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In Historic Move, AFL-CIO Expands Ranks with Vote to Include Non-Union, Immigrant, Low-Wage Workers

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In what could be a major development for worker rights, the AFL-CIO has announced a new plan to enlist tens of millions of non-union workers, including immigrants and low-wage workers who have traditionally not been part of its federation. The move comes as unions face a major decline in membership and have seen their collective bargaining rights slashed in former union strongholds like Wisconsin. Meanwhile, non-union workers at Wal-Mart, and fast-food chains like McDonald’s, have gained momentum in their efforts to push for better pay by holding one-day strikes. We’re joined by Cristina Tzintzun, executive director of the Workers Defense Project in Texas, who just attended the AFL-CIO quadrennial convention.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to what could be an historic development for worker rights. During its quadrennial convention this week in Los Angeles, the AFL-CIO announced a new plan to enlist tens of millions of non-union workers, including immigrants and low-wage workers who have traditionally not been part of its federation. The move comes as unions face a major decline in membership and have seen their collective bargaining rights slashed in states like Wisconsin that were once union strongholds. Meanwhile, non-union workers at Wal-Mart and fast-food chains like McDonald’s have gained momentum in their efforts to push for better pay by holding one-day strikes. This is AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka addressing the convention on Monday.

RICHARD TRUMKA: To turn America right-side up, we need a real working-class movement. And if that’s going to happen, we, our institutions, have to do some things differently. We must begin here and now today the great work of re-awakening a movement of working people, all working people, not just the people in this hall, not just the people that we represent today, but everybody who works in this country, everyone who believes that people who work deserve to make enough to live and enjoy the good things in life.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Cristina Tzintzun, who attended the AFL-CIO convention this week and helped organize its agenda. She’s executive director of the Workers Defense Project in Texas, which was profiled last month in The New York Times. Reporter Steve Greenhouse called it “a union in spirit” and wrote, quote, “The Workers Defense Project is one of 225 worker centers nationwide aiding many of the country’s 22 million immigrant workers. The centers have sprouted up largely because labor unions have not organized in many fields where immigrants have gravitated, like restaurants, landscaping and driving taxis. And there is another reason: many immigrants feel that unions are hostile to them,” he wrote. Cristina Tzintzun is now in Washington, D.C., where later today she’ll join others in a civil disobedience protest to call for comprehensive immigration reform.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about this latest move of the AFL-CIO and its significance, Cristina.

CRISTINA TZINTZUN: Sure. Thanks for having me. So this is a historic moment in the he AFL-CIO’s history. This is the first time at any one of their conventions that they invited outside groups and welcomed outside groups, opinions about how to shift and change the labor movement, about how to organize workers that traditionally have been excluded from organizing through a contract with a union, and also invited faith and community partners. So it was the most diverse and open discussion that the AFL-CIO has had. And also one of the most controversial points that was brought up were resolutions at the convention for a lot of labor unions, as well.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Cristina, you’ve worked especially with construction workers in Texas, and the building trades of all of the AFL-CIO unions have always been the ones most resistant to opening up their ranks to—and in bringing in non-union workers. Can you talk about what your experience has been like in Texas with non-union construction workers?

CRISTINA TZINTZUN: So, in Texas, we’re in one of the most hostile, anti-worker, anti-union states in the country, and so that’s forced us to be very creative. We also have the largest undocumented population in the construction industry. And though in other parts of the country construction tend to be good blue-collar jobs because they’re protected by unions, in Texas that hasn’t been the case. And with so many undocumented workers that unions haven’t been able to organize, and many of their structures don’t even allow them to organize, we’ve reached out to the building trades and had them work with us. And to be very honest, in the beginning, that wasn’t always the easiest relationship, but now we have one of the strongest coalitions working with union partners from construction unions than anywhere else in the state. And those unions are now standing up and calling for immigration reform and saying that working with worker centers and community partners is actually what’s helping them gain traction again. And so, that example is what, along with other worker centers like the domestic workers that just passed the Bill of Rights in—through the Senate, the Bill of Rights in California, is bringing new life into what is labor in this country. And so, there are people looking at community groups like ours and others to say, “How can we start to do—try these strategies in traditional labor unions or outside of labor unions to lift up standards for workers?”

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka addressing the convention on Monday.

RICHARD TRUMKA: If you work for a living in this country, our movement is your movement. Sisters and brothers, it’s time to tear down the barriers, to remove the boundaries between workers. It’s time to stop letting employers and politicians and all the others tell us who is a worker and who isn’t, who’s in our movement and who isn’t. Working people alone should decide who is in our labor movement, and that is exactly what we will do.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s, of course, Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO. Cristina Tzintzun, what exactly does it mean to have non-union members of the AFL-CIO? Practically, how does it play out in people’s work?

CRISTINA TZINTZUN: Well, it’s still yet to see how it’s going to play out in people’s work, but I think the shift is really important. Our economy has greatly changed since the AFL-CIO started organizing and winning contracts for—union contracts for workers. We now—one in three workers in this country are classified as contingent workers, or people that work temporary, part-time or on a contract basis. That makes it incredibly hard for the AFL-CIO to organize them under the current legal structure. So, this shift will help them look at new strategies to organize the workforce. But no one really knows how it’s going to play out quite yet with community groups like ours or faith partners.

