Big Labor Turns Left Even as Workers, Lawmakers Form New Union Models for the Future
Higgins, Sean, Examiner (Washington, D.C.), The
For nearly two years after the 2008 election, an entire side of the AFL-CIO's Washington headquarters sported a banner calling for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act -- the "Card Check" bill.
The banner faced the White House, which is just opposite the headquarters. Card check is still Big Labor's vision for the future of the American workplace.
Under Card Check, federal law on workplace organizing would be almost entirely on Big Labor's side.
Any time labor organizers claimed to have gotten more than half of a company's workers to sign cards backing them, the employees would be unionized. Management and workers would have no further say.
As the recent case of the United Auto Workers and Volkswagen shows, those claims don't automatically reflect the actual result of workplace secret ballot elections.
But Card Check was too much even for many Democrats. Congress never approved the AFL-CIO's bill.
On April 29, 2010, without fanfare, the AFL-CIO took its banner down. President Richard Trumka insisted at the time that it was only being replaced. But neither the banner nor the legislation has returned.
This wasn't just another legislative defeat for Big Labor. It was the end of their best hope to reverse their movement's long-term decline, now just 11.3 percent of the workforce.
Without Card Check, it is difficult to see how Big Labor survives over the long term as it is presently structured.
Big Labor knows it, too. Before its 2013 convention, the AFL-CIO surveyed its members and found that even they believe Big Labor's model is outdated.
"[T]he most widely held opinion is that we need a more open conception of what it means to be a part of the labor movement, an idea that is sometimes called 'alt-labor,' organizations for workers that are outside the tortured paradigm of the National Labor Relations Act," the survey found.
It even suggested that "members-only unions" were an approach that should be considered. Those are unions that don't involve all people at a workplace, just the ones that affirmatively want to be in a union.
That's notable precisely because Big Labor has for decades scorned such an approach, preferring contracts that force all employees in a company to be members.
Mostly though, Big Labor's response has been to ally itself even more tightly with environmentalists, civil rights activists and other left-wing groups. The theory is that this will get non-union people pushing union causes.
Big Labor has funded and run a number of nonprofit activist groups -- also known as "worker centers" -- to do this. Working America, Fast Food Forward and OUR Walmart are the most notable examples.
"My theory is that workers centers are just third-wave unions. We had craft unions, then industrial unions in the Industrial Revolution, and now we have a new economy. That new economy has given rise to a new form of unionism that we right now call worker centers," Jose Oliva, networks director for the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, told Global Nation, a public radio program.
"The reason worker centers emerged is because unions were unable to organize workers in some of the growing sectors of the economy. The advantages to workers centers include not being constrained by the National Labor Relations Act," he said.
But making non-union liberal activists a more prominent part of the labor movement means giving them more influence.
The AFL-CIO's close alliance with environmentalists has resulted in it being neutral on the Keystone XL pipeline, for example. That has infuriated its own building and construction trades members. …