It is, as they say, not your father's labor movement.
The AFL-CIO held its quadrennial convention over the past week, re-electing President Richard Trumka and Secretary-Treasurer Elizabeth Shuler and electing Tefere Gebre as executive vice president, to replace the retiring Arlene Holt-Baker. But those elections were not the convention's most important business; it involved intense discussions on a series of resolutions and amendments laying out the labor federation's priorities for the coming four years.
Two issues in particular drew notice at this convention: a resolution on the Affordable Care Act passed late in the convention's last day, which Joan McCarter wrote about Thursday, and an ongoing discussion about the labor movement's relationship with other progressive organizations.
Going into the convention, Trumka had discussed the possibility of giving non-labor progressive groups a decision-making role in the AFL-CIO. That idea drew opposition from some union leaders, such as Harold Schaitberger, the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, who said he was in favor of cooperating with other groups;
"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."
This debate highlights an important point, that as progressive organizations have become increasingly funded by big donors and foundation grants, unions have increasingly stood out as among the few, if not the only, progressive groups funded in small-dollar increments by workers. And while super-rich donors embrace many progressive causes, from the environment to marriage equality, truly increasing worker power is rarely among them. It's crucial for unions to build alliances and work with groups like the Sierra Club or the NAACP, but that must not come at the expense of workers' voices in the labor movement.
The convention made several moves to build a more inclusive labor movement, though, including constitutional amendments adding gender identity and gender expression as things without regard to which workers should be encouraged to share equally in unions and expanding the general board to include young workers. Resolutions passed included one calling for the building of a broad, inclusive, and effective labor movement through Working America, the federation's community organizing affiliate, and by working more closely with worker centers and student groups. Another resolution called for building enduring labor-community partnerships, while another was on assisting immigrant workers to become citizens and exercise their workplace rights.
But the questions of how deep unions' ties with other groups should be, or how widely they should seek members and develop leaders, were not the only issues of importance on which this convention made progress. Take the question of mass incarceration, which we'll look at in more detail below the fold.
"It is no coincidence," the convention's resolution on mass incarceration, "that the total population in the United States’ correctional system has exploded in the decades since the business of for-profit incarceration was born." So, yes, this resolution is in part about prison privatization, which turns public jobs with benefits into bad, private jobs. But that's not all this is about. Josh Eidelson reports:
Several delegates at the convention drew connections between their vision of a more inclusive labor movement with stronger community ties and the AFL-CIO’s new stance opposing mass incarceration, set forth in a strongly worded resolution passed Monday afternoon. “Mass incarceration is a betrayal of the American promise,” Trumka told the crowd before taking comments from the floor. “The practice hurts our people and our communities, it keeps wages low, it suppresses democracy, and we can’t afford to imprison so many people. Nor can our families, our communities or our country afford the loss of productivity of these people.”
The resolution was supported by the AFL-CIO’s largest union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents some prison guards and has sometimes clashed with prison reform activists. In a Monday e-mail to The Nation, AFSCME President Lee Saunders said increased incarceration “has had a devastating and disproportionate impact on communities of color.” He noted that the resolution “strongly opposes the for-profit companies that make money when more and more people are put in jail,” and “just as important…calls for proper staffing in jails and prisons and condemns the inhumane conditions that frequently face both workers and those who are incarcerated.”
Trumka has, of course, pushed union members hard on things like voting for a black presidential candidate, and Saunders is himself black; the concerns about racial disparities in the resolution are a reflection of how far the union movement—or at least very large chunks of it—have come over recent decades.
These are just a few of the more than three dozen resolutions and amendments the convention passed; you can find a full list here.