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AFL-CIO Convention: A Tale of Two Action Sessions




L-R: Panelists Alton Wilkerson, Uyen Le and James Elmendorf

The AFL-CIO closed out its quadrennial convention in Los Angeles yesterday with a morning remembrance to the victims of 9/11 before delegates rolled up their sleeves and finished up with a day of internal housekeeping and policy chores.

The convention might be remembered most for debuting its highly popular afternoon Action Sessions. Comprising about 50 workshops and panels over three days, these sessions gathered together innovative thinkers, cutting-edge organizers and committed activists from around the country to share the lessons learned in hard-won battles to moved labor to the center stage of a 21st century economy.

Collectively they signaled the AFL-CIO’s seriousness about returning to the grass roots and leveraging one area where labor remains unrivaled and undiminished — its organizational power.

This commitment was especially clear at a Wednesday Action Session entitled “Policy Initiatives That Enable Organizing: Living Wage and PLA Campaigns.”

Moderated by James Elmendorf, deputy director of policy at Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), the panel looked at Southern California as a test bed for achieving progressive worker standards through Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) and via the ballot box.

Alton Wilkerson, an organizer with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 11, along with Local 11 Outreach and Compliance Officer Uyen Le, reported on partnering with LAANE’s Construction Careers campaign. The goal was to implement PLAs on government-funded building projects aimed at broadening the base of building trades unions in under-unionized communities.

Despite the union’s early trials and errors in overcoming community and government agency resistance, Le said its success boiled down to winning targeted local hire requirements. Targeted hires appealed to developers as a means of earning crucial community support and was an irresistible policy to the agencies who ultimately signed off on the checks.

It wasn’t a slam-dunk. “People have a hard time seeing how this is going to benefit their immediate community if they don’t know anyone who’s part of a union,” she noted. “But if there’s a message of, ‘If this development happens, if this construction happens and there’s an opportunity for people in your neighborhood to be able to make a good living’ … it puts a persuasive human face on the issue.”

That persuasion and persistence eventually culminated last year in convincing L.A. County’s transportation authority to adopt a Construction Careers policy on $6 billion worth of Metro transit construction.

The panel also featured UNITE HERE’s Political Director Derek Smith and organizer Soledad Garcia, both of whom have been at the forefront of organizing Southern California hotel workers around living wage laws.

Smith went into detail on last year’s coalition-building campaign in Long Beach to pass Measure N, the city’s historic minimum wage law that boosted pay to workers at large hotels to $13 an hour. He also described expanding those efforts in the union’s current campaign in Los Angeles to convince the city council to pass a similar law that would raise the minimum wage for hotel workers here to $15 an hour.

One of the convention’s most  potentially far-reaching Action Sessions bore the ambitious title “Jobs to Move America: National Partnership to Boost U.S. Manufacturing and Create Good Jobs in the Transportation Industry.”

Moderated by AFL-CIO Organizing Department Director Elizabeth Bunn, the session became the public unveiling of a massive national campaign aimed at reviving America’s heavy manufacturing sector.

Its essence was best condensed by panel member and Green For All executive director Kim Freeman Brown as “using public funds for public good.”

What that encompasses was explained by the campaign’s chief architect, LAANE co-founder and national policy director Madeline Janis. According to her, the campaign’s origin was simply the notion of using the millions of public agency spending on “stuff” to boost U.S. manufacturing and the union jobs that come with it by encouraging local agencies to buy their stuff in America.

When Janis and her partners realized that “stuff” also included the $5.4 billion of rail cars and buses that U.S. transit agencies spend each year replenishing their fleets, they quickly scaled up what amounted to a smarter buy-American plan into a policy of national scope. The policy she was calling the U.S. Employment Plan was born.

Or almost.

Unbeknownst to LAANE, Larry Willis of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department (TTD) had also been trying to convince transit agencies to buy American, only to find himself in a purgatory of procurement-process fine print and government red tape. “We were just behind the curve,” he recalled.

Then last year he read LAANE’s U.S. Employment Plan. It was his “A-ha moment,” said Willis, “a perfect marriage. … And it really is a very effective approach that gets us sort of through some of the legal challenges.”

The plan detailed a series of incentives designed to level the playing field for unionized manufacturing in transit agency procurements. It spelled out incentives to offer higher pay and better benefits, incentives for more U.S. content, incentives for hiring from disadvantaged communities and incentives for offering good training programs.

With TDD’s organizing muscle behind it, the plan was re-dubbed the Jobs to Move America Campaign and was still being fine-tuned for a November launch when Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez entered the picture.

Last February, Chicago Transit Authority announced bidding on a multibillion-dollar contract for 852 rail cars to be called the 7000-series. Ramirez wanted to weigh in on the process with the Move America plan. It shouldn’t have been easy as there was no love lost between CTA Chairman Forrest Claypool and Chicago union leaders.

But Jobs to Move America was an offer that Claypool and Mayor Rahm Emanuel couldn’t politically refuse. At least not up front.

“I really love the [plan], Ramirez enthused, “because it’s crazy smart. It’s stuff that requires some aspects of traditional labor movement thinking and acting, and this whole other side — it’s just smarter than I could have ever imagined. In some of the meetings we’ve had at the city and the CTA, it was a very good feeling for me that we had essentially up-matched the city and the CTA when it came to expertise in this area.”

And while the jury is still out in Chicago on whether CTA will finally adopt  Move America, for Janis it already represents a political validation of LAANE’s original concept.

“This is our money,” Janis summed up. “And we want our money spent in a way that’s going to help our communities.”

(Photo by Bill Raden.)

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