as DC Mayor Vince Gray appears likely to veto a local “large retailer” living wage bill fiercely opposed by Walmart.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

The current effort against Walmart exemplifies some key tactics being taken up within an embattled US labor movement: alternative organizational structures that aren’t about collective bargaining; organizing across a supply chain and beyond those workers considered a corporation’s legal “employees”; and short-term “minority strikes” in which workers walk off the job to embarrass their employer, engage the public and inspire more co-workers to join them. The specter of management retaliation represents the greatest challenge to such efforts. The number of Walmart workers who choose to strike on November 29 will be a measure of how well OUR Walmart can meet that challenge.

Murray told The Nation that pushback from Walmart “has helped me to grow stronger, and I know that what we’re doing is right.” She compared OUR Walmart’s efforts to raise the retail giant’s labor standards to historic campaigns in auto plants and coal mines. “We want the same thing,” said Murray. “We want respect on our job.”

Some former Walmart workers are arrested for their acts of civil disobedience.

Protesting Activists' Firings, Walmart Workers Plan the Biggest Mobilization Since Black Friday

Sixty-four-year-old David Cruse, who worked at the Walmart in Baldwin Hills for eight years but has retired, participates in the Walmart strike on October 4, 2012. (Courtesy of Matt Hamilton via Flickr)

Walmart workers and supporters plan to mount protests in fifteen cities Thursday, a mobilization that the union-backed group OUR Walmart expects will be its largest since last November’s Black Friday strike. This week’s rallies follow an August 22 civil disobedience action at which the campaign announced a Labor Day deadline for Walmart to raise its wages to at least $25,000 per year, and reverse the terminations of twenty workers who participated in a June strike.

As The Nation has reported, nearly eighty OUR Walmart members have been disciplined by the company since returning from the June walkout. OUR Walmart’s response to the alleged illegal retaliation has included protest rallies, pressure on Yahoo! CEO and Walmart board member Marissa Mayer and outreach to members of Congress. The campaign has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that the discipline violated federal labor law. Walmart has denied wrongdoing; a spokesperson told The Nation last month that “no associates were disciplined for participating in any specific protests.” The company did not respond to a Monday request for comment regarding the strikers’ demands and their deadline, which passed yesterday without any public concession by Walmart.

A Sunday mass e-mail to supporters from the allied Making Change at Walmart campaign referenced “intensified actions nationwide” Thursday if the retail giant didn’t respond by Labor Day. Fired employee Barbara Collins told The Nation prior to last month’s civil disobedience that “if they don’t reinstate us, our actions are going to be bigger and stronger every time, and this is just the beginning.”

Thursday’s actions will include a march through downtown Los Angeles to the site of a proposed Walmart in Chinatown, and a demonstration in Washington, DC, where all sides are awaiting word on whether Mayor Vince Gray will veto a bill (passed by City Council in July but formally sent to his desk last Friday) that would require “large retailers” like Walmart to pay employees at least $12.50 in total hourly compensation. Thursday actions are also planned for cities in the East, West, South and Midwest: Baton Rouge, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Dallas, Denver, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, Orlando, Sacramento, San Francisco and Seattle.

According to the campaign, Thursday’s rallies will have the largest total turnout by Walmart employees, and the biggest overall number of participants, of any Walmart mobilization since the one-day November 23 strike last year, in which organizers say 400-some workers walked off the job and thousands of supporters turned out to support them. Since then, organizers say hundreds of workers took part in collective confrontations with local management over scheduling on April 24, and over a hundred participated in the longer June work stoppage, which included a week of protests in and around Walmart’s Arkansas hometown. United Food & Commercial Workers union official and OUR Walmart strategist Dan Schlademan told The Nation in April to expect “much bigger actions” in 2013, saying, “Either we prove it’s growing or it’s not. And we’re certainly going to prove it’s growing this year.”

The OUR Walmart campaign has asked the National Labor Relations Board, whose pace and penalties labor has long charged are insufficient for protecting workers, to seek an injunction to more quickly address Walmart’s recent alleged retaliation. (The NLRB did not respond to The Nation’s request for comment last month.) According to the campaign, the NLRB recently indicated that it has found sufficient merit in some charges filed against Walmart in California last fall—including alleged illegal intimidation in the lead-up to the Black Friday strike—to issue a complaint (similar to an indictment) unless the Labor Board reaches a settlement with the company.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

“We don’t want to be silenced,” Collins said last month before being arrested with other OUR Walmart activists outside a Washington, DC, Walmart office last month. “We’re not going to be silenced. And we’re getting stronger every day, and we’re fighting back harder every day.”

