National Labor Movement: New Opportunities and Strategies

Tefere Gebre, when ED OC Labor Federation (2010)

Tefere Gebre, when ED OC Labor Federation (2010)

Yesterday Huffington Post published an article profiling the newly elected AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre. Due to his organizing success in the heart of Republican dominated Orange County, Gebre became the first immigrant elected to the position of AFL-CIO Executive Vice President in September 2013.

Now I know that the mere mention of Tefere will send my colleague Dan into a frothy frenzy—demanding an apology for Gebre’s blunt reflection on primary election eve 2012 directed towards then Assemblyman Jose Solorio. While everyone else has moved on, Dan will never forgive Gebre for his “dead-to-me” quote. Gebre, to this day, stands by his remark that night. He, along with many in organized labor in Orange County, has become disillusioned with politicians who come begging for money and support—pledging to fight for the interests of working men and women—and then turning their backs on their supporters once elected to actively oppose their legislative proposals at every turn. Gebre in his criticism has claimed that Solorio would actively oppose labor-backed initiatives in committee, in some cases successfully killing the proposals as committee chairman, and then voting in favor if the legislation made it to the floor of the Assembly. Such tactics allow legislators to be recorded as supportive, thus preserving the appearance of a pro-labor voting record.  But as I said at the beginning of this paragraph, most people have moved on. Note to Dan: No apology from Tefere should be expected.

My reason for pointing out the article in Huffington Post is to highlight what Tefere Gebre’s rise to the second highest office in the AFL-CIO means to the future of organized labor on a national level.

From the article:

To many at the AFL-CIO, Gebre is more than just a rising star in the labor world. His arrival, they suggest, represents a generational and philosophical change at the federation — one that values new progressive partnerships and non-traditional organizing, and one that its leaders hope will rejuvenate a labor movement that’s been contracting for years.

“Do I understand the symbolism of my being here? Yes, I do. I have no problem with it,” said Gebre, who replaced Arlene Holt Baker, the first African-American to hold an executive post. “I’m here to help build a labor movement. Even more than that, I’m here to make sure that the America I dreamed about when I immigrated to this country is going to be around for generations to come.”

Gebre earned his new office in large part because of what he pulled off in Southern California after his stint in the bowels of the AFL-CIO building. As the director of the Orange County Labor Federation, Gebre helped turn the umbrella group of unions into a political force in what remains Republican territory. It was an unlikely place for the labor movement to build its strength. “If you looked at the voter registration figures, you would say, ‘How the hell is this happening?'” he said.

One liberal Orange County blogger credited Gebre with transforming the federation “from an afterthought between Los Angeles and San Diego to a model of organization and labor strength throughout the state.”

Tefere Gebre - Photo: Chris Prevatt

Tefere Gebre – Photo: Chris Prevatt

When it comes to standards for elected officials seeking support from the AFL-CIO, Gebre is bringing tools forged in Orange county to use on a national level.

Gebre argued that progressives need to hold Democrats who seek office in Washington to a higher standard. Back in Orange County, Gebre’s federation requires candidates who want its endorsement to undergo a five-hour course on labor from workers’ perspective. Any candidate who doesn’t complete it doesn’t get the federation’s blessing, Gebre said. (Sample lesson: Subcontracting work often leads to less pay and fewer benefits for workers.)

At any rate, the article paints a hopeful profile of new leadership and strategies that were developed locally in Orange County, that will drive the future of the labor movement nationally. Read the complete article here.

  7 comments for “National Labor Movement: New Opportunities and Strategies

  1. Dan Chmielewski
    November 12, 2013 at 10:38 am

    The only way someone could launch F-bombs in front of the press after drinking who knows how many bottles of Corona and calling winning candidates “corporate whores” and still keep their job would have to be union. Anyone in the private sector who did that would have been fired.

    I consider myself pro-labor. But if he stands by his behavior and justifies it as “truth to power,” allow me to do the same and call him a Union Thug who does a great disservice to working men and women in unions.

    I certainly wish him much success in the future; based on his track record in OC (especially in the last election cycle), he’ll need it.

  2. Will
    November 13, 2013 at 9:55 am

    I have what will probably be seen as a naive question – What is the goal or end game for Mr Gebre? In fact, what is the goal of organized labor? Is there such a need for it? Who are they organizing? Honest question.

    • November 13, 2013 at 11:27 am

      There is absolutely a role for organized labor; frankly, they are the only ones left to protect the middle class. To the extent Mr. Gebre represents the best person to do that is debatable. I still think he needs to apologize for his coarseness on primary night 2012.

      The candidate he backed in that particular election had a lot going for him but had made some very strategic errors — lawsuits to unpaid credit card debt which indicated poor choices on personal finances, and an emphasis on Santa Ana which had horrible voter turnout…as low as 9 percent in some precincts.

  3. Will
    November 13, 2013 at 10:55 am

    Interesting site BTW. I stumbled on it yesterday and look fwd to being a regular reader and sometimes poster.

  4. Will
    November 13, 2013 at 2:38 pm

    From what I’ve researched (briefly I admit) is that Gebre has worked to organize registration rallies targeting those with green cards to apply for citizenship and then register and organize them. Other groups targeted in OC are the Latino and Vietnamese. On a separate note, Gebre seems to want to force the immigration agenda because I believe it helps his organized labor agenda. He knows that if he can be seen as the one who got the immigrants in so to speak, that they will be forever loyal to him. I think this is less about the middle class and more about control of the lower class. That’s the cynic in me I know, but his target audience seems to fall into that category and not the one labeled middle class.

  5. junior
    November 13, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    I am not a dem – but Dan makes sense to me here. Some people don’t understand that for a Dem legislator to be in office in conservative OC they must take a fairly conservative stance on some issues. Jordan Brandman comes to mind here as well.

  6. Will
    November 18, 2013 at 8:52 am

    Agreed. Know your environment. I doubt that a dem in Nebraska would have much success having a far left and the same would apply to Orange County.

    Honestly, the title of this article “National Labor Movement:” Makes me uncomfortable. Why replace the the word Union with Labor? Isn’t that(Union) what we are talking about in reality?

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