For the delegates at the convention, which ended on Thursday, there was a burning realization that the status quo was not working for the nation’s labor unions. Wages for union and nonunion workers alike have flatlined in recent years, while the percentage of private sector workers in unions has slipped to just 6.6 percent. That is less than one-fifth the level during organized labor’s prime, when union leaders were confidants of presidents and the mighty Teamsters threatened strikes that could cripple much of the nation’s commerce.
Desperate to figure out how to stop labor’s descent, the A.F.L.-C.I.O., a federation of 57 labor unions, invited scores of nonunion groups, including the National Organization for Women, United Students Against Sweatshops and Arts and Democracy, to the four-day convention to brainstorm. They debated how to shore up the sagging labor movement, how to raise wages and how to persuade Congress to pass legislation that would help 11 million undocumented immigrants gain citizenship.
“Everyone has come to the realization that we need more partners, that we got to rebuild the movement, that we have faced all these vicious attacks,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which is still reeling from when Wisconsin curbed collective bargaining for most public employees in 2011. “Maybe it takes a bat to your head, but people get it now. People are engaged.”
Dozens of outside groups attended the convention, in part to lend the struggling labor movement a hand, in part to plug into the considerable power and reach that organized labor still has. There were leaders of more than a dozen immigrant worker centers, including ones from Louisiana, New York, Washington State and Texas. Numerous professors attended to share their insights, and union leaders from Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nigeria also visited.
Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, voiced support for labor’s efforts to reinvent and reinvigorate itself.
“We have to stop telling women that they have to lean in as individuals,” she said. “We have to tell them there is a whole system here that you have to lean together with your brothers and sisters, we have a whole movement here to put the United States on the right track.”