Trumka plans to revive US unions
At the coming convention of the US trade union body, the AFL-CIO, (the US equivalent of the British TUC) to be held in Los Angeles (September 8-11) the charismatic Richard Trumka who is the President of the AFLCIO is aiming to push through significant changes to the organisation which he hopes will revive the fortunes of the movement in the USA.
Union membership in the USA is now down to 11.3% (12 million workers), the lowest percentage in almost a century. In the early 1980s, union membership stood at over 20%. Trumka, the former leader of the US miners’ union, admits the US union movement is “in crisis.” But he has a radical plan that will aim to reverse decades of decline.
The drop in union membership is despite impressive initiatives in the early 1990s such as developing strategic organising structures, a massive switch of resources and the training of hundreds of young, specialist union organisers. As a member of the TUC General Council, having studied the US organising model and visited the AFLCIO, I helped transpose the model to form the TUC’s Organising Academy.
US unions are under attack like never before. 24 US states are now “right to work” states, with right wing federal administrations pushing through laws that undermine collective bargaining for public service workers. These attacks have been ramped up significantly since the presidential election when unions pulled out all the stops to get Obama elected and took much of the credit.
In the private sector employers – including overseas companies who work with unions in their home countries or in Europe such as Nissan who are opposing union organisation of the United Autoworkers in Mississippi and the German engineering company Siemens who used union busters against the United Steelworkers in Maryland – remain steadfastly anti-union and hostile to organised labour.
The recent ‘alt.labor’ strikes and stoppages organised by non-unionised workers in fast food outlets and the low paid service sector by workers demanding a ‘living wage’ have garnered media attention in the USA and abroad.
These strikes and demonstrations have been self-organised via social media and have the backing of local faith and community groups with US unions looking on, being supportive but working out how to harness the ‘unofficial’ movement.
It is to these workers that Trumka intends to reach out – and he is even looking to affiliate established groups such as the environmental campaigning group Sierra Club and the NAACP. The United Steelworkers in the USA have a long standing relationship with the Sierra Club and they regularly attend USW conventions and events.
The changes being proposed will also require changes to AFLCIO’s rules and procedures – which may be a tough proposition. Trumka recognises that union traditionalists in the US movement may mount opposition to the proposals. However, he counters the arguments by making the point that
“I think any time you do new things and you have change, people are concerned about what it means. Will it dilute us? Look, here’s the way I look at it: what we’ve been doing the last 30 years hasn’t worked real well. We need to do things differently.”
Trumka describes the plan as “Back To The Future” – a return to the way unions worked, operated and grew in the 1920s and 1930s in America.
Having already set up the 3 million strong Working America organisation representing non-unionised workers, Trumka says the US union movement needs to reach out to graduate students, fast food workers, childcare providers, young people who hold down two or three part-time jobs (Trumka describes them as the “gig society”), faith, environmental and civil-rights groups.
Details about how any new arrangements will work need to be agreed but it is being suggested that some of the groups may pay union subscriptions and others may not. In some instances these groups could become part of the structure of the local trade union movement. Trumka says
“None of us are big enough to be able to change the climate out there, whether it’s economic, political or legislative. And all of us realise it takes all of us working together to get it done.”
Labor union historian Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center For The Study Of Work, Labor and Democracy described the move by the AFLCIO as “a return to its 19th-century roots when the labor movement claimed to speak for, we call them ‘the 99%’ today.”