I spent five days in Los Angeles as your delegate to the AFL-CIO Convention. This was my fourth convention over the last 15 years, but this was the first time that delegates and guests, committee members and presenters actually looked like the American work force. The diversity was very striking. White haired white guys like me were still in force but the buzz was different. I know that the Labor Councils and unions in California played a huge part in this transformation.
For me, as a Labor Council Director, there were two highlights of this convention.
The first was the election of our colleague, Tefere Gebre, as the new International Vice President of the AFL-CIO. Tefere has been the Executive Director of the Orange County Federation of Labor for last seven years and has brought the Council from a straggling suburban movement in a right wing, anti-union part of California into a revitalized movement with over 100,000 members who are organizing, registering voters and winning red to blue campaigns.
Throughout his career in labor and politics, Tefere has always been an aggressive advocate for offensive campaigns. By pushing the envelope (and breaking a few plates in the palaces) he and his staff and affiliates in Orange County have shown that you can change the political and community climate to fight for workers rights. AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka didn’t make a political calculation in picking his Vice-President. He picked a fighter with a resume and track record for strategic campaigning.
The second highlight for me was the passing of Resolution 28, Solidarity, Effectiveness and Accountability at the Grassroots: State Federations, Central Labor Councils and Affiliates, which, 1) recognizes that our international unions need the 50 State Federations and almost 500 regional and Central Labor Councils to be functional if they expect to get anything done on the ground outside of Washington, DC (Get out the vote, bargaining and organizing support, street actions, etc.); and 2) empowering the AFL-CIO’s executive committee to begin a process of investigating, encouraging, and supporting these Councils and Federations to achieve that success. Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and almost unforgivably, even Michigan, have shown that if we don’t have strong Labor Councils and State Federations working at one table with our affiliates we are vulnerable to the right-to-work, anti-worker corporate forces who have demonstrated that they can out-organize and kick our ass. Gebre and Trumka moved fast after the Convention and have appointed a committee of international union leaders from the AFL-CIO Executive Committee, State Federations, and Central Labor Councils to begin implementing and exploring this organizing process. We will expand our ability to fight at the local and state levels throughout the country.
I am pleased to note that the convention highlighted our dedication to keep up the campaign for a Path to Citizenship. Despite the draconian border security amendments in the Senate bill and the refusal by the House to bring a bill to the floor, the fight is still in play. Our colleague from Los Angeles, Maria Elena Durazo, (the only Labor Council leader on the AFL-CIO Executive Committee), is gallantly heading up this campaign and introduced the difficult and somewhat compromised Resolution 2 which we will continue to uphold as we fight the anti-immigrant Tea Partiers in the House of Representatives. Thanks to Nancy Pelosi’s leadership and the national AFL-CIO leadership of Rich Trumka, Ana Avendano, Tho Do from Unite-Here, and others, the campaign continues. The Convention made a statement to our members that we will fight for citizenship. We must remember that our members are not ideologically pure. They want to be Americans. And are willing to pay some costs. We will, unfortunately, have to hold our noses a bit to get this done.
Quick leadership note and pontification: President Rich Trumka, unanimously re-elected with Tefere and Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler from the IBEW and Oregon, viscerally understands the corporate attacks on workers rights that have prevented workers from joining unions and stripped them of their voice at work. He wanted this Convention to stamp a new face on the labor movement. Rich and his team will be leading the fights and the reorganization and new inclusiveness of the Federation. All of us should help and support him as the campaigns begin to emerge.
Also to note: Representing the San Francisco Labor Council was our financial manager, Hang Le To. Hang does our payroll, manages our bills and budgets, and administers our Political Action Committee accounts. She is also the President of Office and Professional Employees Local 3. Hang is an immigrant refugee from Vietnam has been very active organizing the Vietnamese and Southeast Asian communities in San Francisco and the Bay Area. She just earned her Masters Degree in labor studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
The conference was so busy that Hang and I were disappointed that we couldn’t meet with UCLA Labor Center Director Kent Wong to meet the head of the Vietnam Federation of Trade Unions President who was a guest of the AFL-CIO. Kent and I had met him in Hanoi a couple years ago and this was a major breakthrough from cold war politics. (Kent has done wonderful Pacific Rim trade union exchanges.)
The Labor Council officers also recommended that I bring Gordon Mar, Executive Director of our new Jobs With Justice chapter which is comprised of many unions along with over a dozen of our community partners who collaborate on many issue-based worker campaigns in San Francisco.
On the first day of the convention I ran into Larry Cohen, President of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and a founding member of Jobs with Justice who had been in San Francisco the day before to celebrate our local chapter with a book signing highlighting the national 25th anniversary of Jobs with Justice. He invited me to a press conference that he and the national director of Jobs with Justice, Sarita Gupta, were having the next morning in the AFL media room. A quick summary of the press coverage from the Washington Post can be found at http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-09-10/opinions/41934888_1_collective-bargaining-labor-union-leaders.
I participated in a workshop with the Cal Fed’s Art Pulaski, UFCW’s Jim Araby, Lou Paulson from the Firefighters, and Maria Elena Durazo from the Los Angeles Labor Federation to highlight the California Labor Federation’s Strategic Advisory Committee. About 50 delegates attended the workshop and heard us outline how the statewide leaders of the 15 largest unions in California along with three representatives of our state’s 23 Labor Councils have been meeting and strategizing for almost seven years to develop metrics – standards and benchmarks – that push affiliate unions, the Central Labor Councils and the State Federation to measure and compare the programs of each organization in political campaigns to further policies for our members. (e.g., Did you write a plan? How many members did you mobilize? How many phone calls did you make? etc) It is no coincidence that in California all statewide constitutional officers elected in 2010 were endorsed and supported by our field campaigns. This committee is now upping the ante by working on standards and benchmarks to measure paths to support organizing campaigns.
Part of the diversity of the convention was reflected by the roles of non-delegates who were part of developing strategies. Katie Quan, Associate Chair of our University of California Labor Center, addressed the delegates in support of the need for partnerships with community organizations as well as exploring organizing through a global perspective. Ken Jacobs, also from UC Berkeley, led a workshop on health care.
Art Pulaski and I were part of a press conference that supported the national Domestic Workers campaign for a bill of rights in California (which had passed both houses of the California legislature and was awaiting Governor Jerry Brown’s signature). The Bay Area branch of the coalition, Mujers Unidas y Activas (MUA) is now an affiliate of the San Francisco Labor Council.
And we were pleased that AFSCME President Lee Saunders and CWA President Larry Cohen chaired a Jobs with Justice reception that validated one of the core values established at this Convention to insist on full community partnerships in everything we do.
There were, of course, other issues that were discussed including significant irritation about how the progressive Affordable Care Act negatively affects our Taft Hartley and self-administered trust funds. We are still hoping the Obama administration helps us with adjustments that don’t penalize the responsible companies that are already paying exorbitant prices for employee health care and subsidizing the bottom feeders who don’t.
But the worst part was that we had to go to a Dodger game. More later….