Labor Goes Community

“Community is the new density,” AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Elizabeth Shuler said yesterday, just moments before the labor federation’s quadrennial convention was gaveled to order in Los Angeles. For those who follow labor-speak, the remark was both an acknowledgement of American labor’s crisis, and a guide to the strategy with which it hopes to recover.

For unions, and more fundamentally for workers, density is power. In a market with considerable union density, wages and benefits are high—or at least higher than they are in a nonunion market. In the three cities with the highest density of unionized hotel workers, for instance—New York, San Francisco, and Las Vegas—housekeepers make upwards of $20 an hour. In a city where just half the big hotels are unionized—Los Angeles, say—their wage is close to $13 or $14 an hour. In a city in which no hotels are unionized, as in the case in most of the South and Southwest, housekeepers make barely more than the legal minimum.

But more and more American cities and industries fall into that last category, and with the law protecting workers’ right to organize shredded beyond recognition, unions have shrunk to the point that virtually every delegate to this convention concedes that they no longer have the density or the power to defend their members interests. Even if they could, their members now constitute just a sliver of the workforce: 6.6 percent of the private-sector workforce is unionized, down from a third of the workforce 60 years ago.

Enter, then, the concept of community. Unions, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has been saying for the better part of the year, must focus on bettering the lot of workers who belong to unions and workers who don’t. Much of the AFL-CIO’s activity this year is really the activity of Working America, whose members are recruited not at the workplace but in a door-to-door canvass and who have succeeded in raising the minimum wage in several cities and counties. It’s community organizing for economic ends, though the end result isn’t a workplace contract but a broader public policy victory. Much the same strategy informs the current organizing drive of fast-food workers that the Service Employees International Union (one of the two mega-unions that don’t belong to the AFL-CIO) is coordinating. There’s little hope these workers can ever get McDonalds to the bargaining table, but there are real prospects that city councils in liberal municipalities will pass living wage ordinances that raise those workers’ incomes.

Campaigns such as Working America’s or the fast-food workers’—or the hotel workers’ in Long Beach, about which I wrote in the current issue of the Prospect—must enlist a host of community-based allies, particularly because they’re not dealing with the management of a single employer but with the politics of a city or county or state. Much of the focus of this convention is on cultivating more enduring and deeper partnerships with such community, civil rights, and women’s organizations. While the unions “haven’t given up the lease on traditional organizing,” as Trumka said during a press conference yesterday, they are acutely aware that their workplace-centered model of growth has been unable to overcome management opposition in recent decades. Accordingly, the federation’s committees that have been meeting in the months leading up to the convention to develop a strategy for labor’s future took the unprecedented step of including as members not just union leaders and activists but also leaders of civil rights groups and the National Organization for Women (NOW). “Union activists should see our struggle as their struggle, as we see their struggle as part and parcel of ours,” Terry O’Neill, NOW’s president, said at pre-convention press conference.

Within labor’s ranks, Trumka is the leading apostle for this kind of transformation: “We used to devise a plan, bring it to our allies and say, ‘Can you sign off on this?’ Sometimes this worked, sometimes not. Now we go to our progressive allies and say, ‘Here’s a problem; let’s devise a plan together.”

Union leaders, Trumka added, are united in their realization that in its current state, labor can’t achieve its goals unless it’s part of a broader, more powerful coalition. “Everyone on [the federation’s] executive council knows we’re in crisis right now, and that none of us by ourselves can fix it,” he said. “We need all progressive forces working together

But there’s plainly skepticism among some labor leaders at the prospect of including leaders from organizations that aren’t unions within labor’s decision-making circles. Beyond that, how exactly these closer relationships between labor and other progressive groups are to be formalized—if they are to be formalized—is a question to which nobody at this convention seems to have a clear answer. What Trumka will get out of this convention is a resolution authorizing the federation to work on deepening these relationships at both the national and local levels, but specific structural changes to the composition of the labor movement and its decision-making bodies will await further developments.

Moving towards a unity of progressive groups, Trumka acknowledged, “will be challenging. In situations where we have conflicts with affiliated groups, we will work them through or agree to disagree. But going back into our room and putting our hands over ears and going ‘Auggh!’—that doesn’t work.” 

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