As AFL-CIO leaders packed up to leave Los Angeles last Wednesday, they basked in the glow of favorable media coverage of their five-day convention. The meeting concluded, per usual, with fulsome delegate praise for President Rich Trumka’s carefully scripted chairing and bold personal leadership. But these accolades were apparently not enough. Writers Guild of America-East president Michael Winship claimed he had just witnessed the “the most radical restructuring of labor since the AFL and CIO merged nearly sixty years ago.” Another national union president told The New York Times that the federation had finally “put some movement back in the labor movement.” Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson agreed that AFL-CIO had made an important “strategic shift” in how it intends “to advance workers’ interests.”

Feedback was also quite positive from the hundreds of invited guests from worker centers, labor support coalitions, public policy groups, student, feminist, and community organizations, and “social change” foundations—present in larger numbers than ever before. These enthusiastic “solidarity partners”—from constituencies younger and more diverse than the delegate body--got to make “action session” presentations, hold press conferences and side rallies, and network with unions and foundation funders. Sometimes, rank-and-filers from “Alt-labor” groups even got airtime on the main stage, for moving celebrations of their difficult organizing work among fellow immigrants.

Who wouldn't like to believe that a more exciting convention format prefigures a major turning point for labor. Unfortunately, greater inclusiveness, closer ties with non-labor groups, and the adoption of pleasingly progressive resolutions only begin to address the real organizing challenges facing labor, whether "alt" or traditional.

Missing from the festivities in L.A. last week was a much-needed focus on successful strategies for defending and revitalizing labor's existing membership base.

Workers who already belong to unions are under attack, on the job, at the bargaining table, and in the political arena everywhere. So the convention's heavy emphasis on policy wonkery, conventional political strategies, and new forms of "growth"--through diluted forms of "membership"--hardly seem "transformative" enough to meet the challenges of the day.

DÉJÀ VU?

The proceedings did have a progressive buzz and grassroots sheen not seen since “New Voice” candidate John Sweeney won the federation’s first contested presidential election in a century, in 1995. Sweeney’s team, which included Trumka, pledged to promote new organizing and political initiatives, community-labor alliances, and anti-globalization efforts, while expanding the role of women, immigrants, and people of color. Yet, as former AFL headquarters insider Bill Fletcher reported in his book, Solidarity Divided, these reform efforts ran out of steam as early as 1998. For the next decade or more, AFL-CIO restructuring was more rhetorical than real.

Last week, with two younger generation staffers (both in their forties) on Trumka’s new leadership team, the convention re-adopted New Voice ideas from twenty years ago. Delegates again embraced the need for community-labor coalitions, greater independence in politics, and, of course, more members—preferably in the millions.

It was taken as a given that these additional working Americans can’t be recruited into traditional bargaining units. The “new thinking” is that labor can boost its membership stats—and political clout—through closer structural ties to the Sierra Club, NAACP, National Council of La Raza, or MomsRising. This would enable the house of labor to count as “members” people on their mailing lists too.

The other method is to count, as “new members,” anyone ever solicited on their door-step, by a canvasser from the AFL-CIO’s own, soon-to-be-expanded Alt-labor vehicle, known as Working America. This outfit, set-up originally for political action purposes, now claims 3.2 million “members.” Almost none pay dues or have any workplace connection to each other. The federation spends more than $10 million a year on Working America, which is also subsidized by national and local union donations.

GETTING OFF MESSAGE

To keep convention messaging on track, AFL headquarters helpfully prepared “general talking points.” The most frequently heard refrain was, “This convention will be the most innovative and diverse in history. It’s an exciting time as we open our doors and engage with allies and the non-union community as never before.”

Unfortunately for federation spin-doctors, some avatars of the AFL’s more traditional labor organizations didn’t stay on message and their political influence was still much felt behind the scenes.

For example, Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger gave an interview with Josh Eidelson from The Nation, in which he warned about the AFL becoming “the American Federation of Progressive and Liberal Organizations.” Harold wanted no part of a labor movement that was merely “an extension of one ideological part of our society” or neglectful of the responsibility of unions to “represent workers’ interests on workers issues.”

Terence O’Sullivan was a one-man band at the convention, ranting to the press about the Sierra Club’s betrayal of labor, because it opposes the Keystone XL pipeline project favored by the building trades and Teamsters.

But O’Sullivan did make one constructive suggestion: “We came here to talk about a new movement,” he said. “But let’s not forget about the old movement.”

MOST IN NEED?

Trumka has made his questionable new focus quite explicit. “The labor movement needs to be not where we’ve been but where workers are most in need,” he told a conference of labor academics at Georgetown Law School in June.

Most in that audience welcomed his remarks as a sign that labor is thinking creatively about “what it means for working people to have a collective voice and real power…outside of traditional collective bargaining.”

Offered as a shining example of this approach, on the same panel, was the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), a foundation-funded network of workers centers with a claimed membership of 10,000. ROC’s annual budget of $4 million relies almost entirely on private philanthropy, because only a handful of workers actually pay dues to the organization.

