Hoping to increase its political leverage, the AFL-CIO announced yesterday that it was creating a novel organization for nonunion workers who agree with the labor movement on many issues and want to campaign alongside labor on those issues.
Federation officials said they hoped the new organization, to be called Working America, would attract more than 1 million members to lobby Congress and to join demonstrations on issues from raising the minimum wage to stopping the privatization of Social Security.
Aimed at 'millions'
"There are millions of working people who would like to be part of the AFL-CIO's efforts for social justice and want a voice to speak out and work to change the direction of this country," said John J. Sweeney, the federation's president, at a news conference in Washington. "Working America will give them this chance."
Labor unions plan to send hundreds of people door to door in working-class neighborhoods to ask sympathetic nonunion workers to join and to contribute some money.
The AFL-CIO has begun pilot projects for the new group in Seattle and Cleveland. In Seattle, three people working for seven weeks signed up 1,200 nonunion workers to join Working America, with each canvasser enlisting almost 15 new members a day. About half of the new members made contributions, labor leaders said, with those who contributed giving an average of $16.
"Many of these people are living side by side with union members, and many of them have the same concerns about and will respond favorably on our issues," said John Ryan, executive secretary of the Cleveland Central Labor Council.
"We will engage them in making phone calls, writing letters, putting pressure on public officials to support a working families' agenda."
The goal, federation leaders said, is not to raise millions of dollars for the AFL-CIO's political fund, but to get more Americans campaigning with unions on labor issues.
To attract members, the canvassers in Cleveland and Seattle often discussed one of the main focuses for labor unions - the fight to overturn the Bush administration's proposals to strip many workers of overtime coverage.
40 million would join
Union leaders say the organizing drive has great potential because there are 16 million union members nationwide, representing 13 percent of the work force, while surveys have indicated that more than 40 million other Americans would like to join unions.
But labor leaders say it is often hard for these people to join a union because many employers aggressively fight organizing efforts.