LOS ANGELES — AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka on Monday exhorted labor officials to begin the task of “reawakening” their movement from decline.
With traditional membership slipping, Trumka made an impassioned plea at the AFL-CIO’s annual convention here for expanding labor’s ranks beyond dues-paying members.
“We must begin, here and now, today, the great work of reawakening a movement of working people — all working people, not just the people in this hall, not just the people that we represent today — but everyone who works in this country, everyone who believes that people who work deserve to make enough to live and enjoy the good things in life,” Trumka said Monday in the convention’s keynote address.
Trumka came down decidedly on the side of a “big tent” labor movement, noting that the percentage of workers who were unionized dropped to 11.3 percent last year.
“At the end of the day, it's on us. It’s on us to build a movement not for the 99 percent, but of the 99 percent,” Trumka said, with his fist shaking. “Not just the 11 percent we are right now. The 99 percent.”
The AFL-CIO intended for the convention to be a gut-check for labor, and spent months organizing committees of student representatives, academics, civil rights advocates and union officials to discuss how keep unions alive in the years to come.
The labor federation has sought to more formally include liberal groups to strengthen its political power. In addition, the AFL-CIO has fully embraced “worker centers” — nonprofit groups that are not unions but organize low-wage workers.
Trumka said labor must include new workers not to increase union dues, but to create change for everyone.
“Not so we can have bigger unions — but so we can together make all working peoples’ lives better,” Trumka said. “Because the success of our movement is not measured in the members we organize, or the politicians we elect. It is measured by the progress of working people — all working people — by the lives we lead, by the hopes and dreams we make real together.”
Many in labor are concerned about the push to move beyond union members. Despite labor’s backing of Democrats, union officials don’t always see eye to eye with others on the left.
Environmental groups, for example, have often clashed with unions, especially over building the Keystone pipeline. Some union leaders say the AFL-CIO should stick to representing workers.
Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), told The Hill on Sunday that, “this is the American Federation of Labor. We are supposed to be representing workers and workers' interests. ... We are not going to be the American Federation of Progressive and Liberal Organizations.”
“It's one thing to be in alliance with these organizations. It's other for them to be official members of the federation with a voice and a vote,” said Dorian Warren, a Columbia University professor who specializes in labor politics. “The intent is to signal that the AFL-CIO is trying to be a broader labor movement and not just narrowly focus on its own members.”
Kate Bronfenbrenner, a Cornell University labor professor, said the AFL-CIO has to boost union membership, and worker centers may by the answer.
“The AFL-CIO is experimenting with new ways for organizing. They know they have to improve their organizing numbers,” said Bronfenbrenner. “Unions can't contract out organizing to worker centers and expect to build the labor movement. Both groups have to work together to do the organizing.”
Unions have increasingly come under attack at the state level since the 2010 midterm elections, suffering huge setbacks in labor strongholds like Michigan and Wisconsin.
Trumka challenged attendees at the convention to stay united.
“Our answer to [Wisconsin Gov.] Scott Walker and Wal-Mart and the Koch Brothers and every other apostle of greed who seeks to divide us must not just be ‘no,’ it must be ‘hell no,’ ” Trumka said to cheers.
Unions must focus on deciding who belongs in the labor movement, and not on who their enemies are, he said.
“Working people alone should decide who’s in our labor movement and that’s exactly what we will do,” the AFL-CIO president said to whoops and sustained, standing applause in the convention hall.