Laura Flanders writes what Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) activists are fighting for.

Fired Walmart Workers Arrested at Rally Announcing Labor Day Deadline

Workers hold a sit-in in front of a Walmart office in Washington, DC, on August 22, 2013. (Credit: Making Change at Walmart)

Nine fired workers and a current employee were arrested around 2:30 pm Thursday after locking arms and sitting in front of the entrance to a Washington, DC, Walmart office. The planned act of civil disobedience concluded a noon rally at which workers announced a Labor Day deadline for Walmart to raise wages and reinstate workers they allege were fired for their activism. Twenty workers who joined a June strike by the labor group OUR Walmart have since been terminated; another fifty-some have been otherwise disciplined by Walmart.

“Hopefully it opens Walmart’s eyes and lets them know that this is just the beginning,” OUR Walmart activist Barbara Collins told The Nation prior to her arrest. If Walmart doesn’t meet the Labor Day deadline, she said yesterday, “then we’re going to give them a lot more actions, a lot stronger actions, a lot bolder ones. And it’ll be across the country.”

Collins was fired by Walmart in June, after protesting fellow strikers’ firings by participating in civil disobedience at the headquarters of Yahoo! CEO and Walmart Board Member Marissa Mayer. As The Nation first reported, this wave of alleged retaliation—the most serious to face OUR Walmart since its founding two years ago—began two weeks after workers concluded a weeklong work stoppage and caravan to the company’s Arkansas shareholder meeting. OUR Walmart is closely tied to the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

Organizers say hundreds of supporters joined this afternoon’s rally to demand Walmart cease retaliation and offer full-time jobs that pay a minimum of $25,000 a year. Chants included “Whose Walmart? OUR Walmart!” and “If we don’t get it, shut it down!” In live video posted online by the campaign, people in suits could be seen stepping over the human chain of seated ex-workers to enter the Walmart office. According to the campaign, arrests took place following three warnings issued over a bullhorn by police; participants in the civil disobedience were individually escorted to a nearby area where they were issued citations for a misdemeanor of blocking a passage, and then released.

The DC protest comes as the city’s mayor mulls a veto of a retail living wage bill fiercely opposed by the retail giant. Some marched to the rally from the offices of the federal National Labor Relations Board, the agency charged with investigating the workers’ claims of widespread illegal discipline against activists. OUR Walmart has urged the NLRB to seek a federal injunction to more quickly address the alleged retaliation; the NLRB did not respond to a Wednesday request for comment on the case.

In a Wednesday e-mail, Walmart spokesperson Kory Lundberg said, “No associates were disciplined for participating in any specific protests.” Rather, he said, “we applied the time and attendance policy to the individual absences in the same way we do for other associates.” He noted that some protesting workers “did not receive any discipline because their absences in their individual circumstances did not trigger the no-fault attendance rules.” Lundberg previously told The Nation that “as a general rule, the law does not protect hit-and-run intermittent work stoppages that are part of a coordinated union plan.”

Asked in June about Walmart claims that workers were fired for threatening customer service by violating attendance rules, former Obama-appointed NLRB Chair Wilma Liebman said that “the case law doesn’t sustain that as a valid defense” against the charge of illegally punishing strikers. As for the lack of legal protection for “intermittent strikes,” Liebman told The Nation, “I think it would be hard on the facts so far to say that the conduct constitutes intermittent striking.”

The fired workers were on Capitol Hill yesterday to meet with congressional staffers and seek sponsors for a bill introduced by Congressman Alan Grayson that would dramatically strengthen the legal remedies available to workers fired for workplace activism. In an August 5 letter, sixteen congressional Democrats criticized the Walmart discipline, urging CEO Mike Duke “to stop all retaliatory actions against employees engaged in protests regarding Walmart’s labor policies.” Walmart’s “tense labour relations” were also cited by the major Dutch pension administrator PGGM in its July 1 announcement that, like some peers, it would cease investing in the company.

