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"AFL-CIO Working for America Institute: Linking Workforce and Economic Development to Benefit the Entire Community,"

by Tony Sarmiento July/August 2000 issue of Poverty & Race

At a recent AFL-CIO conference on workforce and economic development, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney described his view of a new role for unions in the economy: “Some may say that taking responsibility for how the economy works and getting involved in industry and business strategies go far beyond the traditional notion of what unions do. But in today’s world, it’s no longer possible to confine our role to that of collective bargaining or grievance handling. It’s simply not enough to react to downsizing and layoffs with objections and protests. If workers are to have a voice in the new economy, unions must help create good jobs and develop the skills needed for those jobs — as well as make sure those jobs pay well.”

This is the vision that guides the AFL-CIO Working for America Institute. Launched two years ago by Sweeney and the AFL-CIO Executive Council, the new Institute succeeds the Human Resources Development Institute, created by the AFL-CIO in 1968 with federal funding during President Johnson’s War on Poverty. Along with the new name, the Institute has an expanded mission, a new executive director and two new public members on its board of directors.

The Institute’s mission is to build good jobs and strong communities by increasing the capacity of unions to help retain and create jobs that provide family-sustaining pay and benefits, in addition to training and preparing workers for these jobs. At a time of historically low unemployment rates but greater income inequality and high numbers of working poor, the Institute works with unions seeking to develop integrated workforce and economic development strategies to support sustainable communities for all working families. The most comprehensive of these initiatives are “high-road partnerships,” involving unions, employers, elected officials, government agencies and community-based organizations — all based in a specific local labor market.

To lead the new Institute, Sweeney appointed Bruce G. Herman as its executive director. Herman had been head of the Garment Industry Development Corporation — GIDC (www., an exemplary 15-year old program that serves as one model of a high-road partnership with special focus on the needs of low-wage, immigrant workers and their employers in a specific industry.

GIDC was created in 1984 by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (now UNITE — the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees) and clothing manufacturers to stem the flight of jobs from New York City’s garment industry. Using negotiated contributions and funds available for worker training and economic development from federal, state and municipal agencies, GIDC has trained thousands of workers in new job skills needed by the garment industry, as well as English-as-Second-Language skills. But unlike most typical training programs, GIDC has also helped scores of small and medium-sized employers modernize their operations with new technology and work systems and develop new export markets for their products, generating more than $35 million in new overseas sales. It continues to add to its wide range of services to the fashion industry and its largely immigrant workforce.

High-road partnerships like GIDC are built on existing collective bargaining relationships between unions and employers. By bringing together multiple employers (who often are competitors) in a joint effort to solve common problems, the union can create a new dynamic for upgrading jobs and local companies in ways that benefit the community at-large. These partnerships often create new pathways for workers out of poverty, public assistance and unemployment. For example, in Milwaukee, the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership (launched by the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO and the Milwaukee County AFL-CIO) is meeting the area’s severe skilled-labor shortages in the manufacturing and metalworking industry by training workers from the inner city. To date, more than 400 central city residents have been placed in industrial jobs with a starting wage of more than $10 an hour, plus health, pension, tuition reimbursement and other benefits. In just two years, the workers placed in those jobs — nearly 90% of whom are people of color — have seen their average annual take-home pay grow from $8,500 to $22,500. Today, with $21 million in private investments, the partnership is providing training to 6,000 people a year and supporting a variety of school-to-work, welfare-to-work, workplace modernization and other programs.

Other high-road partnerships are helping to transform traditionally low-wage, low-skill jobs in the hotel and hospitality industry to become high-paying, upwardly mobile careers for thousands of immigrants and workers of color. In Las Vegas — one of the fastest growing cities in the nation — Local 226 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) teamed up with the city’s major hotels to create the Culinary Institute, which in its first seven years has trained more than 14,000 workers for well-paying careers in hotels and restaurants. And in San Francisco, a training and upgrading program launched by HERE Local 2 and the city’s first-class hotels is bringing new promotional opportunities to a multiethnic workforce while improving customer relations, efficiency, service and profits in the industry.

With U.S. Department of Labor and private foundation funding, the Working for America Institute is studying these innovative high-road partnerships to determine how such initiatives can be replicated in other communities and other industries. There is special interest in learning how these partnerships are creating new career pathways for the long-term unemployed and working poor.

An important part of building communities that sustain working families is strengthening the voice of worker and community representatives in the publicly-funded workforce and economic development systems. The new federal Workforce Investment Act (WIA), which completely replaced the Job Training Partnership Act on July 1, 2000, gives state and local workforce investment boards greater options and authority. Increasingly, decisions about workforce and economic development policies are state and local matters, with a reduced role for the federal government. Since by law employers must comprise a majority on these boards, WIA funds are likely to support progressive initiatives like high-road partnerships only if broad-based coalitions are formed involving organized labor and community organizations, together with supportive elected officials and enlightened employers. For this reason, the Institute is providing assistance to unions and others working to achieve progressive WIA policies and programs in their states and communities.

To highlight the importance of linking unions and communities, the Institute added two new members to its board of directors. Last year, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, and Dennis Archer, Mayor of Detroit, joined 21 union presidents and vice-presidents as the board’s first public members.

Tony Sarmiento is Director of Worker-Centered Learning of the Working for America Institute.

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