AFL-CIO hopeful in return to the city

Obama to address more than 3,000 delegates, guests in most positive union climate in decades

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After being exiled from the political mainstream for the better part of three decades, labor has come back this week to its spiritual home: Pittsburgh.

The AFL-CIO, a federation of workers from a wide range of industries, will spend a week in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center and will include among its guests the most pro-union president to be elected in 40 years.

President Barack Obama headlines the week of speakers. Other important voices at the gathering will be Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who has become a fierce enforcer of labor laws that were on the books but nearly forgotten; Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of a president and niece of two senators, all of whom worked closely with unions; and NAACP President Benjamin Jealous.

Jack Shea, president of the Allegheny County Labor Council, will open the convention for 1,000 delegates, 2,000 guests and 250 visitors from around the world representing 56 international labor organizations.

"We recognize that working people are at the edge of a huge wave of change," said John J. Sweeney, the president of the federation. "We're ready to mobilize as never before to create an economy that works for everybody."

Mr. Sweeney, who has led the union since 1995, will open his last national convention as AFL-CIO's president today with a keynote address marking the close of his official career. He said he will maintain an office in Washington, D.C., and continue his work there in an advisory capacity.

Richard L. Trumka, the current secretary-treasurer of the federation of labor unions, is the presumptive winner of the election for a new president.

Among the new AFL-CIO president's challenges will be taking advantage of the moment -- and the new energy infusing the organization -- to advance its mission. Just 10 months ago, 250,000 rank-and-file union members representing every congressional district conducted a get-out-the-vote drive to get their candidate, Mr. Obama, elected. Now he is returning to them in their first post-election gathering.

It's been a long time since labor leaders have had so much to be optimistic about.

Unions have been marginalized since 1981, when President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers. Since then, union leaders claim companies have used various means to avoid unionization, including intimidating and firing workers who are conducting organizing drives.

In the 40 years since Richard M. Nixon took office in 1969, Democrats -- traditionally the more pro-labor of the two parties -- have held the White House for just 12 years and eight months. Since the late 1960s, union representation of workers fell from about a third of all workers to just under an eighth.

Even Democrats in the White House during those years didn't always help the union cause. President Bill Clinton's support of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which had been negotiated under President George W. Bush, also took union jobs out of the country.

Dean Baker, an economist for the Center for Economic Policy and Research, said even at 12.5 percent union membership nationwide, that's still 20 million people and a huge political power.

"It really is evident that unions make a huge difference in the political makeup of the country," he said, adding that without unions, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would probably be president.

Mr. Baker noted that unionization in the public sector has hovered around 35 percent for the last 40 years, while it has dropped over the years to 7 percent in the private sector.

A priority for the labor movement now is making it easier to organize workforces of all sorts. Both Mr. Sweeney and Mr. Trumka said they are going to continue the union push for the Employee Free Choice Act, health care reform and reduction of the trade deficit.

Looking toward the next decade with an eye on the current battles, Mr. Trumka said much of this week in Pittsburgh will be spend "talking a lot about our economy and our economic role in the economy. We can't leave our economic role to any particular party."

He said the labor movement is taking the stand that if a piece of legislation is good for workers, then labor is for it.

Meanwhile, all around the delegates debating the future will be reminders of labor's past. Both the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations held their founding conventions in Pittsburgh decades ago. The two groups later merged. A number of other labor groups also started here, including the United Steelworkers of America.

"The Mon Valley is very, very symbolic of what's happened to the country," Mr. Trumka said.

In the 1940s, the Mon Valley served as the armory of the Allies at war around the globe, but 40 years later, the workers in the mills were losing their jobs in droves as overseas plants made products cheaper. The loss of those kinds of manufacturing jobs with good pay has continued around the country since then.

"There are a growing number of people who are no longer in the middle class," Mr. Trumka said.

He said the unions want to build the production capacity of the nation, to create a country where the workers make real products in good jobs that will ultimately rebuild the middle class.


Ann Belser can be reached at abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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