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

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

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

The nation’s largest labor federation will meet in Los Angeles to consider resolutions on issues ranging from its relationship to its member unions, to its relationship to the Democratic Party.


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.”

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