AFL-CIO president Trumka is calling for liberal alliance
Richard Trumka wants a way out.
The AFL-CIO president, a former Western Pennsylvania coal miner, is trapped between decades of dwindling union membership and a globalized, mobile economy hostile to traditional organizing tactics. For 30 years, unions could not stop the bleeding.
Trumka wants to try something different.
The federation adopted a resolution at its convention last week that could give liberal groups a say in AFL-CIO policies, and invites all workers — not just union members — to join.
Trumka and his allies say the shrunken labor movement is too small to achieve its goals and needs to join with like-minded groups.
Some member unions are resisting, saying such alliances would undercut their ability to represent the workers who pay them.
“We're in a crisis right now, and none of us are big enough to change that crisis. None of us are big enough to change the economy and make it work for everybody. It takes all progressive voices working together,” Trumka said at the start of the Sept. 8-11 convention in Los Angeles. He did not respond to a request for an interview.
The boldness of Trumka's gambit — trading some control of the federation for an amplified voice — underscores the threat to his organization, labor experts said. It's similar to how companies react when their main product isn't selling, said Cynthia Fukami, management professor at the University of Denver.
“Say you were McDonald's and people stopped buying your hamburgers. What would you do? You'd come up with a different product,” Fukami said. “This is a bold move by the AFL-CIO. Bold moves sometimes work and sometimes don't.”
‘Long time coming'
Seven million private-sector workers belonged to unions in 2012, according to federal statistics — 1 million fewer than belong to the 14-year-old liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org.
“Anything the AFL-CIO can do to increase their visibility and increase their activity, like working with other organizations, makes a lot of sense and has been a long time coming,” said Karl Petrick, an economics professor at Western New England University.
More than 20 percent of workers belonged to a union in 1983. Last year, fewer than 12 percent did, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the private sector, less than 7 percent of the workforce is unionized.
“It's clearly a dying movement, and Trumka himself has admitted that what they've been doing for the last three decades hasn't worked,” said Mike Zigarelli, professor of leadership and strategy at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg.
Alliances with liberal groups aren't new to labor. Unions partnered with student groups to oppose the Vietnam War. During election years, their voter mobilization efforts often complement those of liberal and Democratic groups. Labor joined progressives in supporting the Affordable Care Act.
But outside groups never had a say in the AFL-CIO's positions on issues, Trumka told reporters.
“What we used to do is, we would get a plan and go to our progressive allies and say, ‘Here's our plan; sign up.' Sometimes that worked and most of the time it didn't,” Trumka said. “Our goal right now is to try to go to our progressive allies and say, ‘Here's a problem. It's a joint problem. Let's both create a plan.' ”
AFL-CIO leaders' original plan would have explicitly linked the federation to liberal groups and, by extension, the Democratic Party. Resistance from some affiliates forced leaders to dilute the resolution, said Jeff Zack, spokesman for the International Association of Fire Fighters.
“We make it clear to our members that we are their union. We represent them on issues related to the workplace and work life. We do not represent them on issues of gun control or the Second Amendment. We do not represent them on environmental issues or conservation issues,” Zack said.
The resolution that passed doesn't require AFL-CIO member unions to form partnerships, said Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America.
“Affiliates are still independent — fiercely independent in some cases, like us,” Smith said.
The UMWA offers one example of why some affiliates are wary of letting liberal groups into the federation's decision-making process. Before the convention, AFL-CIO leaders floated The Sierra Club as a potential ally. The Sierra Club, which calls coal power “an outdated, backward and dirty 19th-century technology,” claims 1.4 million members. The UMWA has fewer than 75,000, according to the Department of Labor.
“We can't be all things to all people,” Zack said.
Economics is link
Likewise, unions shouldn't align too closely with any political party, he said. “We should stand for anyone who's willing to stand with us.”
But liberal environmental, social, religious and other groups share a common denominator with organized labor, said Richard Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. “Basic economics” can bring them together, Bloomingdale said.
“People aren't environmentalists until there's food on the table and a roof over their head,” Bloomingdale said.
The ebb of labor's political influence, an increasing share of the workforce made up of part-time workers, and a mobile economy in which people frequently jump between jobs weakened the prospects for unions to organize workplaces, Bloomingdale said.
“With the delaying tactics, especially in low-wage, high-turnover jobs, it's easier to say, ‘I'm not ... going to stay and fight this for five years.' Because (companies) will drag it out for that long,” Bloomingdale said.
The labor movement has been in this situation before, Bloomingdale said.
“Pre-Labor Relations Act, before we had the right to collectively bargain, unions were major players in their community,” Bloomingdale said. They partnered with civic and religious groups to rally people to the cause of improving conditions for workers, he said.
“There wasn't really collective bargaining; there was public pressure to get the employer to do certain things. We're really just going back to our roots.”
Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.