When the news media talks about “labor,” people think about unions.
This year, however, organized labor joined with community, civil rights and other organizations and, together, they fashioned themselves into a new movement.
And the AFL-CIO, after months of discussions, in town hall meetings and online, opened the ranks of organized labor itself to every single worker in America, regardless of his or her place of employment or current or past status as a union member.
It was a matter of survival, union leaders said. Only by reaching out, they added, would labor be able to beat back the unprecedented wave of attacks against it and give America’s workers the clout they need to fight for living wages, safe working conditions, health care and a decent life while on the job and in retirement.
In 2013, poll after poll showed that the clear majority of Americans see the wealth gap as the big problem facing the nation. The idea that the 1 percent are crushing the 99 percent moved from beyond the Occupy Wall Street protesters who first popularized it to become a majority view. Labor took that idea into the AFL-CIO’s convention in September, and staked out new ground in its struggle to reverse a situation in which just one of every eight workers in the U.S. is unionized.
“We can’t do it alone,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said when he accepted his re-election as the federation’s president.
“Tonight in America,” Trumka said, “a child will be going to sleep with a stomach growling with hunger, with an immigrant parent sitting behind bars waiting to be deported, or with a father who is falling out of the middle class and a mother who is struggling as a minimum wage earner. The question is, ‘Who will speak for them?’ The answer is, ‘We will.'”
The AFL-CIO’s executive council will meet in Texas in February 2014 to hammer out specific ways in which organizations outside the traditional labor movement can formally be integrated into the federation.
This has to be done, Trumka said at the convention, because the times call for bringing unions, the organized, the unrepresented and the unorganized together in one “mass movement.”
“So what’s the big deal?” some said after the convention. “Labor has always worked together with other organizations.” The difference this time, the union leaders say, is that they intend to keep the coalition together on a permanent basis.
Even the temporary alliances labor has formed recently have lasted longer and have had more success than many alliances formed in the past. A good example is the Democracy Initiative formed this year by the Communications Workers of America.
No less than 51 organizations were brought together under its umbrella. The movement eventually forced the U.S. Senate to overcome GOP filibusters and confirm a full five-member National Labor Relations Board.
Rather than dissolving itself, the Democracy Initiative continued to apply pressure and recently won another victory by convincing Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to get rid of the 60-vote requirement to override filibusters against executive branch nominees, as well as judges up to the level of federal district and appeals courts.
“We’re going to continue pushing until the right wing is unable to filibuster anything – including important legislation,” says CWA President Larry Cohen.
The recent “fast for families” on Capitol Hill, the dramatic event led by former SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Eliseo Medina, was only one part of labor’s involvement in an ongoing fight for immigration reform in 2013.
Major progress was evident with the Senate’s passage of a bill providing a 13-year path to citizenship for over 11 million undocumented people,
The measure, although far from perfect, would also bring all who register for “blue cards” as provisional immigrants under the protection of U.S. labor law. Unions see this as beneficial for the entire workforce, including those who are citizens, because it would decrease the ability of employers to exploit any of their workers.
The GOP-controlled House put the brakes on everything, however, by refusing to even consider comprehensive immigration reform this year.
On another front, the nation saw a major rising up of its low-wage workers in 2013, with people at fast food outlets and big box stores staging actions all across the country.
Walmart alone had to deal with 1,500 walkouts while fast food places dealt with walkouts in almost all major cities. The workers demanded $15 an hour, respect on the job and the right to organize.
The labor movement and its allies also spent an unprecedented amount of time in 2013 exposing a variety of right-wing schemes designed to weaken worker power in America.
Thousands choked the streets of downtown Chicago as they marched on a secretive meeting of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council. Across the country unions and their allies campaigned against so-called voter ID laws, exposing their racist intent and building support for overturning them.
And unions and their allies fought hard against the push by right-wing lawmakers to put in so-called right-to-work laws.
In places like Detroit they have been battling the efforts of Republican governors and lawmakers to override the authority of democratically elected local officials.
Unions say they will be mounting full-scale fights to support local authorities when those authorities are looking out for the interests of workers. Numerous cities and towns, for example, have instituted minimum wage laws higher than the $7.25 provided by the federal government. Republican lawmakers are beginning to push state laws that would override these decisions and labor says it is ready to do battle on the issue.
Unions and their allies were also vital, this year, in ending the tea party-provoked government shutdown.
Labor’s continued push against the sequester cuts are widely seen as having been instrumental in the passage of a bipartisan budget compromise last week that restored $43 billion of the sequester cuts. However they were not able to overcome stony Republican opposition to extending unemployment insurance which is expiring – thus leaving the nation’s jobless out in the cold.
As the year ends millions of workers, their unions and others are taking time out to make the holidays a good time for those jobless and the rest of the 99 percent who are most in need.
Thousands of children whose parents are out of work are the object of special efforts this time of year.
Unions in Oregon, for example, got together this week with the community services groups that joined them at the AFL-CIO convention last fall and sponsored one of many events at the Sheet Metal Workers Local 16 union hall. The children got handmade stockings from Oregon’s American Federation of Teachers. Everyone got a turkey lunch and dessert made by members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and a variety of community groups sponsored the Santa Claus, face painting and bags full of gifts. A second pile of gifts was given out to the unemployed parents.
2013 was a tough year for labor and its allies and it looks like 2014 will be another tough one. As the folks in Oregon proved this week, however, workers and their friends never seem to lose their spirit.
Photo: In Chicago: taking over State Street! Retail workers striking at Sears, Macy’s and Walgreens, December 5. Fight for 15 – Lucha por 15 Facebook.