WASHINGTON -- The last time Tefere Gebre was employed at the AFL-CIO headquarters in D.C., in the mid 1990s, he worked out of a scrappy basement office without windows, organizing for the union federation's college-and-youth arm. In reality, "it wasn't even a basement," Gebre recalled recently. It was more like a basement beneath the basement.
But a few weeks ago, the 45-year-old Gebre returned to Washington to occupy an executive office on the headquarters' eighth floor, with views of downtown. The Ethiopian immigrant is now the labor federation's vice president, serving alongside President Richard Trumka, as the first immigrant elected as an officer in the federation's history.
To many at the AFL-CIO, Gebre is more than just a rising star in the labor world. His arrival, they suggest, represents a generational and philosophical change at the federation -- one that values new progressive partnerships and non-traditional organizing, and one that its leaders hope will rejuvenate a labor movement that's been contracting for years.
"Do I understand the symbolism of my being here? Yes, I do. I have no problem with it," said Gebre, who replaced Arlene Holt Baker, the first African-American to hold an executive post. "I'm here to help build a labor movement. Even more than that, I'm here to make sure that the America I dreamed about when I immigrated to this country is going to be around for generations to come."
Gebre earned his new office in large part because of what he pulled off in Southern California after his stint in the bowels of the AFL-CIO building. As the director of the Orange County Labor Federation, Gebre helped turn the umbrella group of unions into a political force in what remains Republican territory. It was an unlikely place for the labor movement to build its strength. "If you looked at the voter registration figures, you would say, 'How the hell is this happening?'" he said.
One liberal Orange County blogger credited Gebre with transforming the federation "from an afterthought between Los Angeles and San Diego to a model of organization and labor strength throughout the state."
"He knows how to build power, and he knows how to win," Trumka said of Gebre in an August speech.
Gebre said the success in Orange County taught him never to write off what appears to be hostile ground. To that end, he's taken time in his first weeks at the AFL-CIO to visit Southern states that aren't exactly bastions of trade unionism. He gave pep talks in Georgia and Kentucky, where he urged progressives to build alliances around labor issues, whether it's big-box ordinances or worker protections in city contracts.
"Orange County isn't Savannah, but you have a lot in common," Gebre said. "You've got peaches, we've got oranges. And at the end of the day, you've got right-wing politicians, and we've got right-wing politicians."
Gebre argued that progressives need to hold Democrats who seek office in Washington to a higher standard. Back in Orange County, Gebre's federation requires candidates who want its endorsement to undergo a five-hour course on labor from workers' perspective. Any candidate who doesn't complete it doesn't get the federation's blessing, Gebre said. (Sample lesson: Subcontracting work often leads to less pay and fewer benefits for workers.)
As for what unions and their allies can accomplish, Gebre pointed to labor's recent victories in California. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) just signed into law the highest state minimum wage in the nation, at $10 per hour. He also just signed into law a domestic worker's bill of rights, the third of its kind in the U.S., extending overtime protections to a previously excluded class of workers.
A former president of the California Young Democrats, Gebre said such changes didn't come about simply because California is a liberal place.
"We didn't just want to elect people for the sake of electing them. We elected them on agendas. We forced people to campaign on those agendas so they wouldn't run away from them," he said. "And we didn't set out and say, 'Let's do politics to grow union membership.' We said, 'Let's do politics so that the right things start happening' -- core values of honoring work."
Gebre himself was exposed to adult work at an usually young age. He came to the U.S. at age 15, alone, after fleeing Ethiopia and spending time in a Sudanese refugee camp. With the help of a refugee aid group called the International Rescue Committee, he got an apartment in Los Angeles and enrolled in high school. He was on welfare for a time, but found work at a liquor store. He said he was paid under the table since he wasn't supposed to handle alcohol at his age.
After high school, Gebre attended California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, on a scholarship. He found his first union job there, with the Teamsters, working as a loader for UPS. Later, while studying business post-grad at the University of Southern California, he took a job as a legislative aide in the office of Willie Brown, longtime speaker of the California State Assembly. He was exposed to labor policy and activism, deciding to make it his career.
