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In Historic Move, AFL-CIO Expands Ranks With Vote to Include Non-Union, Immigrant, Low-Wage Workers

Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez
Democracy Now! / Video Interview
Published: Thursday 12 September 2013
The AFL-CIO made a major shift several years ago in support of immigration reform. They used to be an organization that did not support undocumented immigrants and that shift was historic and also allowed for them to give their political influence, financial resources, and people power to win immigration reform.

In what could be a major development for worker rights, the AFL-CIO has announced a new plan to enlist tens of millions of non-union workers, including immigrants and low-wage workers who have traditionally not been part of its federation. The move comes as unions face a major decline in membership and have seen their collective bargaining rights slashed in former union strongholds like Wisconsin. Meanwhile, non-union workers at Wal-Mart, and fast food chains like McDonalds, have gained momentum in their efforts to push for better pay by holding one-day strikes. We’re joined by Cristina Tzintzun, executive director of the Workers Defense Project in Texas, who just attended theAFL-CIO Quadrennial Convention.


JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to what could be in a historic development for worker rights. During its quadrennial convention this week in Los Angeles, the AFL-CIO announced a new plan to enlist tens of millions of nonunion workers, including immigrants and low-wage workers who have traditionally not been part of its federation. The move comes as unions face a major decline in membership and seeing their collective-bargaining rights slashed in states like Wisconsin that were once union strongholds. Meanwhile, nonunion workers at Walmart and fast food chains like McDonald’s have gained momentum in the efforts to push for better pay by holding one-day strikes. This is the AFL-CIOresident Richard Trumka addressing the convention on Monday.

RICHARD TRUMKA: To turn America right side up, we need a real working class movement. And if that is going to happen, we, our institutions, have to do some things differently. We must begin here and now today, the great work of real wakening, a movement of working people, all working people not just the people in this hall, not just the people that we represent today, but everybody who works in this country. Everyone who believes that people who work deserve to make enough to live and enjoy the good things in life.

AMY GOODMAN: For more we’re joined by Cristina Tzintzun who attended the AFL-CIO convention this week and helped organize its agenda. She’s executive director of The Workers Defense Project in Texas which was profiled last month in the New York Times. Reporter Steve Greenhouse called it a union in spirit and wrote "The Workers Defense Project is one of 225 worker centers nationwide aiding many of the country’s 22 million immigrant workers.The centers have sprouted up largely because labor unions have not organized in many fields where immigrants have gravitated like restaurants, landscaping and driving taxis. And there’s another reason: many immigrants feel that unions are hostile to them." Cristina Tzintzun is in Washington, D.C. where later today she will join others in a civil disobedience protest to call for comprehensive immigration reform. Welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about this latest move of the AFL-CIO and its significance, Cristina.

CRISTINA TZINTZUN: Sure, thanks for having me. So, this is a historic moment in the he AFL-CIO’s history. This is the first time at any one of their conventions that they invited outside groups and welcomed outside groups, opinions how to shift and change the labor movement, about how to organize workers that traditionally have been excluded from organizing through a contract with the union, and also invited faith and community partners. So, it was the most diverse and open discussion that the AFL-CIO have had. And also one of the most controversial points that was brought up for resolutions for a lot of labor unions as well.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Cristina, you have worked especially with construction workers in Texas in the building trades of all of the AFL-CIO unions have always been the ones most resistance to opening up their ranks in bringing in nonunion workers. Can you talk about what your experience has been like in Texas with nonunion workers?

CRISTINA TZINTZUN: So, in Texas, we’re in one of the most hostile anti-worker, anti-union states in the country, and so that has forced us to be very creative. We also have the largest undocumented population in the construction industry. Though in other parts of the country construction tends to be good blue-collar jobs because they’re protected by unions, in Texas, that hasn’t been the case. And with so many undocumented workers, that unions have not been able to unionize, many of their structures don’t even allow them to organize. We have reached out to the building trades and had them work with us. To be very honest, in the beginning, that was not always the easiest relationship, but now we have one of the strongest coalitions working with union partners from construction unions and anywhere else in the state. Those unions are now standing up and calling for immigration reform and saying that working with worker centers and community partners is actually what’s helping them gain traction again. And so that example is what, along with other worker centers like the domestic workers that just passed the Bill of Rights through the Senate — the Bill of Rights in California, is bringing new life into what is labor in this country. And so, there are people looking at community groups like ours and others to say, how can we start to try the strategies and traditional labor unions or outside of labor unions to lift up standards for workers?

