THE REBIRTH OF CENTRAL LABOR COUNCILS

by Amy Dean and David B. Reynolds

is an important reflection on labour power from the U.S.

The 2005 AFL-CIO/Change to Win debate was notable not simply for what was discussed, but also what was not. It focused on how to build one crucial element of worker power: workplace organizing and the collective bargaining strength that comes with it. Absent, however, was discussion of a second necessary dimension: regional power built in the community. Yet, historically in the United States, and around the world, geographic power has been necessary to increase workplace power.

For example, the breakthrough battle of the 1930s–the General Motors sit-down strike–would have been lost had the infant industrial labor movement not been able to mobilize community support in the company town of Flint and establish enough political strength to elect a Michigan governor who pledged not to use the National Guard against striking workers. In a similar way, in 1941, the Ford Motor Company might have succeeded in using racial divisions to break union organizing had black-white unity not been built in the community and the workplace. In both cases, regional power reached beyond the immediate needs of turning out supportive local crowds and deactivating government repression. Strategically, place-based organizing established a forward-looking social vision of economic justice and democracy that made workplace battles not only the parochial concerns of isolated workers, but also fundamental struggles over America’s future. Can organized labor recover today without articulating a similar twenty-first century social vision?

Successful strategies for building geographic power and social vision have crystallized over the past decade in communities across the country. These strategies are rooted in regional work that offers the building blocks necessary to contest for state and ultimately national governing power. Because it is rooted locally, such power building must include the transformation of organized labor’s regional bodies such as central labor councils and area and state labor federations.

UNION CITIES AND THE FORCES THAT PRODUCE REGIONAL POWER BUILDING

Historically, regional cross-union labor bodies have played crucial roles in building worker power. However, when the Sweeney administration came to power in 1995, it inherited the atrophy of such bodies that dates back over half a century. By establishing the Central Labor Council Advisory Committee and Union Cities, the new leadership raised the prospect that cross-union labor bodies could again play a key role in labor movement revitalization.

The eight-point Union Cities agenda envisioned revitalized central labor councils that not only supported organizing and coordinated political action, but also fostered and led regional movements for progressive change.

On the surface, Union Cities did not live up to its full promise. Of the over 160 councils that officially signed onto it, most did not undergo the kind of fundamental transformation required to establish them as regional movement- leading organizations. Although it pointed in the right direction, Union Cities suffered several limitations. The AFL-CIO did not engage enough of the large national affiliates in supporting the agenda. It also did not address the lack of resources that prevented all volunteer or small-staffed councils from organizing or sustaining innovative programs.

There was also tension within the AFL-CIO between a vision of councils capable of developing and leading strong regional movements and councils that served mostly as transmission belts for nationally conceived programs.

At the same time, the AFL-CIO’s ramped-up political work focused on ad hoc single-election structures rather than building up permanent state and local organizations. This choice reflected a lack of capacity among most central labor councils, and these ad hoc investments left no increased capacity after each election.

At a deeper level, however, Union Cities did aid real innovations by a core group of central labor councils that established a clear model for how such bodies can lead regional movements for progressive change. It legitimated efforts by labor council innovators and put them in contact with national union leaders. The advisory committee and field mobilization staff brought together current and prospective council activists to engage in peer-to-peer learning. 

By the late 1990s, a clear model had crystallized in California. Power-building work that began in Los Angeles and San Jose spread quickly to San Diego and the East Bay area, and later to other locations across the state. Several factors help explain why such widespread innovation occurred in this state. California’s economic and political structures are relatively younger and often fueled by people who come from elsewhere. This fluidity makes it relatively easy for people to move into and out of institutional life and for institutional innovations to develop. The institutional tensions between labor and community groups in many parts of California don’t go back as far as in other parts of the country, and “bad blood” fades faster as people come and go. Far from most national union and AFL-CIO headquarters, many unions in California have often been forced – or given the opportunity – to rely on mutual assistance among other local unions and innovate basic strategies.

