AFL-CIO launches study of state of work and of unions
Richard Trumka | AP

WASHINGTON – Saying workers are buffeted by automation, globalization and robotics, which threaten high joblessness, and firms robbing them of bargaining power to fight back and get jobs in the looming new economy, the AFL-CIO launched a year-long study of the state of work and the state of U.S. unions.

Replying to a mandate from last year’s AFL-CIO convention, the new Commission on the Future of Work and Unions met at federation headquarters on May 3, first in a 3-hour morning public session, and then behind closed doors for the rest of the day.

The federation wants a final panel report to its executive council next February and to its general board, which includes virtually all member unions, in a year.

“A generation of bad policy choices have created an economy where many industries have grown up with no unions at all – and corporations and politicians have attempted to erode what it means to be an employee” and thus protected by labor law and the right to organize, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in opening the meeting.

The results: Misclassification of workers as “independent contractors,” increasing poverty, rising income inequality and the threat of mass joblessness. Food and Commercial Workers President Marc Perrone cited an Obama administration study which predicted automation and robotics could push unemployment as high as 47 percent by 2030.

Such a high jobless rate “threatens our country’s very foundation, the unwritten social contract that ties my future to yours and your future to mine,” Trumka said.

It also would lead to mass social unrest, he warned. A 47 percent jobless rate would be double the peak U.S. rate, 24.9 percent, at the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s. That disaster, he noted, led to the rise of Hitler in Germany, for example. And a government and country that cannot feed and house its people is a government in trouble, Trumka said.

The catch is the nation’s current ruling class, both in politics and in corporate suites, don’t recognize that. “The same forces” working for rising inequality and joblessness also “want to sideline forces that work for a more just economy,” Trumka declared.

“Will we let the drivers of inequality pervert the economy to increase social unrest? Or will we use” changes in the economy “to raise wages and standards across the board?”

That’s not the only evidence the business and political elites are ignoring workers. Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler described attending a conference of high-tech and Silicon Valley firms in New Orleans where all the talk was of new robotics and computer-generated products and none about the workers who would lose jobs as a result and how to train or retrain them for the new economy jobs. “There wasn’t a single worker there,” she said.

And rank-and-file workers described how high-tech firms reacted just like other companies when workers organized. One fired all its software engineers and outsourced the work overseas after the engineers tried to unionize with the Communications Workers.

While Trumka asked speakers to discuss ways “technology must be used for good, not for greed,” Teachers President Randi Weingarten said politics and policy plays a big role, too.

“This is a conversation people want to have,” she said, on the first panel after Trumka’s remarks. Unions and workers must address lack of union density, rising inequality, how to develop more power and “how to insure (ourselves) against what the right wing does so well: Pitting us against each other, like pitting public sector versus private sector workers.”

Weingarten invoked the successful West Virginia teachers’ strike, where the teachers were forced to walk out after declining state investment in the schools, a decade without raises and threats to their students’ ability to learn. The teachers, both National Education Association and AFT members, shut down every school in the state for more than a week, and flooded the state capitol building with protests.

They also garnered enormous community support, plus backing from other politically significant groups in the state, including the Mine Workers, Weingarten said. She stated such unity and solidarity are keys to victory even in a new economy.

The West Virginia teachers won raises for themselves and all state workers and restoration of funds the GOP-run legislature diverted to tax cuts for corporations and the rich. The solons also reversed course on pension cuts.

Other speakers noted unity and solidarity could be keys in negotiations to bargain for training and retraining for the jobs of the future. As several speakers said, there may be robots running things in future plants, but you still need humans to program and run the robots – even if from remote locations.

But “for enduring change, we need to use the ballot box,” Weingarten, closing speaker in the public session, added. “Without the ballot box, we can’t get the policies we need…There have to be teachers running for office.”

And while West Virginia’s and Arizona’s teachers stayed united and won, Oklahoma’s fractured. “Now the legislature’s trying to kill unions by decertifying us,” Weingarten said. Meanwhile, one NEA teacher is running for the state legislature against one of its most anti-worker Republicans in a district just outside Tulsa. (See story on teachers’ strikes.)

Trumka admitted unions face another problem in tackling the new economy: “Society doesn’t have a place to go and bargain for the benefits of technology. That’s why we have to focus on it. If benefits are divided fairly, we can create a new era of broadly shared prosperity, where working people can share in the wealth we helped create. It’s up to us now to build that economy once again. This commission is the kickoff of getting there.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.