LABOR MOVEMENT The U.S. labor movement, faced with declining enrollment, political attacks and growing economic insecurity among members, is turning to nonunion groups for help.
The AFL-CIO, the federation that represents 57 unions with 12 million members, holds its national convention this week in Los Angeles with labor in a time of “crisis,” according to the group’s president, Richard Trumka. The meeting will take place as union membership stands at 11.3 percent of workers, down from 20.1 percent in 1983.
A top priority will be to expand relationships with nonunion groups such as the Sierra Club and the National Organization for Women, which often share the AFL-CIO’s goals. To that end, the group is scrapping its traditional convention format in place of one that features “action sessions” where nonunion members can hash out policy priorities and strategies with union delegates.
“We’re in a crisis right now, and none of us are big enough to change that,” Trumka said at a press briefing before the first convention session. “None of us are big enough to change the economy and make it work for everybody. It takes all progressive voices working together.”
This summer, Sierra Club members, in coordination with labor groups, pressured Congress to bring President Barack Obama’s nominees for the National Labor Relations Board and the Environmental Protection Agency to a vote, said Dean Hubbard, labor program director for the environmental group.
Coalition building between groups as diverse as unions and environmental advocates presents challenges. The labor movement is at odds with its nonunion allies on TransCanada Corp.’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Canada, a project the United Steelworkers Union, an AFL-CIO member, backs while the San Francisco-based Sierra Club is an opponent.
“We obviously are very strongly opposed to the pipeline, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t work together where it makes sense and where we agree,” Hubbard said in an interview. “It’s very complex at times to try to figure out the best way to work together.”
“It’s not that Trumka is going to call up the Sierra Club and say, ‘What should we do?’ ” Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington-based group funded by labor unions and private foundations, said in an interview. “It’s seeking them out to get more input into setting an agenda for labor.”
Resistance goes beyond specific issues such as the Keystone pipeline, according to Baker. Some union leaders fear that time spent on partnering with outside groups distracts from labor’s core mission of organizing workers and bargaining for better salaries and working conditions.
By Trumka’s own account, labor has failed to keep pace with changing economic and political realities. Of particular concern is labor’s failure to remain relevant to young people, he said.
In 2012, 14.4 million wage and salary workers were union members, down from 17.7 million in 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The union membership rate was highest among workers ages 55 to 64 at 14.9 percent and lowest among those ages 16 to 24 at 4.2 percent.