“It’s time to turn America right side up!” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka exhorted those in attendance at the labor alliance’s quadrennial convention in Los Angeles last week. Time, he said in his keynote address, to change the ratio of power, to put the 99 percent in charge rather than let the richest 1 percent dominate government, politics and society.
“Since 2009, the pay of America’s corporate CEOs has gone up nearly 40 percent,” Trumka noted. “Imagine for a second what kind of country we would live in if ordinary people’s incomes had increased like CEOs. Almost no one would live in poverty.”
Trumka recognized that the number of Americans in unions continues to decline although the AFL CIO is “13 million strong — we are today, as we have been since the time of Abraham Lincoln, the biggest, strongest, best organized force for economic justice in America.” But, Trumka continued, “We are a small part of the 150 million Americans who work for a living. We cannot win economic justice only for ourselves, for union members alone. It would not be right and it’s not possible. All working people will rise together, or we will keep falling together.”
To that end, and in perhaps the most radical restructuring of labor since the AFL and CIO merged almost 50 years ago, the convention endorsed the expansion of the AFL-CIO’s membership to include non-traditional labor organizations, including non-profits organizing low-wage workers. As described by AFL-CIO senior writer Kenneth Quinnell, “The AFL-CIO is going to expand existing forms of participation in the labor movement and create new forms of membership that are available to any workers not already covered by a collective bargaining agreement or who are not members of unions or represented by unions.”
The Syrian crisis prevented President Obama from making a scheduled appearance at the convention (he sent brief videotaped remarks instead) but Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., despite Syria-related intelligence briefings and negotiations, was able to rearrange her plans and showed up to deliver a barn-burning call to arms. “When important decisions are made in Washington, too often, working families are ignored,” she said. “From tax policy to retirement security, the voices of hard-working people get drowned out by powerful industries and well-financed front groups. Those with power fight to take care of themselves and to feed at the trough for themselves, even when it comes at the expense of working families getting a fair shot at a better future.”
Before the convention began, the morning of the first day was devoted to a short conference on inclusion and diversity, important to a labor coalition for too long criticized as “pale, male and stale.” Today, women and minorities play a prominent role in organized labor, although when it comes to age it was pointed out that only 7 percent of union members are under 35.
Page 2 of 2 - The older among us at the convention are half-jokingly described as “seasoned,” so a highlight of the morning was the appearance of civil rights hero the Rev. James Lawson, soon to be a seasoned 85. He trained many of the movement’s leaders, including John Lewis, in the techniques of non-violent civil disobedience. At the conference, he condemned what he called the “spiritual wickedness of plantation capitalism… Seven of 10 people in the world work at or below a poverty level that is simply another name for slavery.”
Serving up two aphorisms relevant to all in attendance at this year’s convention, Rev. Lawson pointed to the words of the Greek philosopher Thucydides, who when asked when justice would come to ancient Athens, said it would come when the uninjured were as outraged as the injured. And the Methodist pastor cited Proverbs 29:13 — that where there is no vision, the people perish. Labor take note.
Michael Winship, a native of Canandaigua, is senior writer of the public television series “Moyers & Company” and president of the Writers Guild of America, East. He attended the AFL-CIO convention as a delegate.