Changing the face of the labor movement

CHICAGO — The package of proposals adopted at the AFL-CIO Convention this week are the result of a remarkable process initiated last year by the federation’s constituency groups. The groups are: the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, A. Philip Randolph Institute, Coalition of Labor Union Women, and Pride at Work, which represents gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender workers.

The constituency groups launched a vigorous campaign to defeat a structural proposal put forward at that time by some of the unions which this week left the federation. The defeated proposal would have “streamlined” the AFL-CIO’s 51-member Executive Council by trimming it down to the 15 presidents of the largest unions. This would have eliminated all African American, Latino and women leaders. The constituency groups effectively made the case that union members had the right to see among their union’s leadership “faces that look like ours.”

The campaign culminated in a daylong “Diversity Summit” attended by hundreds of rank and filers and leaders preceding the convention. There, IBEW Human Services Director Royetta Sanford reported on a recent study that found that organizing campaigns in which the lead organizer is a person of color have dramatically higher win rates. Campaigns with African American women as lead organizer have an unprecedented 89 percent win rate, Sanford said.

In his keynote address to the convention, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney emphasized that the diversity proposals were so important that he was asking the convention for a unanimous vote.

When the proposals hit the convention floor, it was white, male union leaders who were the first at the floor mikes. Brette Hulme, president of the Savannah, Ga., central labor body, argued, “Diversity is an asset.” Floyd Suggs of the Florida CLC said, “Unity is number one.” Cecil Roberts, head of the Mine Workers union, recalled the basic union values of fairness, justice and “elevating everyone.”

Celebration of the unanimous vote swept across the convention floor.

All state federations will now be required to bring in constituency groups as affiliates. The AFL-CIO General Council will add seats for each of the six constituency groups as well as the Alliance for Retired Americans. Another amendment increases from 10 to 15 the minimum number of Executive Council vice president positions that must be filled by women or people of color.