The Unanswered Question About the Future of US Labor Unions – Part I

Labor Organizing Organizing

Pearl River Thanks to Working Class Perspectives for allowing me to write this Labor Day post on reflections on the future of labor unions and our movement:

The Unanswered Question about the Future of US Labor Unions

Within six months the two men who have led the AFL-CIO for more than twenty-five years, John J. Sweeney and Richard Trumka, have passed away.  In reflecting on Trumka’s sudden passing and the likely transition of leadership within the dominant US labor federation, Steven Greenhouse, the acknowledged dean of labor reporters on the beat for the New York Times, summarized his observations with this telling note:

According to a Gallup poll, nearly 50 percent of nonunion workers told M.I.T. researchers that they would join a union if given the opportunity. Mr. Trumka’s No. 1 goal — and challenge — was how to get these 60 million workers who want a union into a union, despite intense corporate opposition. The question now becomes whether his successor, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s acting president, Liz Shuler, will have more success in meeting that formidable goal.

The question, ending that piece, almost more eloquent than Trumka’s obituary, lands with a thud. A hammer blow to the head. In tallying the pluses and minuses of Brother Trumka’s career, Greenhouse had already recorded Trumka’s failure to meet this challenge in the negative column.  Sadly, we also know the likely answer to the question for whomever is next in line to lead the federation: a resounding no. The head of the federation, especially as currently constituted, will never have “success” in building mass organization to revive the labor movement.

First, none of them see this as their job.  Second, even if they did, and, arguably, for a while John Sweeney tried, the federation is not structured to allow direct organizing and certainly not mass recruitment at the scale now desperately needed.

The fact that the AFL-CIO is a federation, a voluntary association of autonomous labor organizations, is both its strength and its weakness.  As a voice for labor, putting all of the various pieces, large and small, rough and smooth, under one roof, allows the federation to speak, advocate, and lobby for both organized and unorganized workers.  But this structure doesn’t make it easy for a federation to act, especially where some level of consensus and veto power can disrupt even the most trivial decisions.  Organizing demands action and always, invariably, requires defense from the leaders at the top and movement, sacrifice, and courage from the rank and file below. 

As the interim head of the AFL-CIO, Liz Shuler faces a potential leadership contest, but her answer to the organizing question is already clear. She offers the standard rationale and talking points. The 10% spent on organizing isn’t trivial. It also doesn’t represent all of the other off-budget support that the federation provides through research, communication, legal support, and, undoubtedly, mainly, the bully pulpit. Furthermore, the AFL-CIO is on record supporting things like the SEIU’s Fight for Fifteen campaign, which cost tens of millions but did not gain a single member. Add to that the fact that her service in the labor movement comes from the IBEW construction side, largely as a seasoned lobbyist, first in Oregon and then DC. No matter how she might evolve, politics is more the cell count in her blood more than organizing.  At 51 years old in the tradition of the AFL-CIO, Shuler could direct the organization for another 25 years, if it survived in any recognizable form.

Next:  The Unanswered Question on the Future of US Labor Unions – Part II