Unions push back against labor's ties to progressive groups

LOS ANGELES — Resistance is growing among some unions against the AFL-CIO’s push to strengthen its bonds with liberal groups outside of labor. 

Union leaders told The Hill that they have questions on how the nation’s largest federation plans to include environmental and civil society organizations under the AFL-CIO banner. Labor has sometimes clashed with groups — even if the two factions both often align with Democrats — as unions have looked to defend their members’ interests.

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Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), said he sees “great value” in labor finding different groups to align with politically. But the federation needs to stick to representing workers rather than become a social movement itself, according to the union chief.

“However, to say that we are going to grow this labor movement by some kind of formal partnership, membership, status, place in this federation, I am against. This is the American Federation of Labor. We are supposed to be representing workers and workers' interests,” Schaitberger said. “We are not going to be the American Federation of Progressive and Liberal Organizations.”

Others in labor, especially in the building and construction sectors, have aggressively pushed back against the proposal. Those unions have clashed repeatedly with environmental groups over building the Keystone XL pipeline.

“Does that mean we are going to turn energy policy of the AFL-CIO over to the Sierra Club? I have concern about that, as well as I should,” said Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA).

LIUNA has exited alliances before with outside groups. In 2012, the union left the BlueGreen Alliance — an environmental-labor partnership — due to some of its members’ criticism of the Keystone pipeline.

“I grew up in the movement to do one of two things. We support anything that's good for another union brother or sister or we keep our mouths shut. That seems that has changed along the way,” O’Sullivan said.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that some in labor took umbrage at offering an enhanced role within the federation for outside groups. Liberal organizations are not expected to become dues-paying AFL-CIO members.

"Giving people a seat where they have governance, and they don't represent workers, that was a bridge too far for lots of folks," Sean McGarvey, president of the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department, told the Journal.

Speaking to reporters on Sunday at the AFL-CIO's 2013 convention here, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said labor is “in a crisis" that warrants the move to look outside of unions.

“We are in a crisis right now and none of us are big enough to change that crisis. None of us are big enough to change the economy and make it work for everybody. It takes all progressive voices working together. Will we disagree from time to time? Of course, we will disagree from time to time,” Trumka said.

In recent years, unions have been under attack in labor strongholds like Michigan and Wisconsin while union membership continues to decline. Only 11.3 percent of the workforce was made up of union members in 2012.

“Labor is seeking to reinvent itself at this convention. They understand the urgency at all levels,” said Harley Shaiken, a University of California, Berkley, professor that specializes in labor issues. “They plan to do it by broadening its base with labor as a social movement.”

Trumka said he wants to create stronger partnerships with outside groups.

“We plan to do things a little differently,” the AFL-CIO president said. “What we used to do was get a plan and we would go to our progressive allies and say here’s our plan, sign off. Sometimes that worked and most of the time it didn’t work. Our goal right now is now to say here’s a problem. It’s a joint problem. Let us both create a plan.”

On Monday, the AFL-CIO will likely consider a resolution to more formalize partnerships with liberal groups.

An AFL-CIO official said Larry Cohen, president of the Communication Workers of America, is expected to outline the final draft of the resolution on Monday before it goes to the convention floor for debate and a vote.

That resolution is expected to boost labor's alliances with liberal organizations in order to better coordinate on shared goals, according to the official.

The AFL-CIO is also expected to consider a resolution this week that favors bipartisan politics, which was introduced by the Building Trades department and the International Union of Operating Engineers.

That resolution would recognize that both the Democratic and Republican parties “have a compelling historical commitment” to protect workers’ interests. Also under the resolution, the AFL-CIO would conduct its political program in “a pragmatic, bipartisan approach” and encourage moderate candidates in solid GOP congressional districts.

“We are going to adopt a resolution that says we are going to be bipartisan,” said Schaitberger with the IAFF. “Yet on the other side of the equation, we are saying we are going to become a federation of progressive organizations and socially liberal organizations. Sounds to me a conflict in terms.”

The IAFF has backed Republicans. The union’s political action committee doled out contributions to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee during the last campaign cycle, according to Federal Election Commission records.

O’Sullivan with LIUNA was adamant that outside groups that are not unions do not become affiliates of the AFL-CIO.

“We are not for direct affiliation of outside groups. We are working with any and all groups. I always say this: we will work with you where we can and fight you where we have to,” said O’Sullivan.

Trumka said Sunday that consolidating bonds with liberal groups will help labor in the end.

“We want to transform our relationship with our progressive friends and allies from transactional to transformational so that we can withstand the issues we disagree on and still be able to work for a common goal of an economy that works for the 99 percent,” Trumka said. 

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