While fired Walmart workers were rallying against the company in DC, US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker was delivering remarks and participating in a panel at an afternoon US Manufacturing Summit in Orlando hosted by Walmart. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment this morning on the alleged retaliation or the administration’s participation in the summit, and has not responded to inquiries from The Nation over the past nine months regarding labor strife at the retail giant.

Asked this month whether the Obama administration should stop praising and appearing with Walmart, Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry, whose union has backed organizing efforts against the company, told The Nation she “would rather, instead of dealing with the specific tactics of the president’s behavior with individual companies, keep calling on the president to say we have to have both a tax policy and an ability for workers to bargain again as a way to get off this low-wage road that the economy’s on. And I’d like to keep pressing on him to lead on the sort of bigger concern [rather] than grievance publicly about what he’s doing on individual things.”

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Another of the fired workers arrested today, Brandon Garrett, yesterday told The Nation that his termination had taken a toll in his Baker, Louisiana, store: “When we came back from striking and we wasn’t fired right away, even more associates wanted to join the organization. But I guess Walmart got a sense of that, and when they terminated me, they kind of scared a lot of them off.” Now, said Garrett, “they’re still behind us,” but “a lot of them are scared to be retaliated against. So that’s another reason I’m standing up like I am.”

OUR Walmart Field Director Andrea Dehlendorf said that in some stores where activists were fired, “there’s really been a chill that’s created, which is clearly why Walmart does this.” However, she said, “We have some stores where people have gotten so angry and so frustrated about it that they’re really stepping up and getting more involved…. And not one person who’ve been fired or disciplined has backed off.”

Barbara Collins said that since being fired, she hasn’t had as much contact with workers at her Placerville, California, store because managers “are putting that fear back into the workers.” “But some of them,” she added, “they really do know that it’s all a bunch of lies.” Collins said OUR Walmart members in her store are “definitely standing stronger, even though management’s intimidating them. They still know that if we stand together and strong, hopefully it will stop.”

This story has been updated with additional detail about the afternoon's protest.

Are Americans working too much?

The AFL-CIO Is Exploring New Investments in Alt-Labor and Texas Organizing

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka applauds as President Barack Obama speaks at the AFL-CIO, Tuesday, September 15, 2009, at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

The AFL-CIO is exploring new investments in alternative labor organizing and a multi-union effort to transform Texas, according to the union federation’s general counsel.

“There is a lot of interest in exploring non-traditional forms of membership, but also some reasonable skepticism about it,” AFL-CIO General Counsel Craig Becker told The Nation in an interview in his Washington, DC, office last week. “What can they actually deliver? Can they be self-sustaining?…I think people within the AFL are at different places on it.”

Becker, who served as a member of the National Labor Relations Board during President Obama’s first term, currently oversees an “Initiative on the Future of Worker Representation,” one of several venues for soul-searching in the lead-up to the AFL-CIO’s quadrennial convention next month in Los Angeles. As I’ve reported, the past two decades have seen an explosion in the number of “alt-labor” groups organizing and mobilizing workers outside of traditional union representation or bargaining; such groups currently mostly rely on union or foundation funding. “I think our sense is those organizations are leading to collective bargaining,” said Becker. “Either in a more direct sense, like they’re building within a particular employer or industry, or in a more expansive sense.”

Becker said that members of the union-backed non-union group OUR Walmart have “shown that they do have some power. You can have strikes—they’re not the kind of strikes which close the employer and which lead to a collective bargaining agreement, but they are strikes which dramatize what’s happening in the workplace, which draw attention, and which create positive results.” Becker also noted the Communications Workers of America’s use of alternative organizational structures against the telecom giant T-Mobile, the American Federation of Teachers’ (AFT) organizing in states that deny public employees collective bargaining and the work of the AFL-CIO’s non-union affiliate Working America.

Becker said he hopes “the next stage” in the AFL-CIO’s work with such formations “will be some limited, thoughtful experiments…. Try it in different places through Working America, [and] through various affiliates” of the AFL-CIO. Would such efforts be backed by a dedicated funding source within the AFL-CIO? “I think,” said Becker, “that’s a question which will be answered to a large extent at the convention.”

