The Workers' Convention That Might Have Been

05/25/2011 11:45 am ET
  • Andy Stern Senior fellow, Richman Center at Columbia University; former president, SEIU

On the eve of the national AFL-CIO convention in Chicago, Steven Pearlstein said yesterday in the Washington Post that "the decline of the labor movement is as much the story of missed opportunity as it is one of changing political and economic circumstances. And the blame lies squarely with union leaders more concerned with preserving the past than retaking the moral high ground and grabbing hold of the future."

"This isn't a problem only for union members," he said. "It's no coincidence that the decline in union membership mirrors a decline in the share of national income going to workers, along with declines in income equality and social mobility. Having a vibrant, market-savvy union movement is in everyone's interest, whether people choose to join one or not."

On the plane to Chicago after reading that, I was thinking about what this convention could have been if the AFL-CIO officers had made different choices.

Instead of headlines like "New Split in Organized Labor?" the headlines could have been "New Hope for American Workers."

New hope for Fed Ex workers to unite with their Teamster brothers and sisters at UPS so everyone who works in that industry would have their hard work rewarded.

New hope for security officers across America -- many of them African American -- trying to win a paycheck that supports a family, health care, and a pension.

New hope for Wal-Mart workers - a majority of whom take home wages below the poverty line without affordable health coverage or retirement.

New hope for workers in manufacturing, construction, transportation, health care, property services, public employment, and other sectors given the chance to unite behind strategies for growing strength in their industries - instead of being divided into many competing unions that don't coordinate.

New hope for the 13 million current union members who cannot consistently win and maintain middle-class standards as long as 9 out of 10 workers in America have no union.

This convention could have been a chance for workers to celebrate the union movement's modernization after 50 years of change in our economy -- a dramatic event as historic as the founding of the CIO in the 1930s.

It could have been an inspirational discussion of strategies to unite workers in each industry or occupation - and to build unions with the focus and resources to do that.

It could have highlighted new global union partnerships that are not just about general solidarity but about specific campaigns uniting the strength of employees of the same global corporations.

It could have made historic progress on diversity not only through standards and timetables but by setting the stage to help millions of people of color and working women to form unions and change their lives and communities.

All this was possible earlier this year when it became clear that 40 percent of the AFL-CIO, including 3 of the 4 largest affiliates, was prepared to support real change. The AFL-CIO officers could have chosen to use their powers of persuasion to build on that base and organize a majority.

Instead, they chose to start with the 50-year-old structure of 57 separate and overlapping unions as a given and then water down every proposal so it wouldn't offend entrenched interests and outmoded traditions. They chose not to lead and to help workers win -- but to play it safe and do nothing that might disturb the lowest common denominator status quo.

The AFL-CIO's opportunity appears to have been lost, but the crisis facing working people in America remains. It will apparently take another convention this fall of unions committed to change to provide the new hope working people need.