Labor unions adjust to new economic landscape

Posted Thursday, Sep. 12, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Having banged its head against a wall for years with nothing to show for it but a headache, the American labor movement is devising a plan to bypass the wall.

During its quadrennial convention in Los Angeles this week, the AFL-CIO has acknowledged that the laws protecting employees who seek to join a union have been rendered so ineffectual that labor must come up with new ways to advance workers’ interests.

With just 6.6 percent of the private-sector workforce enrolled in unions in 2012, traditional collective bargaining has all but vanished from the economic landscape — taking raises, benefits, job security and much of the American middle class with it as it goes.

“We are a small part of the 150 million Americans who work for a living,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in his keynote address Monday. “We cannot win economic justice only for ourselves, for union members alone. It would not be right and it’s not possible. All working people will rise together, or we will keep falling together.”

While labor activists aren’t abandoning traditional workplace organizing, they’re proclaiming a strategic shift.

“We are going to expand the idea of collective bargaining,” said Tim Paulson, executive director of the San Francisco AFL-CIO. “You can have collective bargaining through legislation. You can have collective bargaining through ballot measures.”

Working in a coalition with community organizations, labor prevailed on San Francisco’s city government in 2008 to mandate that employers provide health insurance to their workers or pay the city to subsidize low-income residents’ purchase of coverage.

This year, the coalition also persuaded a hospital chain seeking to build a new facility to staff it with union jobs and to provide affordable housing — in a city where such housing grows scarcer by the minute — as a condition for city approval of its expansion.

By itself, labor could not have won these and kindred battles.

“Even if all we cared about was our own contracts, we can’t even get those anymore without community assistance,” said Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America.

For several decades, unions have aligned with other key liberal constituencies on a host of discrete battles — immigration reform, voting rights (again), financial regulation, universal health coverage — but now it wants to cement these alliances in permanent coalitions.

That doesn’t mean labor will seek to encompass its progressive allies within its own ranks, as some union leaders suggested in recent weeks. The thought of putting the president of the Sierra Club on the AFL-CIO executive council drove some building trades leaders batty.

But it does mean that labor will commit resources to building omnibus organizations where union and environmental (and other) leaders work for a common program.

One group that the AFL-CIO has committed to including — and, in some cases, has already brought in — consists of workers not covered by conventional collective bargaining agreements or who may not even be eligible for such coverage under the terms of the National Labor Relations Act.

These include cab drivers (ostensibly independent contractors, even though most work for taxi companies), domestic workers and day laborers — a host of largely immigrant workers who have found ways to bargain collectively by persuading city councils and legislatures to raise their incomes or limit their hours.

Their battles have also been waged in coalition with groups advocating immigrants’ rights, women’s rights, civil rights and religious organizations.

This is the first AFL-CIO convention — meetings attended chiefly by union leaders, not rank-and-filers — that hasn’t looked like a bunch of middle-aged white guys. The union movement now looks like the new America — and is trying to figure out how best to champion that new America’s interests.

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect.

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