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to the AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka addressing the convention.

RICHARD TRUMKA: If you work for a living in this country, our movement is your movement. Sisters and brothers, it is time to tear down the barriers, to remove the boundaries between workers. It is time to stop letting employers and politicians and all the others tell us who is a worker and who isn’t. Who is in our movement and who isn’t. Working people alone should decide who is in our labor movement and that is exactly what we will do.

AMY GOODMAN: That is or course, Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO. Cristina Tzintzun, what exactly does it mean to have nonunion members of the AFL-CIO? Practically, how does it play out in people’s work?

CRISTINA TZINTZUN: Well, it is still yet to see how it will play out in people’s work, but I think the shift is really important. Our economy has greatly changed since the AFL-CIO started organizing and winning contracts — union contracts for workers. Now, one in three workers in this country are classified as contingent workers, people that work temporary, part time or on a contract basis. That makes it incredibly hard for the AFL-CIO to organize them under the current legal structure. So, this shift will help them look at new strategies to organize the workforce. But, no one really knows how it is going to play out quite yet with community groups like ours or faith partners. So, what happened at the convention is allowing a change of the rules of the AFL-CIO to start broadening its movement in start developing new strategies. So, all of that work will really happen after the convention and it will depend union by union. Not every union is excited about this shift. Some have questions or concerns. Other unions are very much welcoming this change and already developing strategies about how they can start organizing nonunion workers. As you have seen happening with the fast food strikes in this country, which are gaining a lot of traction, primarily supported by SEIU, also many community groups and faith partners across the country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: How would you favor it in terms of how you envision it possibly moving forward, because, obviously there’s questions, as one, would the federation be recruiting individual people or through the worker centers into specific unions or into a separate union? Would they have the same kind of voting powers as the existing unions? How would you — would want to see this develop?

CRISTINA TZINTZUN: So, right now the strategy would be to recruit individuals into the AFL-CIOthrough a partnership with an institution called Working America. It is not clear how it will work with workers centers. And for some worker centers, we want to support and be part of a broader labor movement, but also want to maintain our autonomy to continue to be creative at the local level and win gains for workers, maybe not through a union contract. In Texas, we’ve won significant gains in a really hard and hostile climate whether it is passing local ordinances that raise standards for workers or at the state level as well and also taking on some of the largest developers in the country to pay construction workers a living wage and ensure certain safety standards. The AFL-CIO will start trying to organize individuals and that is the first time that they have done that. So, that is a huge shift in where they are going to invest many of their resources both financial and human resources as well.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip from one of the speakers who addressed the AFL convention, Tuesday. This is a young woman who is an immigrant, a dreamer; Hareth Andrade-Ayala. She was going to read her poem "America" after President Obama’s scheduled speech before the AFL-CIO, but he stayed in Washington to handle the situation in Syria.

HARETH ANDRADE-AYALA: Actually, I was supposed to do my poem before President Obama spoke, with the hopes I may ask him to stop my father’s deportation. But then I realized after hearing the artists who inspired us with the cutouts saying actions speak louder than words, and looking at the tables, together we are stronger. So, I said together we are stronger. So, I am going to ask if you want to tell President Obama to stop my dad’s deportation, please, stand up.

AMY GOODMAN: Audience members at the AFL-CIO convention stood and supported the dreamer Hareth Andrade-Ayala. Cristina Tzintzun, your response?

CRISTINA TZINTZUN: The AFL-CIO made a major shift several years ago in support of immigration reform. They used to be an organization that did not support undocumented immigrants and that shift was historic and also allowed for them to give their political influence, financial resources, and people power to win immigration reform. So, it has been a huge support to the movement, and at this point, with so many undocumented workers in our industry in Texas — it is 50% of the workforce, immigrant and workers rights are intrinsically linked and the AFL-CIO recognizes that and it’s become one of the largest and most important partners in our struggle to win immigration reform.

Author pic
ABOUT Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman is the host of "Democracy Now!," a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 900 stations in North America. She is the author of "Breaking the Sound Barrier," recently released in paperback and now a New York Times best-seller.

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