Richard Trumka (AP Photo)
Los Angeles—The 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.”
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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.”