AFL-CIO Convention draws low-income workers

At a time of record poverty and massive government cutbacks, and under the threat of another war in the Middle East, the AFL-CIO opened its quadrennial national convention in Los Angeles on Sept. 8.

Delegates from as many as 57 national unions listened to labor officials as well as religious, civil rights, women and LGBTQ leaders speak on the necessity of attracting young adults of diverse backgrounds into the largest labor organization in the U.S. To make it more obvious, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker ordered everyone to stand up. “Now everyone 35 or older sit down,” she continued. Of the 1,200 Black, Latino/a, Asian and white attendees in the Diversity Workshop, only about 40 young participants were left standing.

With seven out of 10 new jobs in the U.S. offering only poverty wages, many of the larger delegations represented low-income workers, including the International Domestic Workers’ Network. IDWN was formed in 2006 to provide a voice for the voiceless and a face for the oftentimes invisible workers who clean homes, care for children and the elderly, and assist those in need, and is located in diverse places such as the U.S., the Dominican Republic, Hong Kong and Kenya. The network was given the 2013 George Meany–Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award to a standing ovation.

Also present are leaders from the New York City Taxi Drivers Alliance, one of the new affiliates invited to attend. These affiliates are workers’ groups not yet organized and not yet dues paying, but they provide an opportunity to reverse the decades-long decrease in AFL-CIO membership.

The Rev. James Lawson, who participated in the Nashville, Tenn., lunch counter sit-ins of 1960, electrified the diversity workshop crowd when he condemned today’s racism, sexism and violence as the result of “plantation capitalism.” He drew more applause when he said, “Missile attacks on Syria will kill children in our communities, just as the bombs dropped in Vietnam killed our children in the U.S., as Dr. King explained.”

As the audience filed out of the hall, Workers World Party members handed out copies of an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2858 resolution against military involvement in Syria, eliciting many supportive comments.

On the other hand, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told a noontime press conference that the federation has not yet decided its position on Syria. He went on to repeat the Obama administration lies on who was responsible for the chemical attacks on civilians there. The federation’s Executive Council, and not the body of the convention, would put out a statement when ready, Trumka said.

The labor federation has invited unorganized workers, environmental and civil rights groups, and community activists to become members of the AFL-CIO. When told that construction unions’ leaders had been meeting for more than three hours in opposition to his plans, Trumka replied that all coalition members will “work out the details and safeguards” together and work through the conflicts.

Members of Community & Postal Workers United and Community-Labor United for Postal Jobs and Services handed out “Privatization Hurts All Workers” fliers to incoming conventioneers and gathered signatures on a petition against post office closings and job cuts. CLUPJS members were warmly received at the local monthly meeting of the National Association of Letter Carriers the previous night.

Workers World Party members also distributed “A Job Is Our Right” leaflets.

Laundry workers picketed and solicited petition signatures demanding better working conditions and wages in front of the Marriott Hotel, where many convention meetings are taking place. The hotel charges guests $419 a night but their laundry contractor pays workers as little as $320 a week.

The convention continues through Sept. 11.