AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
I imagine the men who merged the AFL and the CIO in 1955 would be surprised to learn that when their union federation held its 2013 convention, delegates would vote to oppose mass incarceration and eschew gender identity discrimination—and that those votes would pass with nary a speech in opposition from the floor. I don’t know if they’d find it more or less shocking that, in the intervening six decades, the unionized share of the US workforce would have dropped from a commanding one-third to an isolated ninth—and still shrinking.
That crisis was the context for the AFL-CIO’s quadrennial convention in September, held in Los Angeles: historically low unionization and an attendant ebb in labor’s economic, political and cultural clout. The convention also illustrated promising trends: unions’ greater seriousness about working closely with progressive allies, and their growing openness to workers who want to be in the labor movement but can’t secure collective bargaining in the traditional manner. But it left less clear what the federation can or will do to effect the changes necessary for unions to become more potent partners to these dynamic outside groups, including more effective and intensive organizing to expand union ranks.
Much of the pre-convention coverage—and inter-union consternation—centered on proposals for tightened ties with other local and national progressive groups, including one that reportedly would have granted an AFL-CIO decision-making role for organizations like the Sierra Club. Whether such a formal arrangement was ever the AFL-CIO leaders’ intent, it instigated broader debate (conducted mostly off the convention floor) about whether broader agendas and closer partnerships help or hinder an embattled labor movement. Although International Association of Fire Fighters president Harold Schaitberger warned against becoming an “American Federation of Progressive and Liberal Organizations,” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka told reporters that when “we are able to get all of our progressive friends and allies together, we are the vast majority in this country.”
The language ultimately approved by convention delegates largely ratified shifts toward greater community ties and cooperation that are already under way (although the message was undercut by a resolution from the AFL-CIO’s building trades unions, passed by delegates without debate in the convention’s final hours, that described the labor movement’s mission as solely about advancing members’ wages, benefits and working conditions). Those shifts are welcome ones, on several counts. First, because it’s an abdication of responsibility for a self-identified working-class movement—especially one that outstrips nearly every American liberal organization in money and membership—not to tackle the breadth of issues affecting the working class. Second, because labor’s perceived and often real estrangement from causes (and communities) beyond current union members’ compensation has fueled its isolation and vulnerability. And, third, because unions’ comprehensive campaign efforts to squeeze employers—whether through consumer boycotts or legal regulation—depend on broad popular support to succeed.