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."