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.”