Union movement must evolve to speak, advocate, and fight for all workers


By Tom Chamberlain, Oregon AFL-CIO president 

Often this column focuses on what is wrong with America, corporations, and the wealthy who focus on profits rather than what is in the long-run best interest of our people. Economic inequity has plagued this nation since Ronald Reagan instituted his trickle down economic philosophy, and it has resulted in the greatest transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to the very wealthy we’ve ever seen in such a short period of time.

In 1976, the top 1 percent of Americans represented 7 percent of America’s wealth. Today, they own 40 percent.

Witnessing the transfer of wealth and its corresponding impact on American families, and watching the fiscal strangulation of government services, which directly translates to loss of opportunity for Americans, one can’t help but wonder where the push back is — where the voice for everyday Americans that will inspire and instill the prospect of hope — is.

The American workers’ movement has been that vehicle for change and that voice for something more.

In the 1930s and ’40s, our movement’s ability to adapt to mechanization of industries resulted in millions of workers organizing to build strength and power. One of the problems we face as a union movement today, though, is that we are stuck on a structure and delivery system that was built on that foundation over 80 years ago.  While our innovations were groundbreaking and wildly successful in the ’30s and ’40s, they’ve proven to be slow, and their improvements isolated to unions and our members, without bringing improvements to the millions of nonunion workers we need to help now in 2013.

Meeting the challenges of the 21st century will require our workers’ movement to evolve into a movement that speaks, advocates, and fights for all workers — for the poor, the aged, and the disadvantaged.

The AFL-CIO is in the midst of a major transformation that will culminate at the national AFL-CIO convention held this September in Los Angeles.

Over the last two years, the AFL-CIO has implemented pilot programs in various cities and states to evaluate new and innovative ideas in organizing, communications, and community partnership programs.  These pilots have mapped a path to the future for American workers.

As a single example: We now know that unions can coordinate organizing, sharing resources and experience to grow our movement. Such an effort will require a greater emphasis on organizing at the local level.  We understand that our economy has evolved and will continue to evolve. We have more independent contractors and more businesses with low wages that result in a more transient workforce. Traditional organizing doesn’t fit for these workers. But maybe new models — such as the National Taxi Workers Alliance or the Retail Action Project, which create a union membership that follows the worker, providing worker representation at a nonunion worksite, building political power and instilling a unionist identity — would.

The AFL-CIO convention will evaluate traditional and non-traditional models within the union movement, and it will begin the process of rebuilding from the grassroots up. The strength and weakness of our movement is our state federations and central labor councils (CLCs). Through those bodies, national and local issues and programs are implemented. The stronger,  more nimble and effective state federations and CLCs are, the stronger our movement will be.

AFL-CIO convention delegates will vote on a range of issues that will increase state and local bodies’ professionalism, transparency, and accountability through requirements for strategic planning, increased coordination with the national AFL-CIO, and standards that will result in an increased focus of state federation and CLCs on all types of organizing.

Our movement will continue to face many challenges. We have faced them before and responded with vigor, innovation and the understanding that failure to take challenges is not acceptable.

In Oregon, we are ready for this new model. 2013 is our opportunity to respond strongly to the future, and to put the future on our side.


  1. I am a manufacturing engineer. All the jobs from my factory are in Asia now. People laughed at me when I suggested making it here. My thoughts:

    The playing field is not level. I coped with regulation, high taxes, constant legal and HR issues with my staff. They are polluting, discriminating, and lowering quality, manipulating currency.

    US consumers just don’t care. Trend will go on until they all meet the same end.

    The word Union, rings of violence, corruption, and elitist protections as well as nepotism and discrimination.

    The end to this phase will come when people realize that the national debt is a pass through to keep US workers alive and that the savings at Walmart are reversed by high taxes, crime, lower standard of living. But how to get people to care without pain and suffering is a tall task, an instigators dilemma, a repeat of history.

    We defend the free market to the end but the free market no longer exists. We have become semi-socialist without embracing it. Insurance prevents market value for services. Governments employee huge percentage of the population, and there is no competition in energy, healthcare and other major segments of the economy.

    I don’t blame the fortunate. Many worked harder and are smart, educated and creative. Likewise, it will be hard to heed their call when trouble starts. It looks like all you need to do is give the poor a meal,cell phone, cable TV and you can do as you please. Look out when the meal runs out- 2 days to trouble.

    • The duplicity of organized labor was never clearer than during the health care debate. To be relevant, the AFL CIO must fight for the best interests of the middle class, even when those interests are not aligned with organized labor as we know it.

      Protecting the quid pro quo of Heath care insurance providers at the expense of the best interests of the middle class undermines the credibility of the AFL CIO.

      Brother Chamberlain gives Ronald Reagan’s “trickle down economic philosophy” much of the credit for the transfer of wealth. “They did it to us” rings hollow. “We are gonna try new things” sounds like more deviation from what made organized labor a force in the first place, which is solidarity. Reagan and his ilk saw an opportunity to promote “rugged individualism” so they could divide and conquer. Organized labor’s greed, hypocrisy and hubris created that that opportunity.

      Claiming to champion the causes of the middle class while lobbying on behalf a broken health care system to the detriment of the middle class is a continuation of that hypocrisy.

      Brother Chamberlain assures me convention delegates will consider transparency and rebuilding grassroots up. How about demanding delegates are voted on by actual dues paying members. Or maybe leave policy decisions to delegates and give me a ballot when it is time to elect officials.

      Many union members have little information regarding their union and its positions on issues. To take it a step further most would be surprised to know they fund AFL CIO with their dues. Debating the issues in front of the people who actually put you in office brings you closer to them. Maybe more importantly, it provides separation from those who wish to guide the organization’s agenda contrary to the best interest of the middle class.

      Joel S and others seem to think a revolution could be in the future. The convention in September could set the ground work for preserving and fulfilling the dreams of so many who fought and sacrificed before us.


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