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February 14, 2006
Another Split For Labor

The American labor movement suffered another blow today as more unions left the AFL-CIO, citing ineffective management, a lack of focus on organizing, and bloated budgets. Over a million members will leave the tottering alliance, leaving the union movement more politically fractured than ever:

The national labor movement suffered a new split yesterday when two major construction unions — the laborers and the operating engineers — announced that they were quitting the Building and Construction Trades Department of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.

The unions also said they would soon announce the creation of a rival building trades group, the National Construction Alliance, that would include the carpenters, the bricklayers, the iron workers and the Teamsters. The new group, officials from the two unions said, would have more than 1.5 million members and would be more vigorous than the Building and Construction Trades Department in unionizing construction workers.

"We cannot stand idly by, tied to a past that promises only further decline for construction workers," said Terence M. O'Sullivan, president of the Laborers International Union of North America, which has 700,000 members. He indicated that his union would soon quit the A.F.L.-C.I.O., following five other unions that have left the federation in the past year.

Mr. O'Sullivan and Vincent J. Giblin, president of the International Union of Operating Engineers, said the Building and Construction Trades Department had been ineffective in stopping a decline in construction union membership. The percentage of construction workers who are unionized has plunged to 13 percent today from 40 percent in 1973.

When the other unions left the alliance earlier, they had many of the same complaints. They also protested that the AFL-CIO had spent far too much of its energy and money in attempts to influence elections instead of organizing workers. The decline in union influence has continued for decades and still accelerates. The lack of penetration into today's labor market creates political conditions where union necessities like closed-shop laws can get overturned and states can pass right-to-work legislation that allows workers to withhold dues from unions regardless of their representation in the workplace.

Part of the issue for unions is that in many industries, they have become an anachronism. The dangers of the workplace now get addressed by government watchdogs like OSHA, and the salary supports come from miminum-wage legislation and local living-wage requirements. Only in areas with inherent dangers do unions make sense, as with coal miners, where the workers cannot wait around for an OSHA inspection to remediate safety issues. In most other areas, unions have lost their grip as government took over protection functions. As a result, unions represent the lowest level of workers in the workforce in decades and have seen their political impact drop dramatically.

The AFL-CIO approach to solving the problem focused on spending more and more money on political campaigning, hoping to elect politicians that would push through labor-friendly legislation. That approach has resulted in fewer wins and more marginalization, with the corresponding decline in membership. The breakaway unions aim to change that dynamic by focusing on increasing membership first, and therefore building more political impact. Neither strategy really deals with the lack of real benefit in organization for most industries and job classes, but the latter approach at least has more hope of success than the AFL-CIO strategy over the last two decades.

In the meantime, the labor split will do nothing to improve their political influence, and will likely damage Democrats' hopes to mount effective Congressional races in those districts that will be competitive this year. The labor vote will be neutered, rendering one of their key constituencies a non-factor in 2006 and perhaps 2008 as well.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at February 14, 2006 9:41 PM

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