The AFL-CIO Continues to Step Forward with “New Labor”

ACORN Labor Organizing

New uale logo Orleans John Hiatt, now the AFL-CIO chief of staff under Richard Trumka, and previously general counsel under John Sweeney, was the lead speaker on an early morning plenary before the United Association of Labor Educators (UALE) meeting in New Orleans on the topic of “Building a New Labor Movement for a New Economy.”  He and his co-panelists who included Kent Wong from the UCLA Labor Center as well as a leader of the Domestic Workers Alliance and a lawyer with an interesting bi-national (Mexico/USA) legal project with migrants offered some refreshing perspectives not heard every day in your usual labor oriented gathering.

John and I go back almost 40 years now to common ties with welfare rights even before ACORN and to his several weeks in Little Rock one summer helping organize unemployed workers with ACORN around 1972 or so.  It’s sometimes a rocky road but given his last 15 years as an erstwhile and sometimes controversial keeper of the keys in the “house of labor,” I see these kinds of initiatives among “informal” workers as a kind of “values” statement for John and his inside advocacy within the corridors of labor power that help justify some of the more contentious weight he has carried in various disputes.  His personal crusade as general counsel for immigration reform was one such touchstone, as well as his merging of labor law and labor organizing strategies with his efforts to support the organizing of carwashers in Los Angeles as an affiliate of the Steelworkers is another.  Not all of these efforts have worked out well, and who despite the steps forward labor made in the 2009-10 campaign for immigration reform, it’s a mixed bag as well and a conundrum still unresolved.

Nonetheless there is no questioning the sincerity with which the AFL-CIO has adopted some of the “newer” forms of organizing under a bigger tent philosophy particularly with new organizing experiments among informal workers including day laborers, domestic workers, and others.  The AFL-CIO has formally taken steps which would have been unheard of 20 years ago to come to agreement with organizations representing these groups like NDLON (the National Day Laborers’ Organizing Network), Enlace (a multi-national membership based organization of where Local 100 and ACORN International have been charter members), and the Domestic Workers Alliance, which recently won breakthrough labor standards protection in New York State and seems to have new campaigns in California and others pending in the next year in Colorado, Maryland, and Massachusetts.  They have also signed agreements with the Interfaith Worker Justice, a labor/religious support organization based in Chicago and headed by our friend, Kim Bobo, and John mentioned that the Restaurant Opportunities Council (ROC) in New York and elsewhere may be moving towards a form of affiliation as well.

I have argued in Citizen Wealth and in a coming essay in Social Policy (The Maharashtra Model v.41#1) that the future of the labor movement lies not only in the USA , but worldwide in our effectively organizing what one speaker called “excluded” workers and what I call “informal” workers.  These steps by the AFL-CIO are encouraging in that sense though they are largely symbolic unfortunately.  They are signals and placeholders of change and openness without being taken seriously as “real organizing.’  These efforts by and large are not backed by resources and organizers, but by favors and suasion or the leverage of “powerful pockets” as the DWA leader argued.  All of this that is part of a successful organizing plan and what has been proven to create victories, but that’s a lot more than a piece of paper and some good dialogue.

Saying hello to John after the plenary and before my panel, I complimented him for his remarks and the AFL-CIO’s initiatives, but he quickly interrupted me with a grin, and said, “if we could only figure out how to collect dues and bring in members!”

It’s a longer conversation and a different kind of conversion experience on the way to the “new labor movement,” but as Cesar Chavez argued 40 years ago and as I say all the time, “you can’t collect dues without asking people to pay.”

This is the future, if we can just step up to get there.