- - Friday, September 20, 2013

That was the scent of desperation wafting through the Los Angeles Convention Center last week, taunting the once strong and proud AFL-CIO. The unions’ annual meeting usually attracts the movement’s militant fringe, the better to present demands for bigger government handouts and to engage in free-market bashing. This time was different. The unions need allies so desperately that it wants to absorb liberal advocacy groups as “union affiliates,” to give standing to groups that have no actual union standing.

Labor chiefs have to do something. Their movement, once so powerful that presidential candidates opened their campaigns on Detroit’s Cadillac Square as a matter of course, is crumbling. In the past year, 400,000 workers voided their membership cards in the face of the enactment of right-to-work laws in Michigan and Indiana and collective-bargaining reform in Wisconsin. Given a choice, many workers have been freed to spend all the money they earn on their families. Declining numbers are choosing to spend it on union dues.

Richard L. Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, has a scheme to fix that. He wants to open membership to nearly everyone, environmental advocates, civil rights groups and pro-abortion organizations willing to pay for the privilege of displaying a union “membership” card, in the way that driving a Chevy Volt or Toyota Prius confirms a commitment to assisting the planet to survive. “The AFL-CIO hereby invites every worker in the United States to join the labor movement,” the union resolved. The invitation could eventually be expanded to include even the Saturday Evening Club, the Ladies’ Tuesday Night Literary Guild and the West Gondola Chowder and Marching Society. Opportunities abound.

It’s a sad comedown for the unions that improved the lives of the working man and gave us the five-day week. They have become little more than a fundraising and advocacy arm of the Democratic Party. Last year, the AFL-CIO made $8.1 million in independent expenditures on behalf of political candidates, only $1,389 of that supported Republicans.

The AFL-CIO’s “committee on shared prosperity” presented a resolution at last week’s convention demanding the federal government increase spending, boost entitlements and, of course, raise taxes on “the rich.” Adding liberal groups to the fold is a slap in the face of the blue-collar workers who often join a union because they have no choice. Of these, about 40 percent are Republican and conservative voters who get no voice in the union.

Imagine environmentalists determined to shut down the coal industry making common cause with the United Mine Workers. In the Trumka scheme, the liberals trying to block the Keystone XL pipeline have an equal voice with the construction unions that desperately want the thousands of jobs the program would create.

Internal tensions are rising. Forty-thousand members of the International Longshore Warehouse Union have announced they are severing their ties to the AFL-CIO over its support for Obamacare. Other unions, including the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers International demand repeal of the law. The AFL-CIO, trying to quiet the rumbling, last week called Obamacare “highly disruptive.”

Mr. Trumka has a tough decision to make. He can reach out and gain new friends from the leftmost fringe, but at the risk of alienating existing membership. If history is a guide, workers forced to subsidize the national AFL-CIO will get the dirty end of the stick.