A.F.L.-C.I.O. Begins Group for Workers Not in Unions

The New York Times
August 29, 2003

Hoping to increase its political clout, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. announced yesterday that it was creating a novel organization for nonunion workers who agree with the labor movement on many issues and want to campaign alongside labor on those issues.

Federation officials said they hoped the organization, to be called Working America, would attract more than one million members to lobby Congress and to join demonstrations on issues like raising the minimum wage and preventing the privatization of Social Security.

"There are millions of working people who would like to be part of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s efforts for social justice and want a voice to speak out and work to change the direction of this country," John J. Sweeney, the federation's president, said yesterday at a news conference. "Working America will give them this chance."

Labor unions plan to send hundreds of people door to door in working-class neighborhoods to ask sympathetic nonunion workers to join and to contribute money.

The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations has begun pilot projects for the new group in Seattle and Cleveland. In Seattle, three people working for seven weeks signed up 1,200 nonunion workers to join Working America, with each canvasser enlisting almost 15 members a day. About half of the new members made contributions, labor leaders said, with those who contributed giving an average of $16.

"Many of these people are living side by side with union members, and many of them have the same concerns and will respond favorably on our issues," said John Ryan, executive secretary of the Cleveland Central Labor Council. "We will engage them in making phone calls, writing letters, putting pressure on public officials to support a working families' agenda."

The goal, federation leaders said, is not to raise millions of dollars for the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s political war chest, but to get more Americans campaigning with unions on labor issues.

To attract members, the people canvassing in Cleveland and Seattle often discussed one of the main focuses for labor unions, the fight to overturn the Bush administration's proposals to strip many workers of overtime coverage.

Union leaders say the idea has potential because while there are 16 million union members nationwide, representing 13 percent of the work force, surveys have indicated that more than 40 million other Americans would like to join unions. But labor leaders said it was often difficult for these Americans to join a union because many employers fought organizing efforts.

"There are many more nonunion people with extremely pro-union attitudes than there are union people," said Richard Freeman, a Harvard University labor economist who has long urged the A.F.L.-C.I.O. to set up the "associate" union membership. "You can look at this as a way to influence the political system. For unions to move elections, they have to get these people involved."

People who join Working America would not be members of a specific union, but would join a new affiliate of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.

At a meeting of the labor federation's executive council in Chicago, union presidents adopted a resolution on Aug. 6 approving the new group. The resolution said the group would not be workplace-based and would not deal with employers for collective bargaining, representing workers or handling grievances.

For years, union leaders have debated about setting up such a group. Advocates said it would expand labor's reach and strength, while opponents argued that it would distract from organizing efforts and was tantamount to admitting an inability to unionize many workers.

"They're looking for a cheap way to win strength," said Leo Troy, a labor expert at Rutgers University. "Attempts like this are only a diversion of their resources. It only further weakens them because they are diverting manpower and money from organizing to something that won't necessarily produce results."

Labor leaders defended the idea, arguing that Working America might advance unionization efforts by making unions more popular and more powerful politically.

They insisted that the effort would be self-financing and would not distract from other unionization drives. The A.F.L.-C.I.O. would provide money to hire people to canvass, they said, adding that they expected these people to attract enough members and contributions to pay for the canvassing.

"We've gotten a great response so far," said Steve Williamson, executive secretary of the central labor council for the Seattle area. "This is a great opportunity for a group of nonunion workers who don't have a voice and for our members to broaden and deepen their voice."