Labor

As America’s Middle Class Shrinks, Labor Movement's Major Outreach Plan Is Making Waves

The recent AFL-CIO convention got a lot of notice from the progressive community.

Photo Credit: Jodie Gummow

As the AFL-CIO ended its quadrennial convention in Los Angeles, something different seemed to be in the air. It wasn’t just the lingering forceful rhetoric from the stage about reversing America’s growing inequality and declining standard of living, or the pledges to welcome non-union workers into the federation and labor movement.

Instead, it was the realization that Americans are not just struggling with labor’s issues—wages, benefits, advancement, healthcare, retirement—but are paying closer attention to what labor is now saying and doing. That could be seen in the wide interest that people outside the convention took in Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s speech defending labor’s agenda as America’s agenda and attacking the Supreme Court as the most pro-corporate court ever.

It could be seen in the media’s interest in the coast-to-coast protests organized by fast-food workers, helped by one of the largest non-AFL-CIO unions, Service Employees International Union. It could be seen in what the business press covered from L.A., the prospect of remaking unions to include members who are not represented by it in contract talks, such as student, environmental and women’s groups.

“I think it is important that people are getting interested in organized labor again,” said University of Texas Professor Jack Getman, one of the country’s top labor law experts. “The tone is good, but you have to put in the sweat. You have to inspire people. I think the fast-food workers strike is inspiring people to take another look at unions.”

There’s little that’s new in the longstanding progressive rhetoric of union organizing, which emphasizes the importance of class, jobs that provide dignity and living wages, and how prosperity comes from a growing middle class. But what’s new in 2013 is that as the country’s working class is growing in the wake of the 2008 recession, more Americans are realizing that labor’s longtime concerns are their own. That’s because incomes and wages have not just been stagnating, but falling in recent years.

“Our agenda is America’s agenda,” Elizabeth Warren declared in a speech surveying American history. “In every fight to build opportunity in this country, in every fight to level the playing field, in every fight for working families, we have been on the front lines.”

The AFL-CIO, which is a federation of 57 unions with 13 million members, knows this history and made every effort at its convention to rebrand itself as leader of a new populist movement for all Americans who make their living working for someone else. The meeting hall in Los Angeles was not another drab conference filled with white, male, middle-aged leaders from across the country. It was filled with women, people of color and colorful posters extolling labor, and touted non-traditional participants, from successful organizers like the Taxi Workers Alliance to Jobs With Justice.    

“There is a determination to make the labor movement broader and more inclusive through many different avenues,” said Aruna Jain, spokesperson for Working America, the AFL-CIO’s grassroots organizing arm started in 2003 for people in non-union jobs. Working America, which has 3 million members, recently launched the online tool FixMyJob.com, which gives people tips on how to achieve better working conditions and compensation, and is indicative of labor's more inclusive approach. 

“Working America is a good idea; it’s the model that they are trying to follow,” said Getman, who said there’s also been talk for many years about “separating unions from collective bargaining” for members. That strategy gets difficult to put in practice, he said, although he praised the effort. “All of these are good things. They’re trying to think of ways to be more relevant.”

Labor stands at a curious crossroad, as the country seems to be coming closer to its values and agenda, although the political party that had been helped the most by labor, Democrats, is often reluctant to embrace its class warfare populism. Most Democrats are unlike Sen. Warren, who welcomes unions and their social justice legacy as a basis of her agenda. Instead, they are like President Obama, who often talks about rebuilding the middle class but almost never mentions labor—even though it helped to elect him and other recently imperiled Democrats, such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

In Los Angeles, speaker after speaker gave speeches that hit the notes progressives hope to hear from Democrats, but frequently don’t. Almost all of the resolutions passed were more strident and focused in their criticism of what’s wrong with America than the Democratic Party’s 2012 platform. Here’s the conclusion of a resolution on “Good Jobs, Economic Security and Tax Fairness.”

“We are not a poor country. We are, however, a country in which economic inequality has risen to alarming levels; economic elites have grown increasingly indifferent to the well-being of their fellow citizens; multinational corporations have grown increasingly disconnected from the economic interests of the people who actually live and work in America; Wall Street and the wealthiest Americans have gained outsized political influence in our democracy; and economic policy makers have convinced themselves that good jobs and the economic security of working people no longer are necessary to our economic success. These are the things that cry out to be changed.”

Richard Trumka, who rose from the mine workers to become AFL-CIO president, gave a keynote address that was as poignant as Warren’s speech but in a different and even more desperate way. Trumka repeatedly said the labor movement has to reinvent itself to survive because the stakes are higher in 2013—and those stakes are growing.    

“The working class is not the middle class anymore,” Trumka said. “We work harder. We work longer hours. We create more—more goods, more services, more of everything—and yet most of us earn less. Less than we earned five years ago. Less than we earned 15 years ago. Barely more than we earned 35 years ago.”

He did not shy away from pointing the finger of blame at the wealthiest Americans.

“This is a rich country. So where’s all the money going?” the AFL-CIO president asked. “All of the wage increases over all those years—not some, not the majority, not the vast majority, ALL—went to the top 10 percent. Incomes for the rest of us—90 percent of America—went down. And those who did the best were those who were at the top already: the top 1 percent.”

The message that AFL-CIO delegates embraced was that the fight for economic fairness, justice, opportunity and security was now America’s struggle. Their hope is that people will notice a more defiant, diverse and inclusive movement to revive the middle class.

“This is America. It’s time we value work—not wealth, not greed,” Trumka said. “Our answer to [Wisconsin Gov.] Scott Walker and Walmart 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! If you work for a living…our movement is your movement.”  

But the challenge labor faces is inspiring people to believe they have a stake in its organizing—especially young adults, Getman said. “You need something to inspire young people to believe that the labor movement is their cause….You can pass all the resolutions you want, but what takes place on the ground is what transforms it.”

Right now, the grassroot actions that are drawing Americans’ attention are the strikes by fast-food workers. Tellingly, it is not speeches by increasingly influential politicians like Warren or seasoned labor leaders like Trumka that are being noticed, but the compelling words of individual fast-food workers, predominantly women of color, demanding $15 a hour and paid sick leave to support their families.

Those protests will continue this week in Florida, where workers for America’s largest restaurant chain, Darden, which owns brands such as Red Lobster and Capital Grille, is holding its annual shareholder meeting. They will continue in Washington, D.C., where the Democratic mayor vetoed a higher minimum wage for big-box retail store workers. Organizers will push the city council to override that veto.

It continues in blue states like California, where the legislature just raised the state minimum wage to $10 an hour—the highest in the country—and where Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign that into law, and where the legislature also passed a new domestic workers bill of rights, guaranteeing overtime pay. It is unclear if Brown will sign or veto it.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).