In a bold and surprising move to expand union brotherhood, Richard Trumka, president of the 11.5-million member AFL-CIO, announced that his Federation would consider inviting non-union workers to join up. And in an equally surprising move, Trumka suggested inviting progressive environmental and civil rights groups (e.g., the Sierra Club, the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, etc.) to form partnerships or quasi-coalitions with the House of Labor.
The announcement was made on the eve of the AFL-CIO’s convention, which began on Sunday, September 8, in Los Angeles. Although Trumka and his advisors deserve enormous credit for pursuing ideological alliances that fall well beyond conventional, boilerplate unionism, jurisdictional concerns and questions about the nuts and bolts of implementation are certain to arise. Still, this is a wonderfully unorthodox concept.
It should also be noted that, if this wildly ambitious undertaking has any chance of succeeding, there’s going to be a boatload of bad history that needs to be addressed before anything gets done—not only with the environmentalists, but with the pro-immigration movement as well.
Because unions have always been about economics, they’ve pretty much been in favor of leveling hills, draining lakes, felling trees, drilling oil, mining ore, and pouring cement wherever, whenever, and however possible. After all, labor’s stock in trade is jobs, jobs, and more jobs. Let the environmentalists worry about the spotted owl and banana slug. Understandably, this mind-set has been anathema to groups like the Sierra Club. It’s going to be interesting to see if they can find common ground.
As for immigration, labor’s record has been mediocre at best. Historically, labor has viewed immigrants willing to work for less than a living wage as a threat to union workers seeking a rung on the Middle Class ladder. That’s not an unreasonable concern. Consider the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an insidious, right-wing institution that would abolish unions if it had the power. The Chamber is on record as being in favor of open immigration. Why? The prospect of cheap, abundant labor has them drooling.
The concept of allowing non-union workers to join a labor federation is not new. Indeed, in the mid-1990s I attended a regional union council meeting where that topic was discussed informally.
One of the delegates claimed that the legendary Industrial Workers of the World ( IWW, formed in 1905), inspired by the notion that the Brotherhood of working people should transcend artificial barriers such as union cards and administrative labels, made a change to its by-laws that allowed not only non-union workers to join up, but unemployed people and transients as well.
The discussion awaiting the AFL-CIO will likely resemble the one we had at that council meeting. While virtually everyone present embraced the notion of reaching out to our non-union brothers, there were some major concerns. The Biggest Question: What, exactly, does it mean to have non-union workers join a union?
Is it a purely symbolic or public relations gesture, or is there a practical side to it? Surely, as non-union workers, they can’t be asked to pay dues for union benefits they aren’t getting. And if they aren’t paying dues, what rights, if any, do they have? Can they run for office? Can they attend meetings? Can they vote? And if they can’t vote or attend meetings, what’s their role—besides padding the roster? The success of the Trumka initiative will largely depend on how effectively the AFL-CIO answers these question
But labor’s problems are more serious than by-law changes. A myth that needs to be dispelled is that the decline in union membership reflects both the American worker’s disdain for unions, and organized labor’s built-in obsolescence. Nothing could be further from the truth. Polls show that upwards of 60-percent of American workers have expressed an interest in joining a union.
So what stops them from signing up? The answer is simple. It’s the fear of being fired. Is it illegal to fire someone for seeking union representation? Of course it is. Firing someone for seeking union membership is as illegal as possessing heroin. But because it’s so hard to prove, and because the fines for getting caught are miniscule, companies continue to do it with impunity. Welcome to America.
David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org