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LIBN Column: Unions have strength in numbers

Kris LaGrange's picture
Oct 11, 2013

Organized labor has an image problem. But don’t worry – it also has a plan to change its reputation among workers, and to encourage them not to go it alone.

As author Phillip Dray says, unions are “uniquely threatening.” They are groups devoted to social and economic parity armed with a failsafe weapon – the work stoppage. And they’re a collective activist entity in a nation that prizes individuality, a scary thought for bully employers.

The American Federation of Labor merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations back in 1955, and although membership has dwindled over the years with the Wal-Martiziation of American society, organized labor’s resolve to be inclusionary is putting “movement” back in the labor movement.

The 57 unions of the AFL-CIO recently passed Article 28 at their Los Angeles convention. This “share the power” initiative basically invites nonunion groups like the National Organization for Women, United Students Against Sweatshops and the NAACP to the grown-ups table, and gives them a golden opportunity to influence greater union policies.

It’s a terrific example of how labor is getting creative with its definition of “collective bargaining.” Other examples: Worker centers are popping up in areas where bosses traditionally get away with murder.

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance, for example, was invited to sit on the AFL-CIO Executive Council, which should scare the bejesus out of employers who enjoy doing whatever they want. Bad bosses beware: The righteous, strong arm of labor knows who you are and what you’re doing!

Here on Long Island, union power-sharing is old news. The 300,000-member Long Island Federation of Labor has worked with the Nassau community and the bus drivers’ union to not only ensure that the working poor have transportation to get to work, but that the rights of unionized bus drivers are protected from often hostile employers.

When non-AFL-CIO unions try to go it alone, like the Suffolk Association of Municipal Employees did in recent negotiations with Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, they take on risks. AME, a public employee union, gave up the right to strike under the state’s Taylor Law, for instance.

But even though AME doesn’t pay dues to the AFL-CIO – and they should – they enjoy greater union support. Consider that Bellone knows he’ll eventually have to explain his bargaining tactics to other affiliated unions here on God’s Green Island, whom he needs for re-election.

Strength in numbers indeed.

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