In Los Angeles, Labor Redefines Itself

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Richard Trumka, American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations president, addresses members during the quadrennial AFL-CIO convention at Los Angeles Convention Center on Monday, Sept 9, 2013 in Los Angeles.  The AFL-CIO plans to open its membership to more non-union groups in an effort to restore the influence of organized labor as traditional union rolls continue to decline. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Richard Trumka, American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations president, addresses members during the quadrennial AFL-CIO convention at Los Angeles Convention Center on Monday, Sept 9, 2013. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

“It’s time to turn America right side up!” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka exhorted those in attendance at the labor alliance’s quadrennial convention in Los Angeles on Monday. Time, he said in his keynote address, to change the ratio of power, to put the 99 percent in charge rather than let the richest one percent dominate government, politics and society.

“Since 2009, the pay of America’s corporate CEOs has gone up nearly 40 percent,” Trumka noted. “Imagine for a second what kind of country we would live in if ordinary people’s incomes had increased like CEO’s. Almost no one would live in poverty.”

Trumka recognized that the number of Americans in unions continues to decline although the AFL CIO is “13 million strong — we are today, as we have been since the time of Abraham Lincoln, the biggest, strongest, best organized force for economic justice in America.” But, Trumka continued, “We are a small part of the 150 million Americans who work for a living. We cannot win economic justice only for ourselves, for union members alone. It would not be right and it’s not possible. All working people will rise together, or we will keep falling together.”

To that end, and in perhaps the most radical restructuring of labor since the AFL and CIO merged nearly sixty years ago, the convention endorsed the expansion of the AFL-CIO’s membership to include non-traditional labor organizations, including non-profits organizing low-wage workers. As described by AFL-CIO senior writer Kenneth Quinnell, “The AFL-CIO is going to expand existing forms of participation in the labor movement and create new forms of membership that are available to any workers not already covered by a collective bargaining agreement or who are not members of unions or represented by unions.”

Watch Senator Elizabeth Warren's speech at the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles.
Monday was the first full day of the AFL-CIO convention. The Syrian crisis prevented President Obama from making a scheduled appearance (he sent brief videotaped remarks instead) but Senator Elizabeth Warren, despite Syria-related intelligence briefings and negotiations, was able to move her planned Monday address to Sunday afternoon at the convention’s opening half-day. It was a barn-burning call to arms. “When important decisions are made in Washington, too often, working families are ignored,” she said. “From tax policy to retirement security, the voices of hard-working people get drowned out by powerful industries and well-financed front groups. Those with power fight to take care of themselves and to feed at the trough for themselves, even when it comes at the expense of working families getting a fair shot at a better future.”

Warren bluntly condemned the government sequester as “stupid” and sharply criticized the Supreme Court. “According to a recent study,” she said, “the five conservative justices currently sitting on the Supreme Court are in the top ten most pro-corporate justices in a half century — and Justices Alito and Roberts are numbers one and two — the most anti-consumer in this entire time. The Chamber of Commerce is now a major player in the Supreme Court, and its win rate has risen to 70 percent of all cases it supports. Follow this pro-corporate trend to its logical conclusion, and sooner or later you’ll end up with a Supreme Court that functions as a wholly owned subsidiary of big business.”

She concluded:

Our agenda is America’s agenda. The American people know that the system is rigged against them and they want us to level the playing field. That’s our mandate! I’ve already fought and lost my share of battles in Washington, and I’ve been around long enough to know that Washington is a tough place. Real reform isn’t easy. But I also know this: If we don’t fight, we can’t win. But if we fight, we win.

Before the convention began Sunday afternoon, the morning was devoted to a short conference on inclusion and diversity, important to a labor coalition for too long criticized as “pale, male and stale.” Today, women and minorities play a prominent role in organized labor, although when it comes to age it was pointed out that reportedly only seven percent of union members are under 35.

The older among us at the convention are half-jokingly described as “seasoned,” so a highlight of the morning was the appearance of civil rights hero the Rev. James Lawson, soon to be a seasoned 85. He trained many of the movement’s leaders, including John Lewis, in the techniques of non-violent civil disobedience. At the conference, he condemned what he called the “spiritual wickedness of plantation capitalism… Seven of ten people in the world work at or below a poverty level that is simply another name for slavery.”

Serving up two aphorisms relevant to all in attendance at this year’s convention, Rev. Lawson pointed to the words of the Greek philosopher Thucydides, who when asked when justice would come to ancient Athens, said it would come when the uninjured were as outraged as the injured. And the Methodist pastor cited Proverbs 29:18 — that where there is no vision, the people perish.

Moyers & Company senior writer Michael Winship is president of the Writers Guild of America, East, and is attending the AFL-CIO convention as a delegate.

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  • Anonymous

    whether you are in a union or not, without the labor movement, we are all doomed. I really hope they can “reinvent” themselves. because it is so needed in order to reverse 30+ years of decline that started with Reagan.

