American Labor’s New Agenda: A Movement for Global Shared Prosperity

20 September 2013
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The destiny of the American labor movement depends on awakening within its ranks a belief in shared prosperity beyond U.S. borders.

This piece was originally published by Huffington Post.

Two themes prevailed at AFL-CIO’s global convention held in Los Angeles last week. The first was a deep indignation over the unbridled growth of corporate interest and money power in American politics. The second was a quieter understanding that the unions that once anchored people power in this country must reinvent themselves to survive. That reinvention depends on a new awareness among American workers that their fate is bound to the fate of workers worldwide.

The outrage expressed by convention delegates over the metastasis of corporate power and the rise of inequality is important and justified. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz emphasized, the unconscionable level of inequality in the United States is not natural. It is manufactured through legislative deregulation, regressive taxation, and the weakening of collective bargaining rights, all propelled by money power.

But more important is how progressives respond to the second phenomenon — the dispersal of people power and the vulnerability of the union movement.

Unions once represented nearly a third of American workers. The social democratic compromise of Fordism — a kind of tenuous harmony between money power and people power — depended on the strength of unions. Now only 11.3 percent of American workers are unionized, and in the private sector the figure hovers around 7 percent.

Last week, the AFL-CIO confronted this question: How can American unions reconsolidate people power and build a 21st century union movement that is broader than its membership?

The short answer: Look outward. With overwhelming support, convention delegates endorsed a new agenda of inclusivity in the labor movement. They passed resolutions inviting non-union members to join the fight for workers’ rights and a living wage, and elected the first non-union leader, Bhairavi Desai, to the federation’s executive council. They called for comprehensive immigration reform not contingent on intensified border security. They demanded that global trade agreements be negotiated for the benefit of workers rather than special interests. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka powerfully asserted that “we cannot win economic justice only for ourselves, for union members alone. It would not be right and it’s not possible.”

But the grinding effort of consolidating people power in American communities will be far more difficult than energizing a convention hall. This work involves disentangling the complex, obfuscated supply chains of the global economy — of helping American workers see the link between their own rights and the rights of workers across the globe.

Strong labor standards create a fairer playing field, where elites can’t exploit labor to decrease production costs. And rising living standards in developing countries will create new markets and consumers for American products and services, reinforcing job creation in this country.

Fostering resentment over “jobs shipped abroad” is part of money power’s strategy. Union leaders must displace this rhetoric with an ethos of global solidarity. They must inspire GAP employees selling V-necks in Denver to care about the working conditions of laborers sewing those V-necks in Dhaka. But beyond caring, those retail employees must understand their own role in demanding change.

A labor movement based on values rather than membership would look more like other social movements that have bent the arc of history toward justice: the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, the movement for women’s rights, revolutions against colonialism.

These movements relied on shifting power, but also on shifting consciousness. The destiny of the American labor movement depends on awakening within its ranks a belief in shared prosperity beyond U.S. borders.