AFL-CIO Update: Why Can’t Organized Labor Organize…?

By July 26, 2005Labor Unions

This has been the question on everyone’s lips these days, at least among the Fourth Estate covering the AFL Convention. Amy Joyce of the Washington Post – a pretty capable scribe in her own right – called tonight to ask. Here was some of our reaction:

First of all, it’s important to understand that unions have been losing ground on organizing for 30 years and have been finding an endless stream of villains to blame for it. First it was the “anti-union Reagan Administration” (for 8 years), followed by “the anti-union Bush (41) Administration” (for four years). After that, they pretty much got 8 years of a hand-picked Clinton Administration, yet their numbers continued to slide. That was about the time they began to blame the statue, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), under which they saw fabulous success in the 50’s and 60’s. Somewhere, somehow, it took a turn for the worse, became a bad statute. Not sure where, not sure when. They blamed the firing of the air traffic controllers, blamed companies who fight organizing drives – in short, blamed everybody but themselves. Frankly, sounds like a whole lotta excuses to us.

In our view, there are a few key reasons why they’ve not been able to organize:

  • Over the past many years, the AFL-CIO has ceased being a labor movement and has become a political movement. In short, they have taken their eye off the ball – that would be their members – and have shifted their focus entirely from building membership to influencing the political game through the expenditure of enormous sums of their members’ money. John L. Lewis didn’t have a PAC, did pretty well for himself.
  • As a result of this, workers just don’t want their hard-earned money put down the political rathole. This makes joining a union a tougher sell for folks trying to pay the rent and put bread on the table.
  • If you think we’re not right, look at what Andy Stern and Jim Hoffa have been saying: “We need to spend more money on organizing and less on politics.” The AFL is paying the price for years of neglect of their members and their interests. These years of neglect have finally come home to roost.
  • For those few unions that have been out there trying to organize, they have done so based on a flawed premise. To the AFL’s mind, this is a workplace that is hugely polarized with management pitted against labor every day. After all, this view worked well for them – and was probably truer – in the 30’s. Yet if there’s one trend that has swept the workplace over the past few decades – they even teach it at Harvard – it’s the move from polarization to teamwork. Traverse manufacturing plants around the country and you’ll see that there is little doubt in any plant about who the “enemy” or the “competition” is. It’s over there, not over here. When the AFL finds a polarized workplace, they often find success, but there are fewer and fewer of them out there. Walk into a team setting with a message of “us vs. them” and you’ll have the kind of record that the AFL-CIO has had.
  • It may be that the dissidents can figure this all out. Andy Stern has certainly had his share of success organizing the service, public and health care sectors. He has found a message that sells. At the end of the day, the reason the AFL-CIO can’t organize has been spelled out quite clearly by the dissidents. To their credit, they have blamed neither management not some imagined political foe. They have looked inward and found the real culprit and declared, “It is us.”