From the TUC

New partnerships begin for AFL-CIO

30 Sep 2013, By Guest

picket line

USAS and unions picket during a 2007 dispute in Chicago. Photo: Carlos Fernandez

The US trade union body the AFL-CIO (the US equivalent of the TUC) has reached its first partnership with a ‘non-union’ body as part of its efforts to re-brand and rejuvenate the US union movement.

With union membership down to an all time low of 6.6% in the private sector in a strategy agreed at its recent convention in Los Angeles the AFL-CIO is to reach out and offer partnerships and affiliations to ‘non union’ bodies and campaigning groups.

The AFL-CIO will now reach out to ‘alt.labor’ unions (self organised groups not affiliated to mainstream unions) who are organising and demanding wage increases predominantly in fast food chains with the help of community and faith groups. In its first deal the AFL-CIO has entered a formal partnership with the  United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). Officials of both organisations will join forces in college based campaigns aimed at improving working conditions in the USA and in global campaigns.

Both groups have worked together on employment issues before – so officials describe the formal arrangement as a natural one.

“As universities become a bigger part of the economy, having a partnership with the premier student labour group can only be helpful for workers abroad and in the U.S.,” said Christian Sweeney, deputy director of the AFL-CIO’s organizing department.

The USAS was formed in 1997 and since then they have persuaded almost a hundred colleges to drop or suspend licensing agreements with sports apparel manufacturers Russell Athletics over the closure of a Honduran factory, ultimately forcing the company to agree to rehire workers there in 2009. A year later, they forced Nike to pay $1.5 million in severance pay to workers in Honduras.

The USAS has supported campus workers as well as graduate students in organizing campaigns and backing strikes and they have local bodies on 150 college sites making it a powerful partner for the AFL-CIO.

The USAS will not get voting powers in the AFL-CIO structure, but its campaigns are expected to be financially backed by unions.

“It’s a pretty natural and obvious partnership,” said Lingran Kong, a member of USAS’ coordinating committee and a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “USAS works for justice causes, and the way we achieve those is putting student and worker power into practice. We’ve been working with the AFL-CIO for many years now. We get along splendidly.”

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has pledged to reach out to non-union progressive groups such as the powerful NAACP and the Sierra Club (the green and environmental campaigning group), as well as in an effort to open up the US union movement to alt.labor groups, dominated by low paid workers and young people.

GUEST POST: Tony Burke is Assistant General Secretary of the trade union Unite.