The AFL-CIO, an umbrella labor organization representing 57 unions and 12 million workers across the U.S. opened its annual convention in Los Angeles, Calif. this week. The Los Angeles Times reports that the 5,000 attendees will discuss a range of issue facing the American labor movement, including immigration reform, voting rights, racial justice and the Affordable Care Act.
Atop the agenda were discussions on how to reinvigorate the labor movement amidst declining union membership across the U.S. “During the last 20 years, corporate America went for the final victory and used every front they could to take away workers’ rights,” explained AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. “So it’s important for us to come together to … function like the majority we are, rather than little silos that can be marginalized.”
Declining membership has forced the AFL-CIO to look for new partners who support improving working conditions for working Americans.
The AFL-CIO may consider opening its doors to millions of non-union members including workers in non-union industries like fast food restaurants, Al Jazeera America reports. Union membership reached a 97-year low last year with just 11.3 percent of the workforce unionized, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics.
This is considerably lower than 1983, the first year for which comparable BLS union data is available, when the union membership rate in the U.S. was 20.1 percent, about 17.7 million union workers. The Los Angeles Times reports that new partners for labor could include environmental groups like the Sierra Club, as well as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights advocacy group.
Many within the labor movement contend that this trend has accelerated in recent years due to the growth of so-called “right-to-work” legislation now present in 24 states. The legislation varies in each state, but typically makes union dues optional, meaning workers can enjoy wages and salaries without paying union dues, but thereby preventing union negotiators from working to secure better contracts and benefits.
Emerging policy disagreements with the Democratic Party have also emerged in the early part of this year’s AFL-CIO convention. The Nation reports that President Barack Obama cancelled his scheduled speech at the convention, opting to spend more time in Washington to lobby Congress to support a U.S. military strike in Syria.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who is expected to be elected to another 4 year term, has backed the Senate immigration reform bill, which would provide $6 billion for additional security along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Many of the rank-and-file union delegates oppose this proposal, claiming that it will undermine the safety of immigrants.
“Adding drones to the border and militarizing it will hurt people, women and children,” Sacramento-based activist Desiree Rojas said in a statement to the Nation.
It’s one of many issues that has caused union leaders to question their long-held alliance with the Democratic Party. “One of our tasks is we must change the Democratic Party from its fear,” said freedom ride veteran the Rev. James Lawson during his convention speech, adding that the Democratic Party is “corrupt.”
“[The Democratic Party] cannot support the simple right of the ordinary man and woman to the full dignity of their work,” he said.
Lawson went on to criticize a proposed U.S. military intervention in Syria, claiming that it “will kill more working people and more women and children than anybody else. We don’t need any more protest marches in America. We need systematic boycotts and strikes.”