Cornell University

September 12 2013

Union Revitalization

AFL-CIO convention encourages new strategies for growth

Worker Institute Director Lowell Turner Worker Institute Director Lowell Turner is in the midst of a moment many say captures stunning change in the labor movement.

At the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles continuing through today, a turn toward diversity and inclusion of non-union groups has emerged as the core strategy for union revitalization.

"There are old-school unionists here whose concern may stop at the interests of their own members. But, that approach is overwhelmed and largely silenced at this convention," said Turner, who serves as an academic adviser to a convention committee.

"The podium, workshops, videos and presentations have featured domestic workers, taxi drivers, OUR Walmart, immigration reform and immigrant worker inclusion, expanded leadership for women, people of color and young workers," he said.

"Discussion and debate here reflect a deep understanding on the part of both traditional and non-traditional organizations of collective representation that the labor movement is going down if it doesn’t vastly broaden its scope."

In a convention speech Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez "promoted the labor movement with a passion we haven't from any previous labor secretary in my lifetime," said Turner, who spent three days at the convention, which began Sunday.

"The good news is that the transformative focus here is not coming from the top down, it's building on a wide range of grassroots activity on the part of traditional and innovative groups alike."

Will the spirit of inclusiveness and mobilization carry beyond the convention?

Turner's response is tempered: "What I have seen here gives me reason for hope, but the future is nothing if not uncertain."

The tagline of this year's convention is "Dream. Innovate. Act."

"The tagline draws inspiration from young immigrants fighting for the DREAM Act, and this has very much set the tone for the gathering," Turner said.

Proposed legislation named the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors would provide conditional permanent residency to some immigrants.

A professor of international and comparative labor, Turner was joined at the convention by Worker institute colleagues Linda Donahue, Jeff Grabelsky and Kate Bronfenbrenner.

Speakers at the conference included U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz.

Stiglitz addressed the role unions have to play in reducing growing inequality in the United States.

"You've worked hard since 1979, your output per hour has increased 40 percent, but pay has barely increased," Stiglitz said, according to an AFL-CIO report. Increased union influence would help combat stagnating wages and strengthen the economy, he said.

Union membership rates have been in steady decline since the 1980s, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2012, union membership rate was 11.3 percent, in comparison with 20.1 percent in 1983.