Commentary by Eric Boehm, a reporter for Watchdog.org. He can be reached atEric@PAIndependent.com or @EricBoehm87 on Twitter.
One of the major themes to emerge from this week’s national conference of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) in Los Angeles is a push to expand union organizing beyond the traditional collective bargaining agreement and into every workplace.
And after some brief flirting, the AFL-CIO is ready to go steady with “workers centers,” which are popping up around the nation to help organize workers in the service sector. Members of the AFL-CIO, an umbrella group for dozens of labor unions, approved a resolution this week to establish a more formal connection between the union and the workers centers that it has, in many cases, helped to start.
“The labor movement cannot be confined within bargaining units defined by government agencies or limited to workplaces where a majority of employees votes 'Yes' in the face of a ruthless campaign by their employer to deny them representation,” the resolution reads.
The union said it would seek to organize workers who are not in traditional collective bargaining agreements and would “mobilize these new members in electoral and other political efforts and in support of organizing drives and collective bargaining campaigns.”
To achieve that end, the AFL-CIO pledged to work more closely with “workers centers” and with foundations providing seed money to those centers.
In many cases, these workers centers have morphed into front groups for unions by using Occupy-style tactics and threats of lawsuits to make employers comply with their demands, despite the lack of a collective bargaining agreement.
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, echoed the “big tent” message during his keynote remarks to the conference Monday night.
“All over America, workers are organizing in all kinds of ways, and they call their unity by all kinds of names — workers’ unions, associations, centers, networks,” he said.
As Watchdog.org previously reported, one of those centers – the Restaurant Opportunity Center, or ROC United, which was launched in New York City in 2001 – has been at the forefront of a recent wave of protests in major cities, attempting to draw attention to low-wage sectors.
Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of ROC-United, was a featured speaker at the AFL-CIO conference this week.
Previously, Trumka specifically praised the work of Jayaraman and ROC-United for organizing workers in New York and dozens of other cities.
It’s probably no surprise unions are looking to broaden their horizons. Union membership has been on the decline nationally for a few decades, particularly in the private sector.
“If I were within that organization, I would probably be trying to do the exactly what they are doing,” said Jade West, senior vice president for the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors.
West said the unions’ declining influence has little effect on the daily lives of most employers, but the rise of workers centers and their organizing tactics is a real threat to workers and businesses.
In 2012, about 7 million private-sector workers were members of a labor union, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor. That’s half of the 14 million private-sector labor union members in 1980.
Growth in public sector unions — they now account for more than 50 percent of all union membership, up from just 28 percent in 1980 — has helped the labor movement continue its powerful influence in politics, but it has also changed how the movement works.
Instead of fighting for weekends, better working conditions and a decent wage for industrious, blue-collar workers, unions today are more likely to be defending the right of a 50-year-old white-collar worker to retire early with full pension benefits until death.
In 2009, public-sector unions outnumbered their private-sector counterparts for the first time ever.
The move toward workers centers and other low-pay, long-hours, service-sector employees brings unions back toward their original purpose. Plus, it comes with the added benefit of more workers to mobilize in electoral efforts, as the AFL-CIO indicated in its resolution.
West said many workers are no longer looking for a 25-year job with a single company that ends with a gold watch and a pension, leaving unions to scramble for a new generation of members.
“They have almost become an anachronism,” said West. I don’t think the workforce really sees the need for a union.”
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