Becker also told The Nation that the AFL-CIO plans to support an ambitious multi-union effort to organize in Texas. “The AFT has come to us and said, ‘We want you to convene other unions to make a long-term investment in Texas,” said Becker. “We’re going to do it.” Citing “the demographics and potential political change,” Becker added that “there’s a long-term strategic possibly, if we can bring enough unions into that arena, which could be really extraordinary both politically and organizationally.” Becker described a joint focus on Texas as an example of the federation’s role in organizing: Given that “We don’t have centralized power” over affiliated unions, “We have to create a discussion which facilitates a conclusion that we have to work together in a systematic way in places that make sense.”

Becker identified a few “central pieces which are on the table” in the lead-up to the quadrennial convention: support for alternatives to traditional collective bargaining; the federation’s role in coordinating union leverage and resources; and the AFL-CIO’s relationship with other progressive groups. Pre-convention stories in The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere have focused on the AFL-CIO’s talks with groups like the NAACP and the Sierra Club about deepening their relationship, perhaps through some formal affiliation that would involve a role for such allies in AFL-CIO decision-making.

“There is a very legitimate position within the labor movement that we’re a democratic organization, we’re controlled by our members, our members pay dues—that’s who should control our organization,” said Becker. “And that at some fundamental level is clearly true, and [AFL-CIO President] Rich [Trumka] has no issue with that of course. But you know, if we want to serve our members, you have to have some more deep and continuing relationship with your allies.”

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Asked about concerns over the prospect of the AFL-CIO extending decision-making authority to allies like the National Council of La Raza that accept contributions from AFL-CIO enemies like Walmart, Becker said, “I think all of those are reasonable concerns.” Given that these groups “have their own institutional concerns, one of which is they need to raise money,” he added, “all of those things have to be thought about.”

What will the various proposals coming from the AFL-CIO’s pre-convention process—including the initiative overseen by Becker, larger listening sessions and committees composed of leaders from within and outside the AFL-CIO—mean for how the federation spends its still-declining budget? Becker said that question was a live topic in the pre-convention committees and would be discussed in Los Angeles. “We’ll see,” he added, “but I think the convention will at least give a certain direction. Broad direction.”

Is it ever too early to talk to children about sexism?

Domestic Worker Labor Leader: Federal Victory Is in Sight

Ai-Jen Poo (Courtesy of Flickr)

A key leader in the movement to raise labor standards for domestic workers expects a long-awaited federal rule change to soon become law. Ai-Jen Poo, who founded and directs the National Domestic Workers Alliance, told The Nation in an interview last week that the new regulations would be “one of the most significant victories for low-wage workers of this administration.” Citing supportive comments by Vice President Joe Biden at a June event celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the confirmation of a new secretary of labor in July, Poo said she hopes to see the process completed this month.

“The different agencies have been trying to work towards finalization,” Poo told The Nation, “and that it could be a matter of days or weeks until it gets finalized is our understanding.” She called the proposed change “an investment in a twenty-first-century workforce that is only going to grow. And it is an investment in plugging the holes in our labor laws where large numbers of people who work full-time, or more than full-time, are actually working in poverty still.”

As I’ve reported, domestic workers—those doing caring and cleaning work in the home—are among the growing number of US workers excluded from many federal labor protections. NDWA estimates that the ranks of domestic workers will double to 5 million in the coming years as the “baby boomer” generation ages and increasingly turns to in-home care. Poo argues that such work is also increasingly central to understanding the larger US economy. “What is happening,” she told The Nation in April, “is that work is becoming more unstable, insecure, dangerous and vulnerable…. We’re essentially all becoming domestic workers.”

Excluded from the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which promised most private sector workers the right to organize and bargain collectively with their boss, some domestic workers over the past decade have been organizing at the local and national level to transform the industry through worker mobilization, social pressure on employers and politics. Left out of many of the wage and hour protections of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, they’ve pushed statewide bills legislating a “Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights”; such legislation passed in New York in 2010, and in Hawaii this year, but was vetoed in California in 2012. (Meanwhile, some workers doing taxpayer-funded care work have attained legal collective bargaining rights as public workers following labor-backed changes to state law.)

In 2011, flanked by domestic labor activists including a worker whom he’d shadowed for a day while running for president, President Obama announced a proposed federal regulatory change that would extend more federal protections like overtime pay to more domestic workers. The proposed change, which would broaden coverage by significantly narrowing a “companionship” exclusion in the amended Fair Labor Standards Act, has received tens of thousands of public comments.

