Two of the western world’s great organizations, the AFL-CIO and the Roman Catholic Church, decided last week to tackle two of the world’s great problems differently than they had for decades before. This might just be another proof that they’re getting weaker (they are). Or it might be a big, good shift.
The two groups are hardly alike. One is concerned with the material; the other occupied with things spiritual. But last week they were united, as the leaders of both appeared ready to break with tradition and leave behind a history of exclusion. These moves haven’t attracted much notice: but if the two leaders follow through, the consequences will be enormous.
Let’s address the AFL-CIO’s action first. At its convention in Los Angeles last week, the confederation’s President Richard Trumka noted that CEO pay had gone up 40 percent since 2009, and invited the delegates to imagine “what kind of country we would live in if ordinary people’s incomes went up by 40 percent. Almost no one would live in poverty!” True, but an expected line from a union boss. But then he moved on to say — extraordinarily, for a union representative — that “we cannot win economic justice…for union members alone. It would not be right and it’s not possible. All working people will rise together, or we will keep falling together.”
This appears to mean — as aides explained — that the AFL-CIO will extend some kind of membership to NGOs that organize low-paid workers and build coalitions with any group that advances workers’ pay and rights. For the first time, the organization seems set to see itself not as the protector of an ever-shrinking, relatively privileged group — but as the vanguard of a movement for greater equity.
Anyone who is or has been a union member will recognize how big a statement this is. Unions are mechanisms for raising their members’ living standards — and to do so, they must also be mechanisms for keeping non-members out. Members pay their dues to be special; to get the raises and better conditions that their leaders have negotiated, sometimes by going on strike. Now, the leadership seems to be saying, we’re not just a membership organization, we’re an organization for workers everywhere.