Sign at the AFL-CIO building in Washington, D.C.
Sign at the AFL-CIO building in Washington, D.C. - 
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KAI RYSSDAL: Union leaders from around the world have gathered for a two-day meeting of the AFL-CIO. The title of the conference is "Going Global: Organizing, Recognition and Union Rights." Which is kind of a mouthful for what they're really going to be talking about: The freedom -- or lack thereof -- to form unions in certain parts of the globe. The labor chiefs will also urging be the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. They argue that it will level the playing field for workers and employers and help rebuild America's middle class. These are a tough time for unions. As Jeremy Hobson reports from Washington.

Jeremy Hobson: In the 1950's, about 35 percent of American workers were unionized. Today, 12 percent.

Stewart Acuff: It's shocking.

That's Stewart Acuff, the AFL-CIO's national organizing director. He says among developed nations, the U.S. is not providing nearly the protections for unions that other countries do.

Acuff: Our policies have not kept up with the change in the global economy.

John Beck heads the Labor Education Program at Michigan State University. He says in order for unions to regain traction, legal protections have to catch up with the times. For instance, benefits should be transferable from one company to another.

John Beck: Those kinds of legal realities are going to have to shift as work becomes far more mobile, as people try to come to grips with not only what the demands of the workplace are, but what the demands of a new workforce are.

Tomorrow, Congress will hear from union leaders directly on strengthening workers' rights.

In Washington, I'm Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.

Follow Jeremy Hobson at @jeremyhobson