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AFL-CIO Convenes in Los Angeles, Day 1

Michael Hirsch Sep 9, 2013

Editor’s Note: Longtime labor and political writer Michael Hirsch is blogging daily for The Indypendent from this week’s quadrennial AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles. At the top of the convention agenda are plans by the 13.5 million member labor federation to open its doors to millions of more workers in the U.S. who do not currently belong to a union.

LOS ANGELES—Welcome to the City of Angels, where Richard Trumka, the federation president and former minerworkers’ union leader promises the beginning of a new, militant and more inclusive labor federation. The slogan: “Dream, Innovate, Act.” The plan: organize the unorganized, including much of the 89 percent of the U.S. workforce that is not in a labor union. And do it in tight and mutually beneficial co-ordination with movements of feminists, youth, people of color, the LGBTQ community and those in the workforce who are among the lowest paid and whom even many of the Federation’s own affiliated unions have traditionally ignored.

The effort, waged by the national staff and aimed at encouraging and building stronger local central labor councils as a spur if not a counterbalance to the International unions that historically dominated the federation could be epochal. One hopeful observer in attendance, the National Organization for Women’s Terry O’Neill, said  that she saw the effort she strongly endorses as “not just transactional, but transformational.” Or, it could lend itself to a cynical reading by those of us who’ve long advocated a broad, fighting social justice unionism as just one more effort to extend a late-summer vacation in sunny southern California to fulltime union officials.

Certainly the rhetoric is bracing and welcome. A foretaste of the new course came at a solidly attended Sunday morning preconvention “diversity conference” under the name “Building a Diverse Movement for Shared Prosperity: In Our Workplaces—in Our Communities —In Our World.” In a late morning press briefing, where Trumka assured the media that the effort “didn’t begin here and won’t end by the time the convention closes on Wednesday.”

Symbolizing the intended change in direction is the high convention profile given to emerging union leader Tefere Gebre, the Ethiopian-born, youthful and magnetic head of the Orange County California Federation of Labor, whose organizing successes among new immigrants in an area that bred Richard Nixon and long-epitomized reactionary attitudes among the over-privileged are meant to be instructive; he is slated to be the AFL-CIO’s new executive vice president.

It’s an ambitious project, and chockablock with difficulties. Forget the biggest hurdle: the immense opposition to any but the most servile labor leaderships on the part of corporate America.  Already Trumka’s “y’all come” call has attracted opposition from a key constituent element of the Federation, who bridle at having to be yoked to such war horses as environmentalists, including the rather non-threatening Sierra Club, which opposes the energy industry’s many oil and gas projects. Some unions see environmentalism as killing jobs. That’s not a predominant sentiment, but negotiating that road will make for a bumpy transition.

More to come as the convention progresses.

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