Is It the End of the AFL-CIO as We Know It?

The reports are increasingly alarming: there’s a major disagreement these days amongst the leading unions in the AFL-CIO, which could lead to a major schism as the labor federation turns 50 this year. Will major internal reforms and/or the election of a new AFL-CIO leader be enough to prevent a major breakup from happening? No one seems to be terribly clear on how it’s all going to work out, and whether the next few months will lead to the establishment of a new separate organization comprised of the leading dissidents. What is clear, however, is that unions are more needed than ever, so it’s extremely critical that whatever happens ultimately strengthens the labor movement, rather than marginalizes it into oblivion.

When things aren’t going well, all eyes are on those in power, and things are not going very well for the union movement right now. Fewer Americans than ever are union members: around 10% of the private sector at last count. The political clout once wielded by the AFL-CIO, a federation of 58 major labor unions, is waning: we all know who the major unions spent hundreds of millions to support in the last election, and how that turned out. And just last week, the labor federation announced that it would be laying off nearly 25% of its staff for financial reasons, 167 of over 400 employees. (See New Standard article.)

Things came to a head last week when a coalition of four dissident unions, the Teamsters, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Laborers’ International Union and UNITE HERE, issued their proposal for reform, Restoring the American Dream: Building A 21st Century Labor Movement that Can Win. (See Washington Post article.) Together with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the unions comprise 40% of the AFL-CIO membership. Here are some highlights of the joint proposal:

• Specific and significant investments of a billion dollars a year to help
millions of working people form unions and begin to restore the American
• Specific incentives and changes in structure and rules to unite the
strength of everyone who works in the same industry.
• A $25 million initial investment in making companies like Wal-Mart
respect our communities and provide health coverage and a paycheck
that will support a family.
• The dramatic changes it will take to increase the number of union
families and build broad community alliances so we can win access to affordable,
quality health care and retirement security for everyone in America.
• A real commitment to help millions of working women and people of color
win higher living standards, and to ensure that our movement at all levels
reflects the diversity and commitment to change of today’s workforce.
• A change in AFL-CIO leadership to a team committed to these

This proposal came in response to a more modest proposal set forth by the AFL-CIO in April called “Winning for Working Families.” This proposal focused primarily upon creating an organizing fund of $22.5 million dollars, without abandoning the expenditures for political organizing for which the labor movement is well known, but increasingly criticized, given the most recent round of ballot box failures.

Underlying these competing proposals is the future of John J. Sweeney‘s tenure as head of the AFL-CIO. Sweeney’s term as president ends in July, and he is poised for a bruising re-election battle. The reform-minded group unions had proposed that John W. Wilhelm, of UNITE HERE, succeed Sweeney; however, it appears that the dissident group does not have the backing of enough AFL-CIO member organizations to guarantee Wilhelm’s election over Sweeney. (See Business Week article.) Should Sweeney be re-elected in July, the five unions are considering whether to leave the AFL-CIO to create a new labor federation.

It’s not clear yet what will happen in July at the AFL-CIO’s Convention in Chicago. However, it’s already clear that the union movement needs many more working Americans to be part of it, regardless of what happens at the leadership level. If we are to preserve the middle-class way of life, so cherished in this country, especially for those without college educations, strong unions are an essential ingredient.

Whether or not union federations have access to the money necessary to organize and bring new people into the fold, there’s nothing to stop individual workers, on their own initiative, from affiliating with the appropriate union for their industry, and identifying workplaces ripe for unionization. It is also key for workers to support efforts such as the Employee Free Choice Act, which makes it easier for individuals to support unions without fear of losing their jobs.

It’s hard to choose sides with the ultimate outcome so uncertain. As Business Week comments, “A splintered labor movement would be a boon to Corporate America and the GOP,” so let’s hope that labor doesn’t hand this conflict to big business on a plate. We also hope that individual workers will see beyond the institutional conflict to recognize that being part of the labor movement, in whatever form that takes, is essential to having their interests protected in America today.

More Information:

Workplace Fairness: retaliation/union and other concerted activity (new site page!)
American Rights at Work: Employee Free Choice Act
AFL-CIO: Out Front (John Sweeney’s Column)
Unite to Win (Reform Union’s Website)

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.