The union’s new face

New Metro Detroit AFL-CIO head wants to join broader struggles for social justice

The new president of the Metropolitan Detroit AFL-CIO, Christos "Chris" Michalakis, stopped by the office of this rag to introduce himself last week.

That in itself is a first as we can recall. In our experience, organized labor in these parts has often viewed the media as part of the enemy camp. So Michalakis, who is just 32, gets points for demonstrating an understanding that good PR is an important thing.

Even more important, though, was the message Michalakis had to deliver, which is this: Instead of being focused primarily on parochial concerns, organized labor is embracing the fact that it needs to do more than just look out for the interests of its members if it is going to have a future.

A University of Michigan grad, Michalakis told us that, in addition to presenting a more youthful face, his election adds impetus to the growing recognition that organized labor needs to ally itself with broader social movements. 

From the assault on collective bargaining in such states as Wisconsin and Ohio, to the attempts to impose emergency managers on struggling cities throughout Michigan, there is a common theme: Attacks on organized labor and attempts to undermine democracy often go hand-in-hand, and any successful attempt to fend off those efforts will require labor to build alliances with those outside of the union movement.

We've already have seen the UAW make big strides in that direction under the leadership of Bob King. And we can expect to see more of that from other unions as well, said Michalakis. 

Michigan unions are currently gathering petition signatures for a measure that seeks to place before voters a proposed amendment to the state constitution that guarantees the right of workers to collectively bargain. It's just one front in a larger battle. 

Having spent a few nights last year camping out with members of the Occupy movement in Detroit's Grand Circus Park, the language of the Occupy movement comes easily to Michalakis.

Labor needs to engage in coalition-building, and to do that unions have to throw their weight behind broader social causes if they expect the public at large to support organized labor. As the corporate right continues its efforts to demonize labor, unions need to help keep the public's attention focused on the real enemy.

"The wealthiest 1 percent are robbing the rest of us blind," he said. 

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