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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, 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.”

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