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AFL-CIO Convention: ‘A Historic Opening in the Labor Movement’

The 2013 AFL-CIO National Convention marked a historic opening in the labor movement and signaled a commitment to diversity, new partnerships and new ideas to transform the labor movement that has been in a steady decline the past 30 years. In representing the UCLA Labor Center, I served on the Committee on Growth, Innovation and Political Action, one of the many pre-convention committees. During this committee process, labor leaders, academic partners and worker center leaders met and created resolutions that focused on new opportunities for worker centers to affiliate into central labor councils, new organizing strategies for AFL-CIO affiliates, labor law reform, immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship and other innovative themes.

Our work was reflected in the overall convention proceedings. Beginning with the first pre-convention Diversity Conference, where worker center, community and labor activists came together to address the future of worker representation, the convention brought a number of nontraditional partners together to chart a new course for the AFL-CIO. For example, the election of Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the National Taxi Workers Alliance (NTWA), to the AFL-CIO Executive Council was the first time a representative from a worker center became a member of the federation’s governing body. During his keynote address, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was joined on the stage by day laborers, domestic workers, taxi workers, carwash workers and other groups of workers who historically have been excluded from the protections of labor laws. The AFL-CIO leadership moved further toward inclusion by honoring the International Domestic Workers' Network in recognition of the rights of domestic workers everywhere. And delegates at the convention elected Tefere Gebre, executive director of the Orange County Labor Federation and an Ethiopian immigrant, as the AFL-CIO’s new executive vice president.

There is a historical context and a trajectory of many key events that led to this historic convention and the AFL-CIO charting a new path forward. I will focus on a few major key ones of which I was a participant.

Beginning in 1999 at the last AFL-CIO Convention in Los Angeles, the federation began to turn from its restrictionist past. By that time, the late, great labor leader Miguel Contreras headed the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, a powerful coalition of local unions with significant political clout. Contreras, the first person of color to lead the Los Angeles federation, embraced the struggle of immigrant workers, as part of a broader labor and community coalition strengthened through immigrant worker organizing. During the convention, Contreras and other leaders like María Elena Durazo, then international executive vice president of Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees (HERE), led a debate on the floor that resulted in the adoption of a resolution that changed the AFL-CIO’s position on immigration and immigrant workers. This dramatically shifted the political climate on immigration and connected the labor movement with the immigrant rights movement.

In February 2000, the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council built on its new support for immigrant workers and called for a new immigration policy that included a road map to citizenship and increased labor protections for immigrant workers. Soon after, the AFL-CIO hosted a series of town halls on immigrant worker rights. The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor planned a grand culmination of these meetings at the Sports Arena on June 10, 2000. At least 16,000 immigrants from different communities filled the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, with 4,000 more rallying outside the filled arena. Most of these working families came from local unions and community-based organizations.

Since the early 2000s, worker centers had emerged and grew in numbers to respond to the increasing exploitation of low-wage workers and persistent racism and xenophobia in society. These worker centers represented new immigrants and low-wage workers, helping them to address workplace issues and build political and workplace power. Many have coalesced to create national networks—National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, National Guestworker Alliance, NTWA and United Workers Congress.

In 2003, a broad coalition of unions, worker centers and community, faith and immigrant rights organizations launched the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. More than 900 workers rode in 18 buses to Washington, D.C., demanding basic rights and civil liberties for immigrants. From there, the riders caravanned to New York City for a historic rally on Oct. 4, which filled Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens with over 100,000 immigrants and allies. This effort brought national attention to the status of immigrant workers and the racism and legal barriers to equality they face in their daily lives.

In 2006, unions and worker centers again came together to promote immigrants’ rights. Between March and May, 5 million mostly Latino immigrants and their supporters demonstrated in over 100 cities throughout the United States to demand inclusion and oppose anti-immigrant legislation pending in Congress. Immigrant families came out of the shadows to demand justice and equality. As part of this national movement, community and labor activists collaborated to organize a demonstration on March 25, 2006, in Los Angeles in which close to 1 million immigrants participated in one of the largest mobilizations in United States history. Two months later, immigrants’ rights groups, worker centers and unions worked together to create the largest May Day demonstration in United States history. Throughout the country, more than 5 million immigrants and supporters marched through the streets of major cities.

In August 2006, after two months of dialogue after the mobilizations, the AFL-CIO, led by Jon Hiatt, chief of staff to President Trumka, and NDLON agreed on a historic partnership agreement at the UCLA Downtown Labor Center. The AFL-CIO’s passage of a new policy, the National Worker Center Partnership, permitted formal ties with the worker centers and provided an organized framework for joint work. Under this partnership, the AFL-CIO and NDLON have worked together for state and local enforcement of civil rights laws, as well as the development of new protections in areas like wage and hour laws, health and safety regulations, employee misclassification and immigration reform. Soon thereafter, the other major national network of worker centers signed partnership agreements with the AFL-CIO.

The increasing levels of collaboration and trust led the UCLA Labor Center to approach the AFL-CIO and ask if, together with a union affiliate, the federation would partner with L.A. carwash worker advocates for their rights. The United Steelworkers (USW) stepped up and, together with the AFL-CIO, UCLA Labor Center and approximately 25 Los Angeles worker centers and other community organizations, created the CLEAN (Community Labor Environmental Action Network) Carwash Campaign, a community-based organizing campaign in Los Angeles on behalf of 10,000 carwash workers. With four unionized carwashes, this has been a major outcome of the Worker Center Partnership.

At that time, the UCLA Labor Center also partnered with key labor and community allies to create and launch the Los Angeles Black Worker Center (BWC). The BWC creates power and authentic grassroots leadership among Black workers (unionized, nonunion, immigrant, formerly incarcerated and the unemployed) and fights to reverse the disproportionate levels of unemployment and underemployment in the Los Angeles Black community. A major pre-convention event before the 2013 AFL-CIO Convention was the first-ever Black Workers Congress, co-sponsored by BWC and the AFL-CIO.

The AFL-CIO has continued to expand its worker center partnerships in past years. By working with philanthropic institutions through the Labor Innovations for the 21st Century (LIFT) Fund, since it began in 2011, the labor movement has provided grant support to major organizing campaigns of worker centers like the CLEAN Carwash Campaign, NDLON and NDWA. In January, the AFL-CIO convened the first-ever Worker Center Advisory Council at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. Worker center and labor advocates shared local successes of the Worker Center Partnership, participated in workshops and brainstormed about how to strengthen the alliances between worker centers and unions. These strategic partnerships support labor innovation and new forms of worker organizing made necessary by declining union representation.

These combined efforts of unions and worker centers to organize immigrant and low-wage workers in Los Angeles have led to innovative partnerships, new models of organizing campaigns and efforts to expanding the base of the labor movement. These efforts laid the foundation for the innovations that took place during the AFL-CIO Convention that focused on diversity, inclusion and new organizing models and partnerships that will help to transform the labor movement. 

Victor Narro is the project director for the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, and a lecturer at UCLA Law School and UCLA School of Urban Planning. Follow Narro on Twitter @NarroVictor.

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