California has also been at the forefront of regional business thinking within the new economy. Much ink has been spilled over the supposed decline of national economic policy in the face of corporate globalization. However, it is much less recognized that globalization has increased the importance of regional economies as key sites for public and private decision making. “Footloose” corporations do not randomly roam the world, but move from region to region. The urban planning field is beginning to recognize the importance of “clustering” to firm investment strategies and the competitive advantages of locating near related firms, suppliers, and support services. Factors such as workforce development, transportation and infrastructure, and an attractive quality of life for workers are all questions of regional public policy that concern business groups. Indeed, in many parts of the country, various forms of industry and employer oriented civic bodies actively promote regional thinking in the face of often extreme municipal fragmentation.

Regionalization offers tremendous opportunities for labor and its allies, but the regional agendas of even the most enlightened business groups suffer major blind spots on questions of equity and social justice. In Silicon Valley, for example, regional power-building research unveiled a sinister underbelly of the area’s “prosperous” new economy in the form of exploding low-wage service industry jobs, a high cost of living, and high rates of contingent and unstable employment. Similar research by power-building efforts elsewhere has revealed a similar “hourglass” economy. Business-oriented regional policy typically fails to address wage levels and job security. At the same time, concerns for “affordable housing” and regional transportation focus on white-collar workers rather than connecting isolated and often heavily minority workers to family-supporting jobs and accommodations.

Typically, mainstream regional agendas go unchallenged as progressive groups do not have the capacity to generate alternative regional programs.

In Silicon Valley, the founding of the nonprofit Working Partnerships USA in 1995 by the labor council proved a crucial step in seizing these regional opportunities. Regional political economies involve enough technical matters that a significant investment of resources is required to understand and identify key levers of public authority and to propose policy reforms. Ongoing research and media work by Working Partnerships helped draw attention to social justice issues, reframe public debates, and educate policy makers. The organization also played a crucial role in developing the coalition campaigns that won such reforms as living wage ordinances, a children’s health initiative covering 70,000 uninsured children, community benefits agreements, public transit funding, and affordable housing. Through these campaigns, Working Partnerships and the South Bay Labor Council built long-term relationships among key labor and community partners. They also established the pioneering Civic Leadership Institute (described below) to build a diverse cadre of grassroots leaders with a shared regional vision. The policy work established the local labor movement as representative of the broad interests of the region’s working population. It also asserted the voice of labor and its allies at the table of official regional economic development decisions. All of this work was backed by a revitalized and effective labor electoral program led by the labor council.

KEY ELEMENTS OF A REGIONAL STRATEGY FOR POWER.

That regional power-building strategies were not solely a California phenomenon is clear from the spread of these methods to such diverse contexts as western and southern growth cities (Denver and Atlanta), the Rust Belt (Buffalo, Cleveland, and Milwaukee), and East Coast knowledge economies (Boston and New Haven). While individual initiatives differ in particulars, all power-building efforts attempt to put in place three essential elements:

1. Enduring Coalition.

Coalitions between labor and community groups have become increasingly common, but most tend not to last beyond the specific issue around which they were formed. By contrast, building a local movement for power requires the cultivation of long-term alliances among core labor and community players. While such power-building relationships may be expressed through cooperation around specific campaigns, the overall alliance is built around an ongoing mutual interest in shifting the region’s political economy. Some common power-building partners for labor have included immigrant rights groups, civil rights organizations, environmentalists, low-income groups such as ACORN, and social-justice-oriented faith networks. Labor council leaders must also build alliances within a region’s labor movement–bringing together the Left and Right–to establish the deep institutional buyin needed to maintain power building over time.

Strong coalition building spawned the Civic Leadership Institute tool, which first developed in San Jose. Today, the national nonprofit Building Partnerships supports regional groups in using these six- to eight-week labor community leadership development programs to build leadership cadres that share a progressive vision for regional economic and political change.