  • Sue Em

    Thank you for your voice Elizabeth Warren!

  • Thomas Mrak

    Typical of a Liberal. It’s never your fault you or your family aren’t better off.

    I was raised by a couple of you thugs.

    Want more? Go out and earn it instead of crying to the government or a Union for a handout.

  • Mark Schmidt

    Maybe you should give all that you got from those “thugs” back, shocktroop.
    I’m another of them thugs, and I am not so polite as some of us.

  • DavidW

    No, it won’t be more than a salve on a wound. Labor Unions own no businesses, they work only on the symptoms of economic ills by attacking the greed and callousness of management. Real change comes when the oligarchs are deprived of their “royalties.” Not necessarily their “heads.”

    A hundred years ago, Unions formed Cooperative enterprises as a means to rid themselves of the gouging “company” stores. Somehow this all branched out and Co-ops when another direction. It’s time to start working together again. Think of an economy where the owners of a company were the workers, or the consumers or a hybrid. Will that plant fight the workers for pay concessions, if there needed to be pay concessions, the workers would have to figure it out or lose their company to competition. Will a plant move to another state or another country? Only if a majority of the owners vote for that and only if they got to move with the company since they are the owners.

    We’ve been putting band-aids on this economy for years when the greed of the owners gets them to lie that a rising tide raises all boats. It’s time to push the ownership culture to the people and educate us on how to own our own enterprises, with our neighbors and our community. To make irrelevant the Wal-Marts and the Goldman-Sachs of our business world and limit their economic influence upon our political democracy. To fight the coming economic totalitarianism with people owned money, That’s and idea, fight money with money.

    So, move that bank account to a Credit Union, find a Food Co-op to shop at and invest in, get something at a worker owned Co-op or better yet work for one or even better, start one. Management, they know what makes unions tick but would be blindsided by decent and creative competition without the greed to extract wealth from our communities. We have to vote with our dollars and educate people on the options. It’s high time that unions and cooperatives found each other working together again.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t want ‘more’, I want what I am entitled to. I want just compensation for my assistance in helping the CEO of the companies I work for rake in the money. I want what I deserve for working my butt off for over thirty years.
    Until the heads of these companies do every job in every location of their companies all the time, their workers are entitled to just compensation for helping them make a profit. Too bad people like you are incapable of understanding that.

  • Anonymous

    ad hominem attacks reducing a whole point of view as ‘Liberal’ and used almost as a cuss workd is stock in trade of people with holding certain conservative approaches to governance. Listen to Rush Limbaugh as a model for this way of thinking.

  • medcannabis1

    could see Senator Warren and Sec. Clinton becoming the voices of the
    people. They have the ability to inspire all of us to rally behind them
    and move the GOP obstructionists out of government, and begin to heal
    this nation from all the manufactured austerity that the GOP and the
    .01% vulture capitalists created.

  • medcannabis1

    Thank you David for a well thought out position. This is why the people of the nation will change the current corrupt practices of the corporate-citizen and their extensions in Congress. We have allowed the legislative class of citizen to enrich themselves off of their”public service” in Congress and the Senate instead of caring for the health and welfare of the people of this nation. To ignore the real damage being done by the “tea-party” Manchurian Candidates of the Koch Brothers will only lead to further harm to our fellow citizens .From the founding of the Koch Industries with Stalin one can only wonder if their fathers involvement with the John Birch Society was nothing more than a smoke screen to hide their real intention of promoting the end of the middle class of American life.

  • medcannabis1

    Dear Thomas…I took a moment to read your posts to understand why you would have this position, and I guess you are not a troll..but someone who has so much pain within. Not sure why you carry such a burden within..but maybe if you took a moment and found somewhere to practice kindness..hospice, cancer get the idea, and try to find some human kindness from within others who are suffering worse than you and maybe you will heal from your anger

  • Garrett Connelly

    Clinton, the person who referred to Hosni Mubarak as family? The dem who helped overthrow a gentle healing democracy in Honduras and turn it into the most violent country in the hemisphere? Who’s husband fast tracked NAFTA, and who was ridiculed in South America for praising the peaceful transition in Honduras. Hillary Clinton is as anti freedom and democracy as the current dough brain prez, who is destroying democracy in the US and fast tracking TPP plus wanting to bomb and terrorize Syria. Face it; partisan politics is a good cop bad cop con game and Hillary is in the thick of it.

  • Dave Weaver

    Grasping at straws to fill your flagging membership rolls is not a strategy AFL-CIO.

    This is simply what it appears to be – a desperate attempt to gather those that may not really be my friend – but are also against my enemy…

    Be wary union members these ill begotten alliances generally come back to haunt in spades…

  • Depaver Jan Lundberg

    I’ll bet ten to one that the issue of workers’ needing/deserving to have a piece of the consumer pie, and put no end of hard-earned money into the corporate polluters’ pockets, is not on the table.