Given his own life story, Gebre likes to say he's as staunch a supporter of immigration reform as anyone. Although the Democratic-controlled Senate passed a major immigration overhaul earlier this year -- one that had the strong backing of the AFL-CIO and unions more generally -- reform efforts are now in the hands of the GOP-controlled House. Gebre said many Americans don't appreciate the ambitions harbored by the foreign-born who journey here.
"That's what some natives don't understand," he said. "It's the life of the immigrant. You get the most driven people in the world to come be part of you. Those who aren't really driven, it's hard for you to leave your home and just say, 'I'm going to take a shot at this place.'"
Immigrant workers now represent some of the likeliest recruits for organized labor. At a time when union membership has slipped to 6.6 percent of the private sector, labor's ranks have grown in California, in large part because of the changing demographics there. Meanwhile, activists see hope in non-union partnerships that have been sprouting up with domestic workers, taxicab drivers and other workers who face hurdles in organizing.
Those kinds of successes, Gebre said, could serve as the seeds to a labor movement "catering to the needs of workers in the 21st century."
"We shouldn't be limited in where we organize. We should be picking our own members -- not the law and not the corporations," Gebre said. "From fast food workers to cab drivers to domestic workers, you're seeing workers saying enough is enough. It's up to us to actually jump in there and say, 'Hey, there's a movement for you. There's a home for you.'"
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> Pct. of workers in unions: 5.2% (tied for 9th lowest) > Union workers: 60,829 (13th lowest) > 10-yr. change in union membership: 3.2% (17th largest increase) > Total employment: 1,181,074 (19th lowest) Utah added over 232,000 jobs between 2002 and 2012, growing employment statewide by a nation-high 24.5%. But over that period the state added less than 2,000 union members. Among the reasons was a large decline in the percentage of public workers who were part of unions — from 21.3% to 15.8%. By comparison, 35.9% of public sector employees are part of a union nationwide. But despite limited and falling union membership among state employees, a bill was introduced earlier this year that would ban collective bargaining on issues not related to wages or benefits by state and local government workers. Opponents argue the bill is not needed, because Utah allows individuals the right to work in union-heavy occupations without either joining the union or paying dues. (Photo: Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert) <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/02/22/the-states-with-the-strongest-and-weakest-unions-3" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St. </a>
> Pct. of workers in unions: 4.8% (tied for 7th lowest) > Union workers: 29,216 (4th lowest) > 10-yr. change in union membership: -25.2% (9th largest decrease) > Total employment: 613,845 (11th lowest) Although the number of jobs in Idaho increased by more than 11% between 2002 and 2012, union membership declined by a quarter in the same time period. The decline was dispersed relatively evenly across the public and private sectors, with membership falling 21.5% and 28.1%, respectively. In January 2012, a federal judge ruled that a pair of anti-union laws passed by the conservative Idaho legislature violated federal law. As passed, these laws prohibited “job targeting programs” that used union dues to help contractors win bids and also banned “project labor agreements” that allowed contractors to sign agreements with union workers while concurrently bidding on public projects. (Photo: Idaho Governor C. L. Otter) <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/02/22/the-states-with-the-strongest-and-weakest-unions-3" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St. </a>
> Pct. of workers in unions: 4.8% (tied for 7th lowest) > Union workers: 124,331 (24th lowest) > 10-yr. change in union membership: -43.8% (the largest decrease) > Total employment: 2,590,205 (18th highest) Union membership in Tennessee fell by more than 43% from 2002 to 2012, the largest decline in the nation. In that time, the percentage of workers who were part of a union fell from 9.1% to just 4.8%. Among public sector workers, the decline was even more pronounced — from 22.6% to 14.7%. The state is a right-to-work state. Advocates contend such laws attract jobs, while critics believe they make recruiting union members difficult and ultimately leads to decreased wages. (Photo: Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam) <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/02/22/the-states-with-the-strongest-and-weakest-unions-3" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St. </a>