At the same meeting, a Cornell professor circulated a paper implying that existing union members--unlike ROC’s non-union constituency--weren’t really that needy anymore. According to this expert, “the labor movement is stronger than it looks…and most unions are doing an effective job at the bargaining table”—an astounding claim, given management’s quite successful, non-stop drive for give-backs throughout the private and public sector.

The federation’s de-emphasis on union members’ workplace problems was reflected in what proposed workshops were scheduled (or rejected) at the convention. Judging by the content of the approved "action sessions," dealing with employers more effectively, in "traditional" workplaces, is barely on labor's to-do list at all.

You could learn much about the health and safety needs of workers in Bangladesh, but there was no brainstorming about strengthening local safety committees here. Fighting givebacks and speed-up, organizing strikes, mobilizing members on the job, creating a “stewards’ army” face to face (as opposed to online) were all given little play.

Labor’s most important public sector struggle since the 2011 “Wisconsin Uprising” was allotted a single presenter on the one panel (out of 50) that dealt with contract campaigns. Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) organizer Matt Luskin recounted how reformers ran for office, rebuilt their local, and rallied the community as a precursor to last fall’s successful nine-day strike against Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and his school board.

The moderator of this panel, a retired AFL-CIO staffer, seemed to ignore one major factor in Chicago—namely, the transformative effect of CTU’s rank-and-file empowerment. Instead, he expressed the fond hope that union members, after seeing fast food or Walmart worker go on strike, would be inspired to greater militancy themselves. If that “Alt-labor” example was all that Chicago teachers had going for them, they would not have accomplished very much.

As dissident academic Stanley Aronowitz noted several months ago, “Organized labor is still more than 15 million strong. ‘New’ labor movement? Why not seek reform of the existing unions?” Encouraging this course of action is, of course, not part of the AFL-CIO agenda, this year or any year.

ALT-LABOR ORGANIZING NOT EASY

One thing is certain. U.S. unions aren’t going to meet the challenges they face by further abandoning the workplace terrain still occupied by their own members or workers strategic to the future of an industry like telecom.

Generic “associate member” programs, like Working America, may be useful for building political mailings lists, conducting voter registration, doing working class voter education and turn-out, and, maybe next, promoting labor endorsed insurance plans in the ACA’s state insurance exchanges?

By dumbing down the concept of membership, in the process, is not a “strategic shift” so much as a shell game. It has little in common with serious, long-term efforts to build workplace organization without employer recognition and bargaining rights.

One instructive example of such struggles—the decade-long “minority union” campaign at T-Mobile—was discussed in L.A. last week. The plenary and workshop presentations by fired T-Mobile worker Josh Coleman and Communications Workers President Larry Cohen acknowledged that building and sustaining TU, a voluntary membership organization of T-Mobile workers, has not been easy.

Even with help from the German union at T-Mobile’s parent company and much CWA local union and member-organizer involvement, it has taken 10 years of work to recruit 1,000 TU supporters in a union-eligible workforce of 20,000. Only fifteen T-Mobile workers in Connecticut have been able to win formal bargaining rights thus far. But workplace education, cross-border networking, direct action, publicity, legal complaints, and community support have produced some important non-contract gains.

For similar union-building candor, plus in-depth discussion of organizing, bargaining, and strikes, readers should consider attending Labor Notes’ national conference, April 4-6 in Chicago. It won’t change the world of labor all by itself either, but it will have the workplace perspective so MIA from the AFL convention.

Alt-laborers and “old union movement” members alike will find common ground—more solid than labor’s official terra firma in La La Land last week.

[As a longtime staffer of the Communications Workers, Steve Early assisted CWA-backed “alt-labor” experiments like the Massachusetts High Tech Workers Network, the Alliance@IBM, and WAGE at General Electric. HIs new book, Save Our Unions, forthcoming in November, contains a detailed case study of CWA's T-Mobile campaign. Early can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com)

SIDEBAR:

A Post-Convention Rebuff On Obamacare

Last week in Los Angeles, AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka hoped to avoid an embarrassing outbreak of public criticism of Obamacare. But irate labor leaders, mainly from unions with multi-employer (Taft-Hartley) health plans, insisted on having their say on the convention’s final day. Delegates then passed a compromise resolution detailing the “fixes” needed in the Affordable Care Act. Without these changes, union-negotiated health coverage will be “regressed to the mean,” as one congressional staffer predicted in a meeting with D Taylor, president of UNITE-HERE.

Two days later at the White House, however, Trumka, Taylor and other labor officials got an embarrassing post-convention rebuff. The Obama administration still intends to deny union members in multi-employer plans access to income-based subsidies that will be offered to lower-income workers covered through ACA-mandated state insurance exchanges.

The same AFL-CIO media relations operation that was going full-blast for five days in Los Angeles—and six months before that--suddenly fell silent last Friday. The AFL-CIO had “no comment” on the White House dismissal of labor’s ACA-related concerns. (See Jeffrey Young’s account of the meeting at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/13/unions-obamacare_n_3923547.html and business press gloating about it at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/theapothecary/2013/09/14/obama-to-labor-unions-multi-employer-health-plans-drop-dead)

A version of this piece first appeared in Labor Notes