Business-oriented regional policy typically fails to address wage levels and job security.

2. Policy Work.

To build real regional power, progressives must translate their shared values of equity, fair play, sustainability, and justice into concrete public policy. In doing so, they move public debate onto issues–like job security, affordable housing, health care, wages, education, and transportation– that can unify workers and community allies. Regional power-building policy work has included, for example, living wage campaigns, community benefits agreements with developers that secure labor and community standards and resources for major projects, affordable housing reforms, regional health care initiatives, and interventions in regional transportation planning.

Understanding the public levers that influence private business decisions and turning that knowledge into realistic policy campaigns requires specialized capacity. Thus, launching progressive foundation–funded “think and act” tanks is a common power-building step. These institutions often play a direct role in coalition building and campaign development, in addition to their role in research and policy development.

3. Aggressive Political Action.

Realizing a sustained regional reform agenda entails a capacity to develop progressive champions, elect them into office, and then hold politicians accountable. Establishing greater electoral unity within the house of labor and requiring that candidates seeking endorsement do more than simply fill out a questionnaire are two typical first steps. The first two elements of regional power building help lay the groundwork for achieving aggressive political action by framing labor’s political possibilities beyond simply instrumental deal making to the prospect of wholesale long-term political change. However, even with the prospect of enacting far greater reforms and establishing greater governing power, building electoral unity within the house of labor still requires concerted work by labor council and similar leaders. When achieved, greater labor movement unity carries into alliances with community groups. Together, labor and community can build sustained neighborhood and workplace activist infrastructures to turn out neighbors and co-workers for elections, referendums, strike support, worker organizing, or community campaigns. Because of the two other power-building elements, aggressive political action becomes more than simply electing good people, but also establishing a real capacity to govern. As urban scholars have long documented, business interests govern most regions not simply because they help elect allied politicians, but because between elections they are able to frame public debates, research and develop public policy, build alliances, back up their elected allies, and punish those officials that prove unsupportive.

Atlanta provides a recent case that illustrates how the three power-building elements come together. When Charlie Flemming took over the Atlanta-North Georgia Labor Council in 2000, he benefited from previous exposure to regional power-building work elsewhere through Central Labor Council Advisory Board meetings and networking with AFL-CIO staff. By founding the nonprofit Georgia Stand-Up, he promised to deepen grassroots participation in labor-community work that began under his predecessor, Stuart Acuff; maintain these alliances between campaigns; and provide research and organizing capacity to hold elected officials accountable to an articulated policy agenda. Direct contact with other efforts helped translate power-building details to an Atlanta context. Meanwhile, a labor council retreat helped Flemming build consensus among affiliates. In the fall of 2005, less than a year after hiring its first two staff members, Georgia Stand-Up and the labor council faced an opportunity to position labor and its allies as a voice for community-oriented development by intervening in a city council vote over Atlanta’s multibillion-dollar BeltLine Project. They succeeded in winning an amendment that opened the door to push community benefits agreements at each stage of the massive transit, park, housing, and economic development project that will circle the city. Research by Georgia Stand-Up has helped labor and community activists understand this and other developments, while the new Policy Institute for Civic Leadership builds a diverse leadership cadre united around a progressive vision of the metropolitan area’s future. The coalition and policy work provide a context to ramp up labor’s electoral program, including a new focus on suburban communities.

Atlanta illustrates how regional power building brings to life the potential for establishing coalitions and political leadership within the labor council institution. It also shows how research, policy, and additional coalition capacity have to be established anew using foundation resources. The three power-building elements must combine to form a greater whole. Ultimately, regional work seeks to articulate a social vision of communities built around equity, sustainability, fairness, and social justice. At the same time, it sets into practical motion a regional movement dedicated to securing such a future while also setting the stage for aggressive union organizing and eventual national and state-oriented political work.

DEBATE OVER THE ROLE OF CENTRAL LABOR COUNCILS.

