October 25, 2013
By Marc Bussanich
New York—It is old news that American workers represented by unions has been steadily declining since union strength peaked in the 1950s. But at the AFL-CIO’s recent convention in Los Angeles, California the delegates voted to stop the bleeding and start embarking on new forms of organizing through the union’s affiliate, Working America, to expand representation to any worker in the country.
Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO’s president, hosted a media call on Wednesday, along with Working America’s Executive Director, Karen Nussbaum, and Ironworkers International General Vice President, Bernie Evers, to discuss the significance of probably one of the most important resolutions coming out of a recent AFL-CIO convention.
Resolution 5 stipulates that the labor federation will take steps to broaden the county’s labor movement by experimenting with new forms of worker advocacy to increase the federation’s strength while expanding Working America’s membership to all 50 states in five years.
Trumka warned that the union movement has to change to stay relevant to American workers.
“The resolution recognized that the labor movement can no longer be limited to bargaining units that are being defined more and more by outside forces nor can it be limited to single workplaces. It has to be a vehicle of change for all workers,” said Trumka.
Noting that resolutions are just pieces of paper, Trumka announced how the labor federation’s affiliate Working America will work to involve millions of more workers throughout the country.
“We are announcing Working America’s new effort to dramatically expand efforts in all 50 states to represent workers that don’t have a union on the job.”
One aspect of Working America’s new focus will be the right-to-work states of the South.
“Part of this new effort includes an unprecedented look at organizing the South, an area of the country we can’t afford to ignore. This includes key states like North Carolina and Texas, “ said Trumka.
Trumka added that expanding the labor federation’s work to include all working Americans is critical to reversing decades of their slipping economic power.
“Working families in this country are at a crossroads. Wages have been falling for more than a decade and they’ve seen both their economic power and leverage decline. If more workers are to have a voice on the job, that joining together collectively affords, then unions can no longer afford to do business as usual," said Trumka.
Karen Nussbaum then noted how Working America’s work to involve workers and develop new forms of worker advocacy might proceed based on the organization’s pilot projects in several states.
For example, the organization will work with state labor federation affiliates to reach out to workers who aren’t covered by collective bargaining agreements.
“We are customizing associate member programs with our affiliates to help them reach out to parts of the workforce that otherwise they really hadn’t a connection to because the workers aren’t in collective bargaining workplaces,” said Nussbaum.
She pointed to Reel Working America, which is a collaboration between Working America and IATSE, the union that represents stagehands and film technicians.
“In New Mexico we partnered with IATSE where we have over 1,000 members just in this one program and more than 150 are very active—they lobby, they fight for a living wage, they do educational activities and they are building local organizations throughout the state. To us it seems to be a wonderful model that we are going to work with affiliates to build out,” said Nussbaum.
Nussbaum refereed to the Dancers Alliance and the Maine’s Lobsterman’s Union as additional examples by which Working America will reach and connect with workers around the country.
The Dancer’s Alliance, which represents dancers and choreographers, finally won a music video contract through SAG-AFTRA in 2012 after a long campaign. According to the alliance, the new contract allows the alliance to negotiate equitable rates and working conditions at non-union sites. Meanwhile, the Maine Lobstermen, historically an independent group, signed up between 500 to 600 lobstermen with the help from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers so that they can lobby Augusta to fetch higher prices for their lobster hauls.
The Ironworkers launched just last month a project to connect with more non-union workers and bring them into the labor fold. Bernie Evers said that non-union ironworkers who join as associate members will be able to reap some of the benefits that unionized ironworkers enjoy such as a 15 percent monthly discount on AT&T wireless service and 30 minutes of free legal service.
In addition, non-union ironworkers will have a chance to air out their issues and concerns about working conditions at participating ironworker union halls.
“Safety seems to be a big concern for these workers. A lot of them have to buy their own safety equipment, they work on sites where there’s no drinking water and they aren’t compensated for overtime pay and wage theft is prevalent,” said Evers.
Evers also noted that non-union ironworkers will have the opportunity to join the union.
“When they register as an associate member, they’ll provide us with their skills and in turn when manpower is needed we’ll check our database and bring them in as full members and give them additional training,” Evers said.
He noted there are currently 75 associate member ironworkers and out of that six are now union ironworkers.
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