So, what happened at the convention, it’s allowing a change of the rules of the AFL-CIO to start broadening its movement and start developing new strategies. So, all of that work will really happen after the convention, and it will depend union by union. Not every union is excited about this shift. Some have questions or concerns. Other unions are very much welcoming this change and already developing strategies about how they can start organizing non-union workers, as you’ve seen happening with the fast-food strikes in this country, which are gaining a lot of traction, primarily supported by SEIU, but also many community groups and faith partners across the country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But how would you favor it, in terms of how you envision it possibly moving forward? Because obviously there’s questions, as, one, would the federation be recruiting individual people or through the worker centers into specific unions or into a separate union? Would they have the same kind of voting powers as the existing unions? How would you—would want to see this develop?

CRISTINA TZINTZUN: So, right now it’s—the strategy would be to recruit individuals into the AFL-CIO through a partnership with an institution called Working America. It’s not clear how it will work with worker centers. And for some worker centers, we want to support and be part of a broader labor movement, but also want to maintain our autonomy to do and to continue to be creative at the local level and win gains for workers, maybe not through a union contract. In Texas, we’ve won significant gains in a really hard and hostile climate, whether it’s passing local ordinances that raise standards for workers, or at the state level, as well, and also taking on some of the largest developers in the country to pay construction workers a living wage and ensure certain safety standards. The AFL-CIO will start trying to organize individuals, and that is the first time that they have done that. So that is a huge shift in where they’re going to invest many of their resources, both financial and human resources, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip from one of the speakers who addressed the AFL convention Tuesday. This is a young woman who’s an immigrant, a DREAMer, Hareth Andrade-Ayala. She was going to read her poem “America” after President Obama’s scheduled speech before the AFL-CIO, but he stayed in Washington to handle the situation in Syria.

HARETH ANDRADE-AYALA: Actually, I was supposed to do my poem before President Obama spoke, with the hopes that I may ask him to stop my father’s deportation. But then I realized, after hearing the artists who inspired us with the cut-outs, saying actions speak louder than words, and looking at the tables, together we are stronger. So I said together we are stronger. So I’m going to ask if you want to tell President Obama to stop my dad’s deportation, please stand up.

AMY GOODMAN: Audience members at the AFL-CIO convention stood and supported DREAMer Hareth Andrade-Ayala. Cristina Tzintzun, your response?

CRISTINA TZINTZUN: The AFL-CIO made a major shift several years ago in support of immigration reform. You know, they used to be an organization that didn’t support undocumented immigrants, and that shift was historic and also allowed for them to give their political influence, financial resources and people power to win immigration reform. So, it’s been a huge support to the movement. And at this point, with so many undocumented workers—in our industry in Texas, it’s 50 percent of the workforce—immigrant and workers’ rights are intrinsically linked, and the AFL-CIO recognizes that and has become one of the largest and most important partners in our struggle to win immigration reform.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Cristina, you’re scheduled to participate in a protest in Washington around immigration reform. Your concerns, perhaps, about how all of this effort of the president now to raise possible military strikes against Syria will affect the possibility of getting immigration reform passed before the end of this year, given the fact that he’s going to have to extract enormous amount of political capital to even possibly get his way on Syria?

CRISTINA TZINTZUN: Well, I think one thing that that shows is that when President Obama wants to use his political influence to get something done, he can do it, and he should use that same amount of energy on immigration reform. You know, I’m from Texas, where we have some of the most anti-immigrant legislators in the country. And today, hundreds of women are coming together from across the country to lay their lives and risk deportation in an act of civil disobedience to win immigration reform. All we’re asking from our legislators is to show just a little bit of the same level of courage that these women are showing, many of whom are undocumented. So, we’re hopeful that we can win something. And if the House doesn’t want to pass a bill, then President Obama has in his ability to grant deferred action, as he did to childhood arrivals, to their parents. And he can also stop the deportations of 1,400 people that are deported in this country every single day under his administration. So, that’s the action we’ll be participating in today, in hope that this moment of courage by these women from across the country will help serve as an example to our legislators, who have been standing on the sidelines and not moving immigration reform forward.

AMY GOODMAN: I just want to read some of the findings of a report released by your organization, the Workers Defense Project, with the University of Texas, about the dangerous conditions faced by construction workers in Texas. You write that you have found, from 2003 to 2010, Texas construction jobs made up roughly 6 percent of all employment and accounted for 26 percent of workplace deaths. You also report one in five, or 20 percent, of Texas construction workers are injured badly enough on the job they require medical care, and in many cases hospitalizations. We’re going to end with this, Cristina.

CRISTINA TZINTZUN: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: No, no, if you could respond to that.

CRISTINA TZINTZUN: Oh, I’m sorry. Yes, Texas is the most deadly place for construction workers in the country. You know, Rick Perry says we’ve had an economic miracle in Texas, but the reality is, for workers, they haven’t benefited. At the peak of when we were having deaths, in the highest peak just a couple of years ago in the construction industry, a worker was dying every two-and-a-half days. You know, the construction industry in Texas is the largest employer of undocumented workers and also the largest donor to the Republican Party in Texas. So there’s a contradiction of them not supporting immigration reform but still wanting an exploitable workforce. So, these conditions are rampant in the construction industry, and it shows you where we’re going as a country if we follow Texas’s path of deregulation and not protecting the rights of workers.

AMY GOODMAN: Cristina Tzintzun, we want to thank you for being with us, executive director of the Workers Defense Project in Texas, just back from the AFL-CIO quadrennial convention in L.A., in Washington where she’s going to join others in civil disobedience today to call for comprehensive immigration reform. This is Democracy Now! ,, The War and Peace Report . When we come back, we’ll be joined by Sasha Abramsky on the American way of poverty. Stay with us.

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