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AFL-CIO courts Sierra Club in search for allies

By Bloomberg News

The U.S. labor movement, faced with declining enrollment, political attacks and growing economic insecurity among members, is turning to non-union groups for help.

The AFL-CIO, the federation that represents 57 unions with 12 million members, holds its national convention this week in Los Angeles with labor in a time of "crisis," according to the group's president, Richard Trumka. The meeting will take place as union membership stands at 11.3 percent of workers, down from 20.1 percent in 1983.

A top priority will be to expand relationships with non- union groups such as the Sierra Club and the National Organization for Women, which often share the AFL-CIO's goals. To that end, the group is scrapping its traditional convention format in place of one that features "action sessions" where non-union members can hash out policy priorities and strategies with union delegates.

"Were in a crisis right now and none of us are big enough to change that," Trumka said at a press briefing before the first convention session. "None of us are big enough to change the economy and make it work for everybody. It takes all progressive voices working together."

This summer, Sierra Club members, in coordination with labor groups, pressured Congress to bring Obama's nominees for the National Labor Relations Board and the Environmental Protection Agency to a vote, said Dean Hubbard, labor program director for the environmental group.

Efforts to blunt the fallout from the Supreme Court's 2010 decision known as Citizens United, which removed restrictions on corporate contributions to political campaigns, also would be boosted by a broader coalition, Trumka said.

"Money does not equal free speech," Trumka said. "We're going to work as best we can to try to rectify that. It may take a constitutional amendment."

Coalition building between groups as diverse as unions and environmental advocates presents challenges. The labor movement is at odds with its non-union allies on TransCanada Corp.'s proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Canada, a project the United Steelworkers Union, an AFL-CIO member, backs while the San Francisco-based Sierra Club is an opponent.

"We obviously are very strongly opposed to the pipeline but that doesn't mean that we don't work together where it makes sense and where we agree," Hubbard said in an interview. "It's very complex at times to try and figure out the best way to work together."

The steelworkers union and the Sierra Club are among 14 union and environmental groups in the Blue Green Alliance, a group that claims to have 15 million members and supporters, and advocates for job creation in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

"Trumka will know, more so than probably anyone else because of his high position, that the only way labor can prove its relevancy is through coalitions," Gary Chaison, a labor-law professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said in an interview. "He's pushing it to a new level."

The convention began Sunday. Labor Department Secretary Tom Perez, who was sworn into office last week, is scheduled to speak Tuesday.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., spoke Sunday, and credited organized labor for decades of leadership on workplace reforms and for playing a role in the creation of Social Security and Medicare. Most Americans support labor's agenda on tougher oversight of financial institution, a higher minimum wage and preserving benefits, she said.

"Here's my message," Warren said. "Our agenda is America's agenda. The American people know that the system is rigged against them and they want us to level the playing field."

Other than the keynote addresses, the 2013 convention will feature fewer speeches and, for the first time, 40 sessions where where union and non-union delegates will meet off the convention floor to discuss common challenges, Trumka said.

"It's not that Trumka is going to call up the Sierra Club and say, 'What should we do,'" Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington-based group funded by labor unions and private foundations, said in an interview. "It's seeking them out to get more input into setting an agenda for labor."

Resistance goes beyond specific issues such as the Keystone pipeline, according to Baker. Some union leaders fear that time spent on partnering with outside groups distracts from labor's core mission of organizing workers and bargaining for better salaries and working conditions.

"Trumka is kind of the figurehead for the unions, the visionary if you like, but each union has got its own bureaucracy and makes its own decisions," Baker said in an interview. "If you put more into outreach with different organizations and activities that aren't narrowly focused on getting the better contract next time, then you won't do as well, at least in the short term."

By Trumka's own account, labor has failed to keep pace with changing economic and political realities. Of particular concern is labor's failure to remain relevant to young people, he said.

"A lot of young Americans right now who leave college educated with masters degrees are working in dead end jobs in waitressing and bartending," Gary Hubbard, spokesman for the steelworkers union, said in an interview. "The labor movement has to do more than just collective bargaining. We've got to create a lot of good jobs."

In 2012, 14.4 million wage and salary workers were union members, down from 17.7 million in 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The union membership rate was highest among workers ages 55 to 64 at 14.9 percent and lowest among those ages 16 to 24 at 4.2 percent.

"The future of the woman's movement must lie in collective action," Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, said at a press briefing at the convention. "In linking arms with our allies. In working collaboratively with those organizations with whom we share a basic outlook for justice."