Trumka's answer Thursday was to both highlight the ways the AFL-CIO has been opening itself up to new and different forms of organizing and reaching out to workers and to commit to find still more such ways, saying "The AFL-CIO’s door has to be—and will be—open to any worker or group of workers who wants to organize and build power in the workplace." He cited Working America, which has begun recruiting members to industry committees "as a way to get closer to unions and begin to take collective action," as well as the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, worker centers, and workers who "do not neatly fit the legal definition of an employee," such as home care workers and taxi drivers.
Each of these, Trumka suggested, is a model that could conceivably succeed at building worker power in the future, and while acknowledging the dire statistics of recent years, he pointed out that such depressing moments have happened before and that workers who people thought could not be organized have been organized before, as we'll see below the fold.
Over 100 years ago, the only unions were of skilled craft workers. No one thought industrial workers could organize.The thing about organizing is it's rare to find what works on the first try. You have to throw a lot of things against the wall to see what sticks, be willing to learn from what's worked in the past, and be willing to adjust as longtime tactics become less effective. That seems to be the path Trumka is laying out here. Existing unions are challenged by the fact that they do have so much to lose, both in terms of the organizational resources and power they are trying to preserve and in terms of the people they represent, people whose lives are injured when they lose a job or their union is broken or their pay and benefits are cut. But if top union leaders are beginning to shed that fear and fight like they're already dead, times could get interesting.
Then a man from a small town in Indiana, Eugene Debs, created a new model, a union of all railroad workers. And when, in a small town just south of where we sit today, 4,000 employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company went on strike to protest a cut in wages, Debs led a national railroad strike in defense of the Pullman workers. The strike led to federal court injunctions, armed intervention, and the jailing of Eugene Debs, the leader of the Railway Union. From his prison cell, Debs declared:“Ten thousand times has the labor movement stumbled and bruised itself. We have been enjoined by the courts, assaulted by thugs, charged by the militia, traduced by the press, frowned upon in public opinion, and deceived by politicians. But notwithstanding all this and all these, labor is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known, and its historic mission is as certain of ultimate realization as is the setting of the sun.”The armed might of the federal government broke the National Railway Union. But the idea of an industrial union—a union of all workers in an industry, could not be broken—and four decades later provided the answer in the industrial age, in Steel, Auto, and Rubber—helping to pull our country out of the Great Depression, and creating the American middle class.