Representing the diversity found in the labor movement and the country as a whole, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre and Texas AFL-CIO President Becky Moeller told the Maritime Trades Department’s recent gathering in Houston the labor movement must cast a wider net in order to survive. They addressed the MTD executive board Feb. 14.
The labor movement, they said, must take the fight for workers’ rights and collective bargaining to places where labor hasn’t been traditionally welcomed. But, as both of their histories and bodies of work have shown, those fights can be won and unions can continue to expand their membership rolls.
Gebre – who was elected as the first foreign-born person to one of the top three leadership positions in the AFL-CIO – said he spent much of his career fighting for labor in places once thought to be anti-union. He pointed to his time heading the labor council in Orange County, California, a deeply conservative area of the country previously known for virulent anti-worker policies.
“People thought we were crazy trying to do stuff in Orange County. What I saw was, when we work together, miracles can happen,” Gebre said. “We have now doubled our union membership in that one county. We have deeply built relationships in that community.”
That success, he added, should be an inspiration and a blueprint for those fighting for workers’ rights throughout the country.
“We need to do this everywhere,” Gebre said. “If we can do that in Orange County, then there’s no reason why we cannot win in Texas, why we cannot win in Florida, in Mississippi.”
Moeller, who is the first women to lead the AFL-CIO in Texas, said a similar zeal has led to huge gains in her state – a place long known for its so-called right-to-work laws and general hostility to the labor movement. The very location of the MTD’s meeting, Moeller said, was evidence of the serious gains being made in the state.
“You’re in a union hotel and it’s the largest union hotel we have in Texas,” she said, referring to Houston’s Hilton-Americas, the site of the meeting. “The local labor movement made that happen.”
She added Texas increased the numbers of union workers in the state in 2012 and said she expects the 2013 numbers will show similar gains once they are released.
“It’s not by accident,” Moeller said. “It’s by working with our affiliates and hard work.”
Further evidence of labor’s growing strength in Texas could be found in its work with the state legislature. Moeller said the Texas AFL-CIO has worked to kill several bills that sought to attack the labor movement, including one that threatened the Jones Act.
“We all have to work together to kill the bad stuff,” Moeller said, adding that the movement is also active in fighting for pro-labor legislation, as well. “We’re hopeful we can make some changes in Texas.”
Both speakers said the hard work will have to continue if the movement is to survive and expand in the future. Without a collective effort in every state and local community, they said, that simply couldn’t happen.
“Even the unions that are flourishing today, you won’t be flourishing in two or three years if we don’t grow the footprint of labor in Texas and every other state in this country,” Moeller said. “We want to work with you.”
Gebre put it another way: It’s time, he said, for the movement to start putting its ideas to action.
“We need to take those things out of the paper they are written on and take them out into the streets to fight for them. That is what America needs right now,” Gebre said. “I’m frightened the American Dream is vanishing for millions of Americans.”
Few people, in fact, have had a life story as emblematic of the American Dream as Gebre. Born in Ethiopia, he grew up surrounded by the ravages of war. In his speech, he described seeing classmates taken from their seats and executed during the school day.
“That’s what drove me and a couple of my friends to skip out of our country to this promised land, this place called America,” Gebre said. “When I was a little kid we had this dream of this placed called America. There’s this place on the planet where when you get up in the morning and go to work your work is honored and you are respected at your job.”
Once in America, Gebre found a job with UPS and was able to become a union member for the first time. From there he worked his way up through the ranks, first running the Orange County labor council, then being elected the AFL-CIO’s executive vice president
“This country has been so good to me,” Gebre said. “It gave me the opportunity to go to college, gave me the opportunity to join a union.”
Those opportunities, he added, must be secured for generations to come. In order to do that, the movement will have to work hard state-by-state, community-by-community, and block-by-block.
“If we don’t have the mechanism filtering down to where our members live, where our communities live, all of those things on paper don’t mean anything,” Gebre said. “That’s why I'm so thrilled to work with you.”