Pointing to continuing declines in union representation and recent assaults on collective bargaining rights, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka March 7 conceded that the American labor movement is “failing miserably’’ and must adapt its strategies to a new landscape.
“To be blunt, our basic system of workplace representation is failing—failing miserably—to meet the needs of America's workers by every critical measure,’’ Trumka told a group of 100 union officials and labor supporters in Chicago.
In this challenging climate, Trumka said the labor movement must re-examine its historic relationship with American workers and adapt its strategies to a very different legal, economic, and political landscape. More specifically, Trumka said, the labor movement must embrace new models of representation that exist outside of traditional unionism.
“Our institutions, our unions will experiment,’’ Trumka said. “We will adapt to this new age. We will change and with your help, your ideas and your innovation, working men and working women will guide our country back to a better future where we have shared prosperity.’’
Trumka made his remarks at a conference sponsored by the University of Illinois Labor Education Program, which featured several prominent examples of workplace movements seeking to gather unrepresented workers to the house of labor.
Strategies for Change
While data showing the decline of organized labor are well known, Trumka said the numbers do not express the fact that 60 million Americans would nonetheless embrace an opportunity to join a union. He said the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions must let go of their jurisdictional and historic loyalties and deploy strategies that appeal to the next generation of workers. In line with this view, the federation president presented a three-part prescription for change.
First, Trumka said American workers must be able to join the labor movement without enduring a “trial-by-fire workplace organizing drive.’’ He said the traditional legal process under the National Labor Relations Act is clearly stacked against workers seeking to form a union. Regardless of the quality of a particular organizing drive, he said employers have effectively fought against union penetration.
Trumka said the AFL-CIO has taken steps to encourage alternate routes to representation. He pointed to the federation's relationships with organizations such as the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Moreover, the AFL-CIO adopted a policy in 2006 extending affiliate status to “worker centers,’’ community organizations and faith-based groups established to educate workers about their rights in the workplace. In many cases worker centers have channeled workers into organizing drives.
“It is time to stop letting the law define who are members should be,’’ he said.
Secondly, Trumka said labor needs to organize more strategically and focus on nontraditional forms of employment. Moreover, unions need to “focus on where the jobs will be in the future.’’
Trumka pointed out that some unions have extended membership opportunities to workers who do not fit within the traditional definition of “employee.’’ Examples include organizing drives focusing on home care and child care workers, directed by the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, and the Service Employees International Union. Trumka also pointed to the Writers Guild's efforts to organize writers in the entertainment industry and the Taxi Workers Alliance efforts to represent cabbies in New York.
Finally, Trumka said the labor movement needs to modify its internal structures to deploy collective resources more effectively and efficiently. He said better coordination between unions and between regions could have played a role in defeating the right-to-work law recently enacted in Michigan.
“The time for excuses is over,’’ he said. “We must effectively mobilize and act.’’
Several speakers at the event discussed their efforts to support and mobilize workers outside of traditional channels.
Examples of Campaigns
Rev. C.J. Hawking, executive director of Arise Chicago, cited a long list of successes by her organization on behalf of low-wage workers. Arise Chicago builds partnerships between faith-based groups and workers to address workplace injustice through education and advocacy. Key successes have included:
- creation of the Illinois Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights;
- enactment of an ordinance by the Chicago City Council that revokes the business licenses of employers convicted of wage theft;
- completion of an exhaustive examination of abuses in the car wash industry through a partnership with the University of Illinois Labor Education Program;
- educating thousands of low-wage workers about their rights under state and federal minimum wage, collective bargaining and workplace safety statutes;
- assisting workers seeking to form unions through partnerships with local labor organizations; and
- recovering more than $5 million in unpaid wages for low-wage workers cheated by their employers.
Daniel Schladerman, director of the United Food and Commercial Workers' “Making Change at Walmart’’ campaign, pointed to ongoing efforts to ensure economic justice and workplace protections to millions of retail employees of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
While Wal-Mart has successfully resisted union representation for many years, Schladerman said company employees are working with UFCW and several faith-based and community partners on nontraditional strategies designed to bring better wages and working conditions to the retail behemoth.
Those strategies include the emergence of: Making Change at Walmart, a UFCW and Wal-Mart employee coalition working to improve working conditions; Organization United for Respect at Walmart, a worker-led group focusing on in-store working conditions; Walmart 1 Percent, an information campaign highlighting the extreme wealth of members of the Walton family; and Warehouse Workers for Justice, an Illinois organization seeking fair wages and workplace protections for warehouse and logistics workers, including workers toiling on behalf of Wal-Mart.
“We created a new model for workers that allowed them to stop waiting for the government to examine their employer and award them their rights to organize,’’ Schladerman said. “That is the foundation that has made the rest of this happen.’’