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March 7, 2005
Unions Choose Politics Over Membership

The AFL-CIO has decided to double its budget for electoral politics instead of investing $35 million into organizing efforts, despite a precipitous drop in membership rolls that goes back decades, the Washington Post reports this morning. The decision comes after a bitter debate between two factions of leadership which threatens the unity of the fifty-year-old organization:

AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney last week won the latest round in a bitter internal clash over the future of the labor movement by insisting that more money go for future campaigns to unseat Republicans than for trying to shore up the federation's sagging membership.

That showdown pitted Sweeney, AFSCME's Gerald McEntee and the Steelworkers' Leo Gerard against such powerhouse dissidents as the Teamsters' James P. Hoffa, the Service Employees' Andrew L. Stern and the Laborers' Terence M. O'Sullivan. ...

By a 2 to 1 margin, the AFL-CIO's executive committee last week rejected the dissidents' proposal to boost spending on union organizing and membership drives by roughly $35 million. Instead, it adopted the Sweeney plan to nearly double spending on political and legislative mobilization, raising the AFL-CIO's annual commitment to these activities to $45 million.

The fifty-year history of the united AFL-CIO corresponds with a fifty-year decline in union membership, a decline that has seen the percentage of organized private-sector jobs drop from 36% to 8%. The unions blame this on Republican control of Congress and the White House, but in truth it has been apparent since the early 1970s. Republicans have controlled the White House slightly more often than the Democrats in the past 50 years, but Republican control of Congress has only been a recent phenomenon. Most of the ground lost by the unions came when Democrats controlled Congress.

Why is that important? Sweeney and his allies believe that only through political action can the stage be set for membership growth. However, it is the very nature of their political spending -- relentlessly Democrat and relentlessly partisan -- that disenchants so much of their membership. With dues going towards causes that members do not support and resources that should be used to improve their work environment going into the pockets of politicians, members see little need for closed shops and union fees. Those conditions lead to right-to-work legislation that outlaws or restricts the closed-shop rules that force union membership (and the requirement to pay dues) onto unwilling workers.

In short, the unions soil their own bed by involving themselves ever deeper into Democratic politics. Most of the workplace protections for which unions fought fifty years ago -- minimum wages, safe workplaces, antidiscriminatory hiring and termination practices, and the like -- have become law or have such lengthy civil precedents that all employers have become bound by them. Corporations offer better pensions and savings accounts without charging dues, and thanks to a number of corrupt union officials, usually have safer pension funds to boot. Why should private-sector employees choose to organize in such an environment, self-selecting a separate tax that doesn't benefit themselves but the politicians Sweeney likes best?

Both factions in this dispute seek political power over the needs of their membership, as Thomas Edsall makes clear. The dissidents wanted to increase membership as a means of gaining electoral power, not as a means to better representation for the working men and women of America. That should be the first clue as to why the AFL-CIO appeals to fewer and fewer workers each year.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 7, 2005 6:07 AM

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