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AFL-CIO courts Sierra Club amid disagreements over Keystone XL

By Jim Efstathiou Jr.
Bloomberg News

The U.S. labor movement, faced with declining enrollment, political attacks and growing economic insecurity among members, is turning to nonunion 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,” said 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 nonunion 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 nonunion members can hash out policy priorities and strategies with union delegates.

“We’re in a crisis right now and none of us are big enough to change that,” Trumka said Sunday at a news 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 President Barack 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 nonunion 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,” said Gary Chaison, a labor-law professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “He’s pushing it to a new level.”

Obama was scheduled to speak in person at the forum, but was to speak to delegates by video on Monday.

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.


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