Damon Silvers still remembers the pickles. In 2011, at a round-table 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.
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Silvers, a 49-year-old lawyer with Coke-bottle glasses, is the person who’s supposed to stop the unions’ free fall.
Here’s his 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.
“The question is, what is the relevance of these historical institutions that working people built in the past?”
Silvers lives in the crunchy, left-wing D.C. suburb of Takoma Park, Md., has three Harvard degrees and is the son of a chemistry professor and an English teacher. He has always worked for unions, rather than within them.
Yet he grew up in poor, largely African-American neighborhoods of Hartford, Conn., Philadelphia and Richmond, Va., — 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, 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.’ ”
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.
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. Later, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. — who had worked with him on bankruptcy issues back in the 1990s, calling him “very smart and very effective” — credited him with birthing her brainchild, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
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 superlawyer senior chairman at Sullivan & Cromwell, who represented several financial institutions during the economic crisis. “You can disagree with him, but he engages in rational argument as opposed to demonizing.”
Silvers is certainly difficult to demonize — colleagues call him an absent-minded professor, forgetting his wallet if he goes out, getting engrossed in side conversations that make him late to his next appointment as staff members exasperatedly try to keep him on schedule.
But within the building, he’s also looked to as the one who really understands the forces they’re dealing with.
Give the labor movement credit for one thing: It recognizes it’s in deep trouble.
Even if workers — say, for example, people in Amazon warehouses, fast-food restaurants, factories owned by foreign-auto companies — do want more from employers, unions aren’t necessarily the first place they’d turn to get it.
The AFL-CIO and its members are often still seen as special interests bound to an economy that doesn’t exist anymore, holding on to expensive pension programs that bankrupt cities, pushing for environmentally destructive but job-creating projects.
The federation took one big step toward attempting to change that perception with a convention last month that prominently featured representatives of feminist and environmental groups, and welcomed unconventional not-quite-unions like the OUR Walmart campaign.
“We as a labor movement need to be welcoming of working people, no matter in what form they show up,” Silvers says.