Among the diverse power-building experiences lays a crucial question: is a labor council or similar cross-union organization necessary for building power? Critics of labor councilled power building justifiably point to the lackluster track record of transformation in such bodies. Ever since the late nineteenth century when the new AFL decided to subordinate central labor bodies to national unions, councils have struggled to find resources and authority. Voluntary affiliation allows locals to pull out when they disagree with council decisions– thus encouraging council leaders to pursue the lowest common denominator. Because it addressed neither resource issues nor leadership development, Union Cities did not produce a systematic transformation in a large number of central labor bodies.

Power-building work in San Jose, Denver, Atlanta, and San Diego provides examples driven by labor councils. The recent coalition, policy, and electoral efforts by the new leadership of the North Carolina AFL-CIO point to similar roles that state federations might play in low-union-density states. By contrast, the nonprofit Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) and its spin-offs–such as the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE) and the Connecticut Center for a New Economy (CCNE)–began without, or prior to, central labor council transformation and leadership.

This experience suggests an effective model in which a small number of organizing unions link up with foundation money to found a nonprofit organization capable of organizing concerted interventions in the region’s economic development. Such work feeds back into policy leverage and community support for worker organizing. This “coalition-of-the-organizers” model offers the attraction of not having to rely on the potentially protracted and complex struggles for labor council transformation. The Partnership for Working Families has gotten some financial support from Change to Win to help organize similar models in new communities.

While frustrations with the progress of labor council transformation are understandable, building power without labor council transformation risks fulfilling only the first two of three necessary steps. Without political muscle and electoral transformation provided by aggressive political action, power-building efforts are ultimately limited in their ability to intervene in economic development debates. While LAANE developed independently of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, its successful policy and community benefits campaigns benefited from growing labor and progressive electoral influence led by the federation and its path-breaking labor- Latino political alliances. By comparison, with little labor council transformation (until recently), EBASE’s coalition and policy work has been handicapped relative to LAANE by the lack of concerted electoral action. Aggressive political action involves not only electing new people, but also holding officeholders accountable, and having the capacity to shift the terms of political debate during and after elections. While much can be done in the short term without such changes, in the long run they are necessary to build lasting and real governing power. They also further feed into support and leverage for worker organizing. Mounting systematic and aggressive political action requires some cross-movement body that can build greater electoral unity within the ranks of labor, pool and target labor’s electoral resources, and build electoral alliances and capacity among community allies.
Without political muscle and electoral transformation, powerbuilding efforts are ultimately limited in their ability to intervene in economic development debates.

Despite the limitations of Union Cities, real transformation has happened beyond the core of “usual suspects” activist councils. In California, such transformed councils include San Diego, San Francisco, and the small volunteer driven council in Santa Rosa. Denver, Cleveland, Boston, and the North Carolina AFL-CIO offer examples of power-building work from previously very traditional bodies. The Leadership Institute and peer-to-peer networking of the AFL-CIO Office of State and Local Affiliates supports a growing constituency of council and federation leaders looking for change. In researching New Alliance in New York State, Jeff Grabelsky found that pooling resources into new area labor federations had established sufficiently staffed bodies capable of developing and implementing new programs such as revamping labor’s electoral operations, intervening in regional economic development bodies, and passing living wage and other legislation. The fact that, through Solidarity Charters, a significant portion of Change to Win locals remain active in their state and local AFL-CIO bodies reflects a continued value for regionally coordinated work.

The question is not simply one of greater resources, but also drastically raising organized labor’s expectations of what can be done at the regional level and in turn holding regional labor bodies accountable for these expectations. In California, the achievements of the pioneering regional power-building projects has led to standards and benchmarks for all regional labor bodies in the state and intervention when such bodies do not meet these expectations. For decades, lackluster regional labor bodies reflected the little that was asked of them. The time has come to break with this tradition. In short, while promoters of regional work cannot simply wait for transformation of a region’s cross-union labor bodies, they must include some long-term strategy to connect with such bodies or work with figures who wish to encourage transformation.

