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

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

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

At its quadrennial convention, the nation’s top labor federation pledged to combat mass incarceration.


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.”

“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.

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