AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka has a bold plan to reverse organized labor's long slide: Let millions of nonunion workers -- and perhaps environmental, immigrant and other advocacy groups -- join the labor federation.
When the labor federation holds its convention in Los Angeles beginning today, he will ask its delegates for a green light to pursue these ambitious overhauls. Needless to say, some within the labor movement view them as heretical.
Mr. Trumka believes that if unions are having a hard time increasing their ranks, they can at least restore their clout by building a broad coalition to advance a worker-friendly political and economic agenda. He has called for inviting millions of nonunion workers into the labor movement even if their own workplaces are not unionized. Not stopping there, he has proposed making progressive groups -- like the NAACP, Sierra Club, the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights group, and MomsRising, an advocacy group for women's and family issues -- either formal partners or affiliates of the AFL-CIO.
"The crisis for labor has deepened," Mr. Trumka said in an interview. "It's at a point where we really must do something differently. We really have to experiment."
By crisis, he means myriad setbacks, including a steady loss of union membership, frequent defeats in organizing drives and unions being forced to accept multiyear wage freezes. Not only have labor leaders faced the embarrassing enactment of anti-union legislation in one-time labor strongholds like Wisconsin and Michigan, but they could not even win passage of legislation making it easier to unionize when President Barack Obama was elected and the Democrats controlled the House and Senate.
In language far different from decades past -- when labor often talked with we'll-get-it-done-ourselves bravado -- Mr. Trumka said: "It's pretty obvious to all of our progressive partners that none of us can do it alone. If we're going to change the political and economic environment, it's going to take us all working together."
Gary Chaison, an industrial relations professor at Clark University, said: "Unions are thrashing around looking for answers. It just might prove successful from the very fact that there is great desperation to it. There's a sense that this is make-or-break time for labor. Either major things are done, or it will be too late to resuscitate the labor movement."
Labor's reinvention process is taking many forms. The AFL-CIO has set up a dozen committees -- of historians, young workers, Web experts, pollsters -- to propose ways to reinvent labor. Our Walmart, a union-backed group of Walmart employees, has held repeated protests in the hope of somehow finding pressure points to persuade the giant retailer to improve pay and benefits. The Service Employees International Union helped organize a wave of one-day strikes at fast-food restaurants to create a nationwide movement of low-wage workers with the aim of pressuring McDonald's, Subway and other chains to raise wages.
"We're trying a lot of things, and some of them will work and some of them won't," Mr. Trumka said. "We'll try to amplify those that work, and we'll jettison what doesn't work."
Unions have continued to look for new groups of workers to organize. In an unusual effort, the service employees union is seeking to organize all adjunct professors -- an often low-paid group -- in the Boston area. After several fruitless attempts, the United Automobile Workers has accelerated its efforts to organize automobile plants in the South, pushing hard at Nissan, Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz.
In one creative approach to unionizing, the UAW is working with VW to create a German-style works council at its plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. In anti-union Texas, a dozen unions are undertaking a decade-long organizing drive aimed at greatly increasing unionization there and helping turn Texas politics from red to blue.
Many conservatives and businesses applaud labor's decline, which they say is happening largely because today's workers have little use for unions. Businesses have always opposed unions, saying they push up wages and hurt productivity through collective bargaining and work rules. Moreover, they say labor's political war chest, formed from members' dues, has given unions too much power over politicians and regulators.
But many liberals and union members worry that if unions grow weaker that will lead to more income inequality and less of a political counterweight to corporate America and conservative billionaires.
"What makes this a moment of hope is there is a general recognition that things are out of balance in terms of inequality and wage stagnation," said Craig Becker, the AFL-CIO's general counsel. "You have to find a way to create or re-create vibrant worker organizations to address those problems."
Underlying all this strategizing is a sense that if unions are ever to reverse their decline, they will have to somehow inspire Americans to engage in collective action again.