> Pct. of workers in unions: 4.4% (tied for 5th lowest) > Union workers: 170,726 (20th highest) > 10-yr. change in union membership: -21.7% (14th largest decrease) > Total employment: 3,912,100 (8th highest) Between 2002 and 2012, Georgia added over 300,000 workers, one of the largest employment increases in the nation during that time. However, because the number of union workers declined by over 47,000, union participation fell from an already-low 6% to just 4.4%. Between 2002 and 2012, public union participation fell from 18.6% to just 10.5% — lower than all but four other states. Although more than 130,000 new public sector jobs were created over those 10 years, union membership fell by nearly 30% among public employees. Last year, only 3.1% of private sector employees were affiliated with a union — among the lowest percentages of all states in the U.S. (Photo: Georgia Governor Nathan Deal) <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/02/22/the-states-with-the-strongest-and-weakest-unions-3" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St. </a>
> Pct. of workers in unions: 4.4% (tied for 5th lowest) > Union workers: 159,512 (24th highest) > 10-yr. change in union membership: -18.8% (15th largest decrease) > Total employment: 3,594,507 (12th highest) Virginia has one of the lowest unionization rates in the country in both the private and public sectors. A mere 3% of private sector workers in the state were unionized in 2012. Just over 10% of public sector employees were covered by a union in 2012, a lower percentage than all but two states and down from 15.6% in 2002. Labor unions did eke out a small victory in January, when the Virginia Senate narrowly rejected a proposal to add right-to-work provisions to the state constitution. The state’s right-to-work law is still in effect by statute. (Photo: Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell) <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/02/22/the-states-with-the-strongest-and-weakest-unions-3" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St. </a>
> Pct. of workers in unions: 4.3% > Union workers: 47,875 (8th lowest) > 10-yr. change in union membership: -32.2% (3rd largest decrease) > Total employment: 1,115,953 (17th lowest) Total union membership in Mississippi was just over 4% last year, with total membership declining nearly a third in the past 10 years. Private union membership was cut in half between 2002 and 2012, falling from 6% to 3%. This was one of the largest decreases of all states. However, membership in public sector unions actually rose nearly 12%, significantly more than any of the bottom 10 states on this list. The economic situation in Mississippi is especially grim. The state’s median household income of $36,919 was the lowest in the U.S., as was the poverty rate of 22.6%. (Photo: Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant) <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/02/22/the-states-with-the-strongest-and-weakest-unions-3" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St. </a>
3. South Carolina
> Pct. of workers in unions: 3.3% > Union workers: 58,413 (12th lowest) > 10-yr. change in union membership: -29.3% (7th largest decrease) > Total employment: 1,773,172 (24th highest) Just one in 30 workers in South Carolina belongs to a union, one of the lowest rates in the country. A paltry 1.3% of private sector workers in the state belong to a union, the lowest percentage in the entire country. Over the past 10 years, private sector union membership declined by 61.7%, more than any other state except for Arkansas. The state’s governor, Nikki Haley, has taken a vocal anti-union stance since taking office in 2011. In an interview with Fox News back in 2012, Haley said: “There’s a reason that South Carolina’s the new ‘it’ state. It’s because we are a union buster.” (Photo: South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley) <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/02/22/the-states-with-the-strongest-and-weakest-unions-3" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St. </a>
> Pct. of workers in unions: 3.2% > Union workers: 36,667 (6th lowest) > 10-yr. change in union membership: -42.1% (2nd largest decrease) > Total employment: 1,155,140 (18th lowest) Arkansas has the second smallest percentage of unionized workers, due primarily to the decline in private sector membership. Between 2002 and 2012, private sector union membership dropped by almost 62%. As of 2012, a mere 1.4% of private sector workers were covered by labor unions, lower than any other state except for South Carolina. Union manufacturing jobs in the state decreased by nearly 75% over the past 10 years, while total manufacturing employment decreased by just 20.6%. Arkansas is one of just a handful of states where right-to-work laws are embedded in the state’s constitution. (Arkansas Governor: Mike Beebe) <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/02/22/the-states-with-the-strongest-and-weakest-unions-3" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St. </a>
1. North Carolina
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