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As the policy director of the AFL-CIO, Damon Silvers works diligently to help stop the free fall of American labor unions. He has three college degrees, all from Harvard.

AFL-CIO director works to stop decline of unions

Damon Silvers still remembers the pickles. In 2011, at a roundtable discussion in Durham, N.C., the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness showcased biotech firms that weren’t planning to hire anybody, remnants of the textile industry, and an artisan pickle-maker. Silvers, the policy director of the AFL-CIO, concedes that the jobs council was celebrating some wonderful entrepreneurial people. But really, he says, it was evidence of a collapsing industrial economy and a president who seems to have given up on pushing a comprehensive progressive agenda.

“If we become a society of a handful of biotech engineers working for companies that are going to move jobs overseas and the rest of us are fighting for jobs stuffing pickles into jars, that’s not the kind of place you want to live,” he says.

Silvers doesn’t want any of us to live in that kind of place. But the labor movement is as weak as it has ever been, with the percentage of American workers who are union members at an all-time low of 11.3, mostly concentrated in the public sector. Instead of signing up for a long career as an auto worker or a coal miner, more people now work on contract for no benefits, rupturing the relationship between labor and management that unions had evolved to exploit. On top of that, long-term mass unemployment means that nobody’s willing to demand anything from an employer other than a steady paycheck.

Silvers, a 49-year-old lawyer with three Harvard degrees and Coke-bottle glasses, is the person who’s supposed to stop the unions’ free fall.

Here’s Silvers’ problem: Even if the American working class does recover some strength, he knows that his 70-year-old employer – which represents everyone from the United Auto Workers to National Nurses United – may not be the one to capture it.

“I believe that working people will not allow themselves to be treated as objects forever. The question is not whether that will change, because it will,” Silvers says, in between bites of a veggie burger he’d grabbed from the AFL-CIO’s small cafeteria. His disheveled seventh-floor office overlooking 16th Street just north of the White House looks more like a landing pad for memos and reports than an actual place to work; the walls are nearly empty but for an image of Sen. Elizabeth Warren taped up with the slogan “Yes She Can.”

“The question is, what is the relevance of these historical institutions that working people built in the past?”

Silvers grew up in poor, largely black neighborhoods of Hartford, Philadelphia and Richmond – which his parents had chosen in order to live in an integrated community. “The idea that society was economically unfair was literally everywhere,” Silvers says.

The real organizing didn’t start until he arrived at Harvard for college, where on Wednesdays he washed dishes in the dining hall for extra cash. It was awkward, working alongside people whose life prospects were very different from his own. But when the dining hall workers’ union started agitating for a better contract, Silvers, who couldn’t join the union as a student employee, wore a button in solidarity.

“It was like, all of a sudden, everything was different,” Silvers says. “And the manager had a fit, because the students were the potential strikebreakers. If the students were not going to play ball, it was not going to work.”

The cafeteria workers won that campaign, and Silvers found new ones to wage: He helped lead the effort to get Harvard to divest its gigantic endowment from South Africa in protest of its apartheid government. After graduating and getting his master’s degree in 1987, Silvers returned to take a job with the 3,400-strong Harvard Clerical and Technical Workers, helping win a hard-fought election. But the glow of triumph wouldn’t last long.

In the early 1990s, while fighting plant closings around the country, Silvers remembers trying to run an organizing drive at a medical device company in upstate New York in midwinter. He visited an employee who told him she had been a shop steward at General Electric years before.

“I said to her, ‘That’s great, your co-workers really need someone with your experience and your leadership qualities.’ And she said to me, ‘Don’t you understand? We lost. We lost. I’m not doing that again.’ ”

Silvers didn’t like losing. And at that point, he realized that the problems facing the labor movement needed some more specialized knowledge. So he went back to Harvard for a joint law and business degree. In 1997, AFL-CIO officials hired him, taking notice of his ability to communicate just as well with Wall Street titans as he could with factory workers.

That’s one of Silvers’s habits: Inserting the experience of working people into D.C. talkfests where policy can seem totally divorced from its real-world effects.

In his early years at the AFL-CIO, he helped fight to get laid-off Enron and WorldCom workers fair severance packages after the scandal-plagued companies collapsed.

Silvers also gained the respect of people on the other side of the financial spectrum.

“I think tonally, he has shaped people’s thinking,” says Rodgin Cohen, the super-lawyer senior chairman at Sullivan & Cromwell, who represented several financial institutions during the crisis. “You can disagree with him, but he engages in rational argument as opposed to demonizing.”

Behind it all, one basic conviction drives Silvers, and therefore the AFL-CIO: Unions don’t have a chance without a well-functioning market, in which capital is channeled toward parts of the economy that keep jobs in the United States.

That’s why the past four years of crises, standoffs and half-measures have been so distressing to Silvers.

Give the labor movement credit for one thing: It recognizes it’s in deep trouble.

First of all, America’s future business leaders never plan to deal with unions.

The disregard was painfully evident at a recent conference in Washington put on by the Commerce Department to lure foreign companies to invest in the United States.

Organized labor wasn’t represented, despite its strong interest in the issue, and Silvers was exasperated.

The AFL-CIO and its members are often still seen as special interests bound to an economy that doesn’t exist anymore and pushing for environmentally destructive but job-creating projects.

“We as a labor movement need to be welcoming of working people, no matter in what form they show up,” Silvers says.

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