The AFL-CIO convention began in Los Angeles this weekend. And it comes at a moment when the labor movement is considering significant changes.
We talk so much at Fox & Hounds Daily at the power of labor, but that’s public employee labor. Unions in the private sector are weak and shrinking. For decades, the response to this has ranged from denial among unions to organizing efforts to seeking changes in the law to ease union membership. Nothing has worked.
Labor is re-evaluating. At the AFL-CIO, there are new committees and groups to consider how to transform the labor movement. Leadership is becoming younger and more diverse.
And there’s a big idea: expanding the numbers and kinds of people who can be part of the labor movement. The AFL-CIO is discussing letting millions of nonunion workers and a host of progressive groups join the federation.
One way to do this was recently suggested by Harvard labor law expert Benjamin Sachs in the pages of the New York Times. He writes about how the political work of unions has been “bundled” with collective bargaining – unions have had to do both. Given the difficulties associated with collective bargaining, and the fact that many workers don’t want to collectively bargain, this bundling makes workers a weaker political force than they could be.
So Sachs argues for “unbundling” the two. “If we shift our aim away from reviving collective bargaining and toward enabling political organizing by underrepresented groups, we would allow workers to organize “political unions” even when they don’t want to organize collective bargaining ones,” he writes.
The professor says this would be simpler than you think. Make the workplace available for political organization, at least during non-work hours. Strong “political unions” would help serve as a counter to the weight of rich people and interests who dominate politics.
It’s a strong argument and should apply to more than unions. The power of association is one of the few real checks on money in politics (certainly, campaign finance regulation hasn’t worked).
It also responds to the needs of progressives to grow stronger, even as labor unions seem weaker. That’s a topic that Washington Post columnist and American Prospect editor Harold Meyerson will be discussing next week at a free event. My publication, Zocalo, is putting on this Thursday night in Los Angeles, as what could be a very interesting AFL-CIO convention comes to a close.