MOVING GEOGRAPHICALLY-BASED LABOR FROM THE MARGINS TO THE CENTER.

Regional power building has spread due to support from national sources. The AFLCIO’s Office of State and Local Affiliates runs the Leadership Institute and helps drive New Alliance. It also provides grants to the Building Regional Power Research Network that allows researchers to document work being done in regions across the nation. Progressive foundations funded the nonprofit “think and act” tanks that are critical to regional work, as well as two national support organizations: Building Partnerships (civic leadership institutes and blueprint projects) and the Partnership for Working Families (“think and act” tanks and economic development campaigns). The funds going to this support work, however, are tiny compared to what organized labor spends each election cycle or the resources that specific unions allocate to industrial organizing. This funding discrepancy reflects the failure of American labor to adequately debate the role, strategies, and resource needs of geographic power-building strategies. The AFLCIO/ Change-to-Win debate focused mainly on organizing. Weak discussions of political action never confronted the central dilemma: that labor must operate in a two-party system in which one party is overtly hostile to labor and the other is dominated by corporate funding.

The New Right’s transformation of the Republican Party suggests that organized labor must have a similarly long-term, coalition-building, bottom-up plan for transforming the Democratic Party. While the New Right relied on corporate money and media influence, labor’s strategy must build on grassroots strength and an honest agenda that appeals to most working Americans. Unfortunately, the American labor movement continues to focus on political operations election by election. Unions spend small fortunes, but leave little infrastructure behind between elections; they focus largely on national contests and ignore questions of a more profound transformation in American politics. Establishing regional power-building programs in twenty-five to thirty major urban areas would arguably build the capacity needed to mount serious progressive challenges for state and ultimately national power.

The debate over organizing strategies never engaged the possible connections to this placebased work. The potential ties reach beyond simply the instrumental ability of power building to develop community and political connections that support worker organizing. There is also the question of what building worker power means. The ultimate goal of increasing union density is to allow workers to better their wages, benefits, working conditions, and the lives of their families. As union benefits spill over to nonunion workers, greater workplace power helps establish a new social contract in America. Yet, workplace organizing and collective bargaining alone has never been able to address all of the issues confronting workers. Labor needs place-based power as well.

For example, without a concerted effort to establish universal public health care, union bargaining faces a losing battle to protect members from the spiraling costs from for-profit insurance. Absent new national trade policies and regional strategies to enmesh employers in valuable local relationships, collective bargaining can do little to prevent the continued movement of jobs overseas. Without public policy that raises work standards and job stability in contingent work, large sections of the working population will continue to be difficult to organize.

With nearly half of all union members in the public sector, the labor movement needs strategies for not only winning bargaining rights for government employees, but also for countering right-wing efforts to defund and privatize the public sector by rebuilding public trust in government. As the American South’s antiunion political and cultural climate lures corporate investment, the labor movement cannot simply rely on workplace organizing; it must contest for influence at community and political levels.

Put another way, union density has declined in America not simply due to a lack of strategic organizing by unions, but also because of a neoliberal shift in corporate strategy and politics that broke the postwar social contract. Just as with the rise of the New Deal era, a new social contract requires a complex rethinking about the roles of government, business, labor, and citizen activism that will not originate in Washington, but in many experiments and agendas first pursued at the local and state levels.

Organized labor must have a long-term, coalition building, bottom-up plan for transforming the Democratic Party.

The separate debates over organizing and geographic power must become a single discussion. Strategies to organize at scale and build regional power must together move from the margins to the center of American organized labor. Ultimately, reviving organized labor’s fortunes requires generating a new era of social change in America. Yet social change does not happen without social vision. Only by integrating strategies for regional power can the labor movement generate the kind of living social vision necessary to mobilize working people to fight for a better future.

Reprinted with permission from New Labor Forum.

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