Big Labor reaches out to nonunion workers

An unusually inclusive gathering hopes to reverse unions’ decline

A close-up of the AFL-CIO logo at its magisterial Washington, D.C. headquarters.
Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

In 1990, Natalicia Tracy was a dark-skinned Brazilian teenager eager for a shot on American soil. She left São Paulo with a family that was not hers -- to be their live-in nanny in Boston. What she found instead far exceeded child-care duty: round-the-clock household labor for $25 per week, and severe isolation; she was forbidden to receive mail or call home.

Tracy stuck around when her employers returned to Brazil, to make something of her dreams. After decades of low-wage work, she now organizes nannies and day laborers “going through all this stuff I went through in the past.” Neither she nor the members of her non-profit, the Brazilian Immigrant Center, belong to a union, but next week, Tracy will travel to Los Angeles as a special guest of the AFL-CIO, the confederation comprising 57 unions and 12 million American employees.

The AFL-CIO, in the face of unrelenting union decline -- membership has hit an all-time low of about 11 percent, down from 20 percent in the early 1980s -- is extending a hand to non-union workers, young people and a wide swath of ostensible partners, as never before. From September 8 to 11, it will host what promises to be a historic convention.

It’s the culmination of dozens of “listening sessions” held over the past year, which invited the general public to discuss the economy and the changed nature of work. And the convention will be packed with unlikely invitees: giants like the Sierra Club alongside neighborhood non-profits like the Crenshaw Subway Coalition. The schedule is heavy on strategy panels tackling everything from garment work in Bangladesh and the Affordable Care Act to the art world and mass incarceration.

“I would never have been invited to the AFL convention prior to this one,” said Victor Narro, an immigrant worker advocate and project director at the UCLA Labor Center. “It’s a recognition of urgency, not trying to be insular.”

“We have seen a shift, even from 2001, when the AFL recognized undocumented workers,” said Kimi Lee, director of the non-union United Workers Congress.

Such alliances seem beneficial, but labor insiders worry about mission creep.

Many contradictory things can be said about American unions, all of them true. As Lee mentioned, the same ones that fought to criminalize undocumented workers now favor broad legalization. Unions have, at times, excluded African Americans, yet were important players in the civil rights movement. 

The opposition of labor and environment is archetypal: In the 1990s, it was Northwest loggers versus the dainty, brown-tufted spotted owl; today, it’s construction workers versus conservationists opposed to the Keystone pipeline. But Scott Slesinger, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, thinks “Keystone is an outlier.” He points to the growth of green jobs, like windmill production, as well as environmental-union partnerships to reduce pollution at key ports.

Such alliances seem beneficial, but labor insiders worry about mission creep. “There is a distinct possibility that [AFL leaders] are going to create some sort of affiliate status for groups that are not unions, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing,” said Bill Fletcher, Jr., labor activist and co-author of Solidarity Divided. “There’s a difference between the AFL saying they’re going to unite with other groups versus they’re going to invite groups to join the AFL-CIO.”

Others see the confederation’s outreach as a sign of weakness -- that bringing in small-scale upstarts like day labor and restaurant worker groups is a sign of desperation. Low-wage, contingent and temporary jobs are on the rise; and, in 24 states, “right to work” laws prohibit unions from requiring members to pay dues, making it difficult to organize.

Given the relative foreignness of unions to most Americans, “What can the labor movement do for other people?” is the key question, said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the progressive, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute. With 7-plus percent of Americans unemployed, unions should, he said, “bring light to the incredible imbalance in the economy.”

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka recently said, “[W]e are serious about working closely with our allies… We’re reaching out to them in a fundamentally new way.” At the convention, he is expected to encourage local affiliates -- state federations and city-based central labor councils (CLCs) -- to establish close relationships with the full gamut of social-justice groups.

In cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and New York, the state “feds” and CLCs have already collaborated on immigration reform, paid sick days and minimum wage campaigns. They have also supported recent strikes by fast food and Walmart employees who demand higher wages and a meaningful right to organize. (In a promising, pre-convention sign for the AFL-CIO, the union backing the OUR Walmart campaign, United Food and Commercial Workers, recently rejoined the confederation after 8 years. However, on August 29, the radical International Longshore & Warehouse Union went the other way, choosing to disaffiliate.)

“What’s interesting is what comes out of the convention: whether the decisions made influence the organizational behavior of the affiliates afterward,” said Jeff Grabelsky, associate director of the worker institute at Cornell’s ILR School.

“I’m optimistic and hopeful, but my question is, ‘Is the transformation going to happen quickly enough to offset the decline?’” UCLA’s Narro said.

“I want, 20 years from now, for us to look back on this as the pivotal moment where we passed resolutions and made them happen. It’s a moment of truth for the labor movement.”

Tune in to 'Talk to Al Jazeera' as AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka talks about the labor movement's "crisis" and how he'll fight it, and gives his assessment of how well President Obama has tackled workers issues. Sunday, Sept. 1 at 10:30pm ET/7:30pm PT

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