Labor expanding vehicle to open membership to everyone

WASHINGTON (PAI) – Starting to put into practice its new goal of speaking for all workers, not just representing those in unions, the AFL-CIO and its Working America affiliate announced Oct. 23 that the affiliate will expand its operations to all 50 states within five years.

The aim, said Working America executive director Karen Nussbaum and AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, is to enlist more allies who share labor’s goals and views on issues such as immigration reform, restoring the middle class and workers’ rights, even if they can’t or won’t join unions.

“The hard work of broadening and building a more inclusive labor movement is currently underway,” Trumka declared during an Oct. 23 telephone press conference.

Working America now has 3.2 million members and its staffers go door-to-door, house-to-house in states mostly in the Northeast and Midwest, engaging workers and their families about their problems and discussing political action and grassroots organizing to solve them. They do not sign up members for local unions.

In its convention in Los Angeles in September, the federation voted to expand that effort and to convert the AFL-CIO from just an organization of labor unions, councils, federations and locals to a workers’ movement, organized and unorganized.

Delegates also voted to reach out to like-minded progressive groups: Women’s rights groups, environmentalists, civil rights groups, community coalitions, religious/spiritual groups, and African-African, Hispanic, and LGBT groups.

Nussbaum explained Working America will expand to every state – a request state labor federations made a year ago – and seek ways to contact those non-union workers not just at home but in their workplaces. In the next year, she said, her group will add 11 states, with a major push in two states in the notoriously anti-worker anti-union South, Texas and North Carolina.

“We’re developing new forms of advocacy and customizing our outreach programs by working with (union) affiliates” such as state federations, she said. She cited one example in New Mexico, where Working America and the Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) teamed up on a fight to raise the minimum wage in Albuquerque, and to improve working conditions for theatrical workers statewide.

But Working America is also going to shift its focus “from policy” in general “to policy affecting them in the workplace, such as raising the minimum wage, safety and health and unpredictable scheduling,” she said. “And we’ll give them tools, outside of collective bargaining, to get redress” or justice on the job, Nussbaum added.

Working America will also establish new “Workers Centers.” Those will be its own offices where workers can meet, off their jobsites, to talk about issues and to receive practical legal and other help. The first such center will be in Portland, Ore. “And we’re recruiting people for a Volunteer Corps to spend much more time with members on the issues,” she said. There will be special emphasis on new members.

Working America will also ask current union members to enlist in the cause. It wants them to reach out to friends and family members on common issues, saying members could sponsor the others for Working America’s inexpensive fees.

But Working America won’t work in a vacuum. Nussbaum noted the state feds asked it to come in and promised cooperation. And when asked about which worker groups would be part of the Southern emphasis, Trumka mentioned teachers and educational staffers in Texas, but quickly added that “We’ll work with our affiliates (unions) there, not getting ahead of them.”

Individual AFL-CIO unions will also get involved in the outreach effort, Trumka predicted, citing the Ironworkers as an example. Ironworkers vice president Bernie Evers told the conference call his union is now going out to talk with non-union ironworkers, without recruiting them into the local first.

It brings them into the union hall or into community groups’ quarters for informal sessions about their rights on the job and the problems – from immigration issues to health and safety questions – that they face. From those sessions, the union gathers names and contacts for a database. It also offers advanced training. And the union uses the database to place workers in jobs, without requiring they join the local beforehand.

“There are a lot of unscrupulous contractors out there,” Evers said. “This is the way we’re looking at to get support from the workers first – and then go from there.”

Photo: At the federation’s 2013 convention in Los Angeles, AFL-CIO president Trumka outlines labor’s plan to reach out to all workers and groups, not just those that are unionized. AFL-CIO Facebook page


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.