David Moberg’s Article on the AFL-CIO’s Strategies for a “New Working Class Movement”

At the AFL-CIO convention this fall, the federation adopted four strategies to build a “new working class movement.”  David Moberg has an excellent article at In These Times, with extensive coverage of the AFL-CIO’s new approach.  Moberg’s article is worth a read in its entirety–it covers AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s vision for the future of labor, as well as the key resolutions adopted at the quadrennial convention.  Below is a brief summary of Moberg’s analysis.

Moberg describes the context of the convention: with a backdrop of the continued economic crisis in this country and declining union membership at the same time, the AFL-CIO’s tactics are geared towards “reach[ing] and include[ing] every working person in the country” even if “they do not have a union contract at work.”

Strategy 1.  The first strategy is expanding union membership through organizing drives or other recruitment approaches in “currently unrepresented regions, occupations and industries.”  This includes organizing in industries that have no history of unionization, such as the car washing industry, which has “recently seen some small-scale organizing victories in Los Angeles and New York.”  The recent fast-food strikes are another example of organizing in industries that do not have a history of it, although the striking workers’ demands are for wage increases, not necessarily unionization.  (We’ve covered fast-food strikes and the minimum wage, their chances of success, their press coverage, and whether the strikes will lead to workers being replaced by robots). This strategy also includes organizing members who are in industries or region where collective bargaining is not possible.  In southern “right-to-work” states, for example, some unions have organized workers so as to  “advocate for their interests even if [the union] cannot negotiate contracts.”  We have covered the role of unions in right-to-work states here and here.

Strategy 2.  The second strategy is working more closely with nonunion workers’ organizations.  For the past decade the AFL-CIO has had its own nonunion affiliate, Working America.  Historically, the AFL-CIO has sometimes viewed nonunion groups as rivals.  But in recent years, it has built relationships with “workers centers” such as the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, which serve as “advocates, service-providers, [and] law enforcers” for nonunionized workers.  We have written about the role of workers centers, whether they are “front groups” for unions, the workers centers involvement in ObamaCare enrollment.  Often workers’ centers can more effectively serve workers who are unlikely to join traditional unions, such as students, undocumented immigrants, or workers in industries that legally may not organize (for example, domestic workers—stay tuned for a longer post on that topic).  This strategy has the additional benefit of bringing in members from demographics that may be underrepresented in unions: women, people of color, and younger workers.

Strategy 3.  The third strategy is to build alliances with progressive advocacy groups.  The AFL-CIO has long had relationships with certain progressive groups (such as the NAACP), but as Moberg notes, historically the AFL-CIO was unwilling to “join coalitions or protests it could not effectively control.”  One sticking point in this new emphasis on partnerships is the relationship with environmental groups.  Some groups within the AFL-CIO, such as the BlueGreen Alliance, see climate change as an issue affecting workers, and partner closely with the Sierra Club and National Resources Defense Council to support policies addressing climate change and other environmental issues.  Other AFL-CIO unions, such as the Laborers’ International Union of North America, prioritize immediate job growth, and object to giving a greater voice to groups like the Sierra Club that oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, which would provide jobs for members.

Strategy 4.  The fourth strategy is to focus on politics and advocacy, in addition to workplace bargaining.  As Moberg explains, “politics plays a role in creating a climate for organizing and for expanding the social contract.”  Moreover, this approach allows the AFL-CIO to advance workers’ interests even in a climate where unions play a small role in collective bargaining in many workplaces.  We’ve previously covered “unbundling” unions, and Professor Sachs’s essay and op-ed on how unions can “advance the goal of political equality by enabling workers to organize unions for political purposes” even if not for collective bargaining.

 Time will tell whether these new strategies will lead to on-the-ground change in the AFL-CIO’s tactics, and whether they will be effective at advancing workers’ interests inside and outside of the workplace.  

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