Passing the Employee Free Choice Act will require a massive shift in the culture of the labor movement, Communications Workers President Larry Cohen told national union leaders gathered for the AFL-CIO’s organizing summit.

“Labor law reform is not a lobbying issue, it’s a worker power issue,” he explained. Cohen said the traditional role of steward must expand beyond grievance handling and workplace issues to building a national movement for change. He called for development of such educational materials shared across union lines to make up 20 to 25 percent of stewards training.

Cohen, a founder of Jobs with Justice, didn’t hold back on marching orders for the new “army.” After mobilizing support for the Dec. 16 Goodyear strike solidarity actions across the nation [see story page 3] and a brief break for the holidays, the “steward’s army” must take the next three weeks to insure that 235 members of Congress sign on to the Employee Free Choice Act. “In January we will have some kind of event for each of them in their district,” he said. “We will mobilize like we haven’t for generations around passage of the bill.”

The summit also made the case for changing not only the labor movement but its relationship to the community. “The most powerful arithmetic in the union movement is adding us with our allies and friends,” explained AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson. Chavez-Thompson was one of many speakers who emphasized the need for unions not only to reach out for help with their own battles, but to be there in full force for the struggles of their allies. “It’s a two-way street,” she said. “We want to get a better contract, have people understand why we are on strike. But it’s also about what is needed in that community — public services gone wanting, children who don’t have after-school care.”

One important ally is immigrant workers, many of whom are organized in day labor centers. Pablo Alvarado is the leader of a network of 29 of these centers that has recently entered into an alliance with the AFL-CIO. “We commit ourselves to advancing workers’ rights and bringing closer dialogue between the day labor centers and local unions, opening space for the day labor centers to participate in central labor councils,” he told the summit. “When you go to day labor centers you see workers just like you see in union hiring halls,” he pointed out.

Chavez-Thompson added that community alliances — with people of color, the LGBT community, academics and people of faith — will be much more important with the new Congress. “There’s no way we can get the Employee Free Choice Act on our own,” she concluded.

— Roberta Wood