AFL-CIO headed for a breakup?

Paul Kersey

Labor law expert, occasional smart-aleck, defender of the free society.

Paul Kersey
/ Labor
September 5, 2013

AFL-CIO headed for a breakup?

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka presides over a union establishment that continues to lose members – more than 1.6 million between 2002 and 2012. The Obama administration’s more union-friendly posture hasn’t helped much – union members made up 12.4 percent of the workforce in 2008, but that declined to 11.2 percent in 2012. Making matters worse,...

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka presides over a union establishment that continues to lose members – more than 1.6 million between 2002 and 2012. The Obama administration’s more union-friendly posture hasn’t helped much – union members made up 12.4 percent of the workforce in 2008, but that declined to 11.2 percent in 2012.

Making matters worse, divisions are starting to appear among different factions in the labor establishment. The passage and implementation of ObamaCare has strained relations within unions, as several labor groups have spoken out about damaging features of the law. To top things off, the strategy that Trumka has settled on to reverse organized labor’s membership losses is already creating new rifts within the AFL-CIO.

With all that going on, there could be fireworks next week when the AFL-CIO holds its annual convention in Los Angeles.

Organized labor has long wanted a national health insurance plan. When the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act worked its way through Congress in 2010, unions were united behind it in spite of the bill’s troubling provisions and its overall mind-blowing complexity. Since then several union groups – including the Teamsters, the Food and Commercial Workers, and the Nevada State AFL-CIO Convention – have had very public and very harsh second thoughts about ObamaCare.

The Obama administration still could fiddle with its own rules and regulations, but any fixes it would make to the law would only be partial, and won’t be enough to reverse the steady loss of members. In terms of boosting union membership, Trumka has been grasping at straws. His latest gambit is to create partnerships with traditional liberal groups – as if big labor wasn’t far enough to the left before he took office. Trumka has been vague about what the progressive groups can contribute to the AFL-CIO’s future, but he is determined that they will have a formal role in the labor federation’s operations.

The problem is that unions exist to represent workers in the workplace – it’s what defines unionism. Allowing non-unions into a labor federation is bound to create confusion. And the progressive groups’ agendas aren’t always in synch with the unions’.

For instance, there’s the Sierra Club. According to the Washington Examiner’s Sean Higgins, the AFL-CIO’s outreach toward the powerful environmental group is causing friction between the AFL-CIO and its own Building and Construction Trades Department (BCTD), a collection of about a dozen unions including the Teamsters, Ironworkers, Painters, Laborers, Roofers, and Electrical Workers. BCTD President Sean MacGarvey himself is alarmed: “Giving people a seat where they have governance, and don’t represent workers, that was a bridge too far for lots of folks.”

Environmental issues already have caused strain among unions. The BCTD has endorsed the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline project that would bring crude oil from Canada to refineries in the U.S. It also would open up work for many union members in construction. The AFL-CIO itself has yet to commit on the project, which no doubt is a relief to many environmentalists but causes headaches among the unions in the BCTD.

Trumka’s plan will require a change to the AFL-CIO’s own structure, and these will have to be approved at the convention. The bigger the changes, the more divisive they will be. If progressive groups get any sort of veto power over positions taken by actual unions, it will be harder than ever to distinguish between the AFL-CIO and other generic left-of-center operation. At that point, a rupture would be almost guaranteed. In fact, any unionist with a shred of self-respect would have to leave.

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