Monday, September 28, 2009

Here Comes Trumka

By Andrew R. McIlvaine

NOTE: Andrew McIlvaine's article from Human Resources Online gives an interesting corporate HR perspective on the new AFL-CIO President, I thought it was worth sharing. BD

The AFL-CIO's new boss, Richard Trumka, has made organizing young workers one of his top priorities. Regardless of his ultimate success in that goal, observers say HR needs to be alert.

He put himself through Penn State while working in the very same southwestern Pennsylvania coal mine where his father labored for 44 years. He's built like a linebacker and has a law degree from Villanova University. He gives fiery, inspirational speeches that bring audiences to their feet.

He's Richard L. Trumka, the AFL-CIO's newest president, and his admirers say HR leaders had better be on their toes.

"You need to have done your homework and have your facts straight if you're going to have a meeting with Rich Trumka," says Susan J. Schurman, a professor of labor studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., who's worked closely with Trumka in the past. "He's someone who's as comfortable in the corporate boardroom as he is rallying coal miners."

In his previous position as the AFL-CIO's secretary-treasurer, Trumka, 60, mastered the intricacies of corporate finance and pension law, she says.

"He decided he was going to master not only taking care of the AFL-CIO's finances -- a challenge in of itself -- but also the world of corporate finance, and he's done it," says Schurman. "I doubt there's any labor leader -- past or present -- who can master his understanding of corporate and public finance."
Dan Yager, chief policy officer and general counsel for the HR Policy Association in Washington, says Trumka is "very charismatic and articulate. He's been a very effective labor leader. HR leaders need to pay attention and be ready for a new world, because things will be different with Trumka at the AFL-CIO's helm."

Already, the federation has brought back the 250,000 member UNITE HERE faction that left in 2005 to form a new labor group. The re-affiliation was announced during the AFL-CIO annual convention.
Even so, Trumka has his work cut out for him.

Organized labor has suffered a steep decline in membership over the past three decades, with barely 8 percent of private-sector workers belonging to a union today, compared to 17 percent in 1980, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While the AFL-CIO's new boss is working for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which has proven a difficult sell despite Democratic control of Congress, and building support for health care reform, one of his major goals is getting young workers to join unions.

According to the BLS, union membership is highest among workers 55 to 64 years old and lowest among workers 16 to 24 years old.

At its annual convention in Pittsburgh this Sept., where Trumka was formally named president after running for the position unopposed, the AFL-CIO provided some details on its push to attract younger members.

The AFL-CIO's new secretary-treasurer, 39-year-old Liz Shuler, will head the federation's youth-outreach efforts.

Those efforts will include regular visits to college campuses by Trumka and Shuler, postings on Twitter and Facebook, and "strike forces" of 1,000 young organizers to serve as "rapid response teams" during organizing drives.

"[Young people] don't hate us, they don't like us, they just don't know us," Shuler told the Associated Press.

Even so, Yager says, unions hold little appeal for younger workers.
"Labor has a big challenge in talking to the younger generation and the professionals they'd like to attract," he says. "They tend to question whether joining a union is in the best interest of their long-term careers."
Trumka himself could be an obstacle to attracting younger members, adds Yager.

"Young people were among Barack Obama's most enthusiastic backers, and I think a lot of his appeal for them came from this calm, post-partisan aura he projected, a 'Let's all work together' approach," he says. "Trumka can be very confrontational, and that could be a big turn-off."
"In the eyes of the young people he wants to recruit, Trumka represents what many of them don't want to become," says Justin Wilson, managing director of the Center for Union Facts, a Washington-based organization that consistently criticizes unions. "When you survey young American workers, they're looking for merit pay and the ability to climb the ladder, and that's not represented by old-line unions like the AFL-CIO."

In its campaign to present itself as a viable option for young workers, the federation has cited surveys it's commissioned that reveal 1 out of 3 workers younger than 35 live at home with their parents, 31 percent say they have no health insurance and one-third say they cannot pay their bills.

"[Young workers] need us," Shuler told the AP. "They just don't know we're the answer to their problems."

NOTE: I met Liz Shuler at a CUNY Murphy Institute reception where Liz spoke with graduate students in the Labor Studies MA program and undergraduates in the CUNY Union Semester Program. As the youngest, and first female to reach the highest levels of power in the AFL/CIO, it was no surprise that the new secretary-treasurer presented an upbeat, sharp, intelligent, and engaging persona.

Ms. Shuler asked each of the students what they felt were the most important issues facing young people coming into the workforce and what the AFL/CIO could do to attract young people to the labor movement.

The answers were all similar, essentially: What labor movement? What AFL/CIO?

Young people by and large are unaware of labor history and the AFL/CIO doesn't enter their thoughts at all.

On the plus side, there is a great interest in social justice on the part of America's youth that is encouraging. These Union Semester students are well aware of the issues facing workers in the global economy and many are engaged in the effort to improve the lives of working people.

The disconnect is that they are not sure if the AFL/CIO and its' member unions are part of the solution.

The clear message is that unions need to rebrand themselves and reach out at all levels of the educational system to educate and inspire the next generation of labor leaders. There should be an AFL/CIO booth at every job fair and career day in communities across America. School boards need to be lobbied to include labor history in their social studies curriculum. Colleges need more labor studies programs.

Ms. Shuler recently commented regarding how unions are perceived by America's youth; "They don't hate us, they don't like us, they just don't know us. They just speak a different language and I think the labor movement has been a bit behind in how they communicate with those young workers."

When Liz asked the students if "the term 'worker' may be something that younger people may not identify with as much," she was surprised that the vast majority of students at the CUNY reception believed that there is nothing wrong with being called a 'worker' and that there were not any negative connotations to the word.

One young student responded "Everyone who works is a 'worker' and anyone should be proud to be counted as one."

Ms Shuler has said "They need us," speaking of young workers. "They just don't know we're the answer to their problems."

We need to let America's young people know unions exist, what they do, and how they've made a difference before we can convince young workers that they need us.

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