AFL-CIO’s Trumka looks to remake U.S. labor movement

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Wednesday he is crafting a new plan to remake the American labor movement, which is struggling to retain clout in Washington and state capitals amid a steep decline in membership.

In an interview taped for C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program, Trumka said he was seeking a more formal alliance with other key elements of the Democratic Party’s liberal base, including civil rights organizations and women’s rights groups. The hope, he said, is to then broaden union membership beyond the traditional realm of workplace-based organizing.

“The labor movement is definitely in a period of change,” Trumka said. “We’re no longer going to allow employers to decide who our members are. We’re going to decide who our members are. We’re going to open up our arms to people who want to join our movement.”

Trumka’s initiative is a response to what has been a difficult time for labor unions. State lawmakers across the country have moved to scale back organizing rights for public employees and others. A shrinking base of manufacturing jobs that once formed the backbone of organized labor has further depleted the pool of potential members. And despite high hopes four years ago that President Obama and the Democrats would pass legislation making it easier for workers to organize and perhaps laying the groundwork for rebuilding union power, the measure never made it to fruition. Moreover, thorny issues such as immigration have exacerbated tensions among some unions in the labor federation and between the AFL-CIO and other union groups.

Trumka outlined some of his challenges during a recent speech in Illinois, when he lamented that organized labor lost 400,000 members last year while fewer and fewer young workers are joining. “To be blunt,” he said in the speech, “our basic system of workplace representation is failing to meet the needs of America’s workers by every critical measure.”

Even one recent victory for labor leaders -- Obama’s call in his State of the Union speech for increasing the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour -- was tempered by dismay that the proposal did not go further.  Trumka, in the C-SPAN interview, called the president’s minimum wage figure “disappointing.”

The new restructuring initiative would culminate in September, when the AFL-CIO holds its convention in Los Angeles. Over the next six months, Trumka said, committees of rank-and-file workers, young people, academicians and representatives from key black and Hispanic groups, religious organizations and other activists will explore new directions for labor.

“Instead of saying to our community partners and the  civil rights movement or the Latino movement, ‘That’s your issue and this is my issue,’ they’re going to be our issues, and we’re going to work together,” Trumka said.

The full interview is scheduled to air on C-SPAN Sunday at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.

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Chris Cillizza · March 27, 2013