By Amanda Becker
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The AFL-CIO for the first time on Sunday will open its quadrennial agenda-setting convention to non-labor voices, in a frank acknowledgment by the largest U.S. federation of unions that it needs new partners and new ideas.
Even with 57 member unions that represent more than 12 million workers, the AFL-CIO cannot achieve the "massive change" it seeks without solidifying ties to like-minded allies, its president, Richard Trumka, told Reuters.
"The labor movement really is at a crossroads, and we have some decisions to make," Trumka said in an interview before the gathering, where he is expected to be elected to a second four-year term.
At the convention in downtown Los Angeles, community organizations, non-union labor groups, religious leaders and other potential allies will try to help the AFL-CIO figure out its four-year blueprint for bolstering the status of workers.
Once a pervasive force in American life, labor unions' influence has waned. The proportion of the U.S. workforce with union representation was 11.3 percent in 2012, down from 20.1 percent in 1983, when Bureau of Labor Statistics data began.
Organized labor typically aligns with Democrats and socially liberal causes, while facing opposition from Republicans, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and free-market groups, which have won significant pro-business victories in Congress, state legislatures and the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years.
"During the last 20 years, corporate America went for the final victory and used every front they could to take away workers' rights," Trumka said. "So it's important for us to come together to ... function like the majority we are, rather than little silos that can be marginalized."
Coalition-building can be an effective strategy for labor, as shown by recent efforts involving the National Labor Relations Board and immigration reform, union leaders said in interviews.
A federal appeals court in January dealt a major blow to the NLRB - a federal agency that oversees union elections and polices unfair labor practices - in a Chamber of Commerce-backed lawsuit that alleged some board members were invalidly installed.
In response, the Communications Workers of America, an AFL-CIO member union, joined with environmental, social activist and government reform groups to form Fix the Senate Now. The group urged lawmakers to confirm a full slate of NLRB nominees. When the Senate did so in July, also confirming new Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, the unions claimed a victory.
Trumka's push to include new partners has drawn criticism from some AFL-CIO dues-paying members, who question why outsiders are being given a seat at the table.
But that kind of internal dissent can be overcome, Trumka said, pointing to the immigration reform package pending in Congress, which he said he was "confident" would become law.
Immigration reform - specifically, a path to citizenship - was not always an easy sell to labor unions, which feared more immigrants would depress wages and stiffen job competition.
Trumka, over the past year, has argued to member unions that immigration reform will empower workers, and has been labor's voice in meetings with the White House and in Congress.
UP FROM THE MINES
Trumka, 64, was born in Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, about an hour's drive from Pittsburgh. His father and grandfather were coal miners and union men. Their mining equipment sits next to Trumka's desk at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington.
Trumka worked in the mines himself, earned a bachelor's degree and then a law degree. He joined the United Mine Workers in 1974 as a staff attorney and became its youngest president in 1982. After serving as the AFL-CIO's second-in-command for 15 years, he was elected leader in September 2009.
That was just four years after seven AFL-CIO member unions, dissatisfied with federation organizing, broke off to form an alternative federation called Change to Win. The defections fractured the labor movement. Trumka is among a new guard of leaders trying to heal that rift, with some success.
The United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 1.2 million workers, said in August it was leaving Change to Win to rejoin the AFL-CIO. UNITE HERE and the Laborers' International Union of North America, LIUNA, reaffiliated in 2009 and 2010, respectively.
Trumka praised the UFCW's decision to "unite with the broader labor movement" to challenge the "new normal" facing low-wage workers.
Cornell University's Richard Hurd, a labor studies scholar and longtime AFL-CIO observer, said, "Trying to create interest in collective action, trying to address wage equality, trying to address abuses, that can help the labor movement."
He added: "Eventually, that needs to lead to revenue in some form. But for now, I think what's best for the labor movement is what they're trying to do."
(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Peter Cooney)