Unions—Not Just for Middle-Aged White Guys Anymore

This week’s AFL-CIO convention heralds some fundamental changes for labor. 

During the floor debate yesterday on a resolution expanding the AFL-CIO’s commitment to take the workers excluded from labor law’s protections into its ranks—domestic workers, taxi drivers, day laborers, and the like—one delegate to the union’s quadrennial convention likened the proceedings to the 1935 AFL convention, when a sizable group of unionists wanted the Federation to expand its ranks to include factory workers. The more conservative Federation leaders, including its president, William Green, believed that unions should represent only workers in skilled trades—carpenters, masons, plumbers, and so on. But John L. Lewis of the Mine Workers and Sidney Hillman of the Clothing Workers believed that there were millions of factory workers who would flock to unions if given the chance.

Lewis and Hillman’s motion to organize factory workers was put to a vote and lost. They were not happy. Indeed, Lewis decked Big Bill Hutchinson, the president of the Carpenters, and stormed out—to form the CIO, a labor organization pledged to organize factory workers and that organized millions of them over the next couple of years.

No such dramatics attended yesterday’s proceedings, but the delegate who harked back to 1935 had a point. The issues before this year’s AFL-CIO convention, like the issues before the convention 78 years ago, concern opening labor’s ranks to a whole new group of workers—disproportionately minority, immigrant, and female. There was an ethno-cultural dimension to the factory-worker debate of 1935 as well: The AFL trade unions (though not the Mine and Clothing Workers) consisted disproportionately of men of Northwestern European descent, while the factory workers were often of Southern and Eastern European descent. Some were even black or, horror of horrors, women. Opening labor’s ranks to these workers was something that many in the AFL would simply not countenance.

No such hard and fast racial or gender lines were apparent in yesterday’s debate. Many of today’s unions are already heavily minority, immigrant, and female. Some of the union leaders who have been the most skeptical about allowing organizations that aren’t unions onto labor’s governing bodies have taken a leading role in the fight for immigration reform, most particularly Terry O’Sullivan of the Laborers.

Indeed, the most striking thing about this year’s AFL-CIO convention is that it’s the first one I’ve attended—I daresay, the first one, period—that hasn’t looked like a sea of middle-aged white guys. America’s unions have long had racially diverse and multi-gender memberships, but it’s taken a while for that diversity to reach the movement’s topmost ranks (AFL-CIO conventions draw their delegates from the leaders of the federation’s 50-plus unions). Today, the AFL-CIO’s two largest affiliates are headed by an African American man and a Jewish lesbian. Tefere Gebre, who will be elected the Federation’s executive vice president in balloting tomorrow, is a political refugee from Ethiopia who came to the United States as a teenager.

The resolutions enacted today, which commits the Federation to place almost as much emphasis on community coalition-building as it does on the increasingly impossible task of conventional union organizing, only furthers the impression of a movement in demographic as well as functional transition. In what I think was an unprecedented move, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka allowed three prominent allies of labor, including National Organization for Women President Terry O’Neill, to speak for the resolution, even though none were delegates or, for that matter, union members.

So, yes—by virtue of both the fundamental shift in strategy and the implications that shift has for further changing labor’s demographics, this week’s convention is a lot like 1935’s. With a signal difference, however: The changes of ’35 could only take place once the Federation split. The changes this week have clear majority support, though at some level they pose an existential threat to both a stereotype and some actual people: the labor boss of legend, old, white, male, and puffing a cigar. 

Harold Meyerson