Plagued with an aging—and shrinking—membership, the nation's largest labor organization on Tuesday moved to tap a gushing fountain of youth: the nation's fast-growing immigrant workforce.
The AFL-CIO announced new partnerships with the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the National Guestworker Alliance, two unions whose memberships are heavily immigrant and predominantly minority. They also have more young workers, something the labor movement badly needs.
This is further evidence that the AFL-CIO, which has been criticized in the past for not embracing immigrants, increasingly recognizes the importance of organizing the hard-to-outsource service industries dominated by minority workers. The labor giant's embrace of Latinos and other immigrants offers a chance to reverse a steady membership decline.
Last year, 12 percent of American workers were union members, down from about 20 percent in the early 1980s. In the 1950s, more than one-third of U.S. workers belonged to unions. The next years hold even greater peril for the labor movement as many union members head toward retirement: 16 percent of workers ages 55 to 64 are represented by unions, compared with 10 percent of those ages 25 to 34.
In announcing the new partnerships with the Domestic Workers Alliance and the Guestworker Alliance on Tuesday, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka tacitly acknowledged his organization's demographic dilemma, urging participants at the Excluded Workers Congress to bring under the union umbrella "single moms, new immigrants, African Americans, young people, [and] Latinos."
The Domestic Workers Alliance includes 33 organizations in 11 states, which seek to organize the 2.5 million domestic workers in the United States. The Guestworker Alliance is a newer, smaller organization developed in response to abusive treatment of guestworkers who came to the U.S. to help rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.
The groups' joint statement reads like a call to arms for a shift in unions' thinking.
"The AFL-CIO and the National Guestworkers’ Alliance set out to forge a powerful partnership... to build a new labor movement for a new economy," the statement reads. "Compelled by the transformation of industry and the forces of the global economy, we are setting out to create new forms of organization and new methods of bargaining that include guestworkers."
Ana Avendano, the associate general counsel and director of the immigrant worker program at the AFL-CIO, pointed out why partnering with the NGA and NDWA can benefit the older unions. "The leaders of these organizations really represent the future of the labor movement: They’re young, they’re for the large part workers of color," she said. "They’re serving as a model of leadership for the labor unions. They bring a new energy, new creativity, new ways of thinking in terms of organizing and talking to workers."
Avendano also said the AFL-CIO and the fledgling union movements needed each other. "The labor movement and organized labor are used interchangeably in sentences—these kinds of partnerships really grow the movement part of the labor movement." she said. "And for these groups, they need the organization because that’s what makes sure they keep the gains they’ve made."