Twenty months after Obama’s initial announcement, the proposed change—which some involved had expected to be completed during his first term—may now be on the cusp of becoming law. In January, the DOL informed Congress that it had transmitted a draft final rule to the Office of Management and Budget, which reviews proposed regulations. Asked about the rule’s status, a DOL spokesperson said Wednesday that it was “still under review by OMB”; an OMB spokesperson did not respond to a Tuesday inquiry. Activists from NDWA, the Service Employees International Union and other labor groups held a July 23 “Countdown to Dignity” rally outside the Department of Labor to urge swift action.

The rate of regulatory change under Obama has sometimes fallen short of organized labor’s hopes. A proposed rule restricting child labor on farms was scrapped following criticism from Sarah Palin and Al Franken. A proposed OSHA rule regulating silica dust, identified as a key priority by the AFL-CIO, has been under review for two years. A rule responding to alleged abuse of guest workers under H-2B visas became law, only to be defunded by a bipartisan majority in Congress.

Asked about criticism on the pace of regulatory progress, a DOL spokesperson e-mailed that the agency “has taken a comprehensive approach in its commitment to protect the health and safety and hard-earned wages of workers, especially those in low-wage industries. Regulatory action is just one of the many tools the department uses to protect workers across the country.” The spokesperson cited the DOL’s use of “strategic enforcement efforts, sub-regulatory guidance, and amicus briefs weighing in with the Secretary’s position on unsettled questions of law.” Regulations issued by the Obama Department of Labor include an expansion of military family leave, and a protection for workers’ job security when a federal contract shifts from one company to another.

While hopeful that the proposed change would soon be on the books, Poo said “our one concern” is that final regulatory language would give employers too much time to start complying. Poo said that a phase-in period of up to a year “makes sense,” but “any longer than that I think is unnecessary, and every day that we wait workers are continuing to suffer in poverty.”

While pushing for faster federal action, NDWA is also out to up the pressure on California Governor Jerry Brown to sign this year’s version of the state’s Domestic Worker Bill of Rights. A caravan across California culminated this week in a Tuesday march by activists, workers and legislators to the steps of the state capitol in Sacramento. The bill has so far passed the State Assembly and the Senate Industrial Relations Committee; it faces a hearing in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday.

While Democrats now hold veto-proof majorities in both houses of California’s legislature, Poo told The Nation in April that securing the governor’s support would be important both to winning strong majorities in the legislature and to ensuring effective implementation. She estimated last week that if signed, a California law would pass a “tipping point” at which the majority of the US workforce would live in states whose laws provide them additional protections. (The state bills include some protections that that the federal change would not.) State legislation was defeated last month in the Oregon State Senate; campaigns are also underway in Illinois and Massachusetts.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Asked about the bill, a spokesperson for the governor e-mailed, “Generally, we do not comment on pending legislation.” In vetoing the previous version of the bill, Brown said domestic workers performed a “noble endeavor,” but that the legislation “raises a number of unanswered questions” in terms of cost.

Brown and others have raised concerns over how minimum wage and overtime protections for domestic workers would affect disabled clients. Asked about such arguments, Poo said, “We’re going to be advocating really vigorously to make sure that there aren’t unintended consequences in terms of people’s hours,” and “pushing to make sure that people aren’t negatively affected in terms of the care they have.” Asked where the cash for increased compensation will come from, Poo answered, “In some cases, it will come out of agencies. In other cases, it will come out of private employers. In other cases it will come out of publicly funded programs.” NDWA and allies have emphasized coalition-building with groups whose members utilize in-home care.

Looking forward, argued Poo, “There has to be a whole new system to support families in the coming age wave to be able to take care of their aging loved ones at home.” Calling the current Medicaid system “biased towards institution-based care” and “a poverty model where you have to impoverish yourself in order to qualify for services,” she urged “a whole very ambitious program that we develop that actually will support families to manage the care that they’re going to need in the future.” “I think,” added Poo, “that is absolutely essential, that we start piloting in states what that could look like, and really start thinking proactively about it.”

Is Chris Christie benefiting from a lack of democracy in New Jersey?

Syndicate content