Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO Chief, Reflects On Unions' Thinning Ranks, Calls For New Strategies

03/07/2013 12:31 pm ET

Just as the percentage of Americans belonging to a union has fallen to a historic low, the leader of the largest labor federation in the country on Thursday offered a blunt assessment of organized labor's thinning ranks, arguing that unions need to look to new models for organizing workers and put a renewed focus on young people.

"We must open up union membership and make the benefits of representation available to all workers," said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, speaking at a University of Illinois event in Chicago. "We need to create new models of worker representation. We need to be more strategic and forward-looking. And we need to face this challenge collectively."

It's a message that the AFL-CIO will amplify in the coming months leading up to its September convention, as part of a broader conversation on the weakened state of organized labor in America. Although the rate of union membership has been falling for decades, it dropped by more than usual in 2012, down to 11.3 percent among the entire workforce and 6.6 percent among the private sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The stark numbers are due, in part, to both global economics and public policy. The workforce for traditionally unionized industries like manufacturing has been shrinking for years, paired with the growth of service-sector jobs where unions historically have had little presence. More recently, states like Wisconsin and Michigan have enacted legislation aimed at further limiting unions' strength, forcing groups like the AFL-CIO to wage costly state-level political battles.

Normally upbeat and bullish on labor's fortunes, Trumka said the statistics alone call for a critical self-examination. He argued that the well-being of the middle class rises and falls with worker representation.

"To be blunt, our basic system of workplace representation is failing to meet the needs of America’s workers by every critical measure," he said. "The numbers give us all the proof we need. ... last year, the American labor movement lost another 400,000 members -- 400,000."

"Our job as leaders of the American labor movement is not to tidy up the offices, lock the doors and turn out the lights," he went on. "The future is what we make of it."

Trumka pointed out that union membership has been growing among Latinos, particularly in places like California -- one of the few bright spots in the recent union statistics. He also noted that, despite falling membership, organized labor remains a potent political force, having run a considerable ground game that helped deliver reelection to President Obama.

But when it comes to workers actually having representation in the workplace, Trumka said unions need to be looking at non-traditional models, given the hurdles to winning union elections and contracts in the modern workplace. He pointed to organizations like the Taxi Workers Alliance and the National Domestic Workers Alliance -- which represent workers but don't have conventional union contracts with employers -- as the kind of groups where organized labor has a bright future.

"We are not going to rebuild the labor movement solely through [National Labor Relations Board] elections and voluntary recognition by employers, no matter how smart and strategic our campaigns," he said. "The AFL-CIO’s door has to be -- and will be -- open to any worker or group of workers who wants to organize and build power in the workplace."

Trumka also raised concern over how few young people are union members or involved in the labor movement. He said a mere 4.2 percent of U.S. workers between the ages of 16 and 24 were in a union last year, noting it's the lowest of any age group in the workforce and a 0.2 percent drop over the previous year's figure. That demographic -- "brimming with talent and hopes, facing student debt, unpaid internships, dead end jobs and an uncertain future" -- needs to be tapped, Trumka said.

Organized labor has found itself embattled on several fronts in recent years, particularly with Republicans pushing legislation unfriendly to unions. In 2011, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) shepherded a bill into law that rolled back the collective bargaining rights of most public-sector workers in the state. While the unionization rate in the private sector has trended down for decades, the rate in the public sector has generally remained strong, now hovering around 36 percent. Union leaders worry that those numbers will start falling due to laws like the one in Wisconsin. (A similar law was passed in Ohio but later overturned by voters.)

In December, Michigan became the 24th state with right-to-work legislation on its books, after Gov. Rick Snyder (R) and the GOP-controlled state legislature fast-tracked it into law. Such laws outlaw contracts between companies and unions that require all workers to pay the union for bargaining on their behalf, thereby weakening organized labor. Union leaders are concerned that seeing the cradle of the U.S. auto industry go right-to-work could embolden Republicans in other states to pursue similar legislation.

Trumka, who comes from a family of Pennsylvania coal miners, is now in his fourth year as president of the AFL-CIO, having been the most visible face of organized labor as it has fought these high-profile state battles. Given what happened in Michigan, he said, it's obvious that the "state-level attacks cannot be defeated only by unions operating within one state," and that greater cooperation is needed among unions in the U.S. and abroad.

"We need to change our internal structure to deploy our collective resources more efficiently," Trumka cautioned. "We must do this to defend workers’ rights and to be relevant to the 120 million workers in America who have no voice at work. ... Our institutions, our unions, will experiment, will adapt to this new age."

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