- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 22, 2005

As AFL-CIO President John Sweeney prepares his labor federation for its national convention in Chicago next month, he and his fellow delegates will no doubt be recalling two important anniversaries.

Fifty years ago, with organized labor representing 35 percent of the U.S. labor force, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) consummated a merger that joined two extremely powerful labor factions. The other anniversary offers less celebratory memories. Seventy years ago, at the 1935 AFL convention, John L. Lewis split the labor federation when he and his United Mine Workers left the AFL to form the CIO. Unlike the AFL, which mostly organized skilled workers according to their crafts, the CIO concentrated its organizing efforts on entire industries, such as autos and steel. At next month’s convention, Big Labor will fondly recall its heyday in 1955, but the Chicago confab will more likely resemble the explosion of 1935.

Following decades of unrelenting contraction, the proportion of workers represented by unions has collapsed. Today, the labor movement represents only 12.5 percent of the national work force, a third of its peak proportion in the mid-1950s. On the plus side, labor has succeeded in organizing public-sector workers, nearly 40 percent of whom are union members today. But that success masks labor’s utter deterioration in the private sector, where fewer than 8 percent of workers carry union cards today — about one-fifth of the percentage of private-sector workers organized 50 years ago.

Largely in response to labor’s inability to organize new industries and recruit new members, John Sweeney of the Service Employees International Union led a dissident labor faction 10 years ago to oust the AFL-CIO’s old guard. Mr. Sweeney pledged to increase by 800 percent the money spent to organize and train new members. However, union membership plunged, falling nearly 3.5 percentage points in the national work force and more than 3 points in the private sector.

Whereas 1955 was noteworthy for the fact that 35 percent of the labor force was unionized, today the AFL-CIO faces a rebellion by 35 percent of its 13 million members. This revolt is being led by Andrew Stern, Mr. Sweeney’s successor as president of SEIU, whose 1.8 million members comprise the largest AFL-CIO affiliate. Calling to mind Lewis and the mine workers of 70 years ago, Mr. Stern is threatening to pull his union out of the AFL-CIO unless the federation agrees to allocate at least $60 million a year to organizing activities, mostly by rebating AFL-CIO dues payments to unions actively involved in organizing. Mr. Sweeney has proposed $22.5 million, a compromise the dissidents have rejected. The Teamsters, the food and commercial workers and the hotel and textile workers are also threatening to bolt, and the laborers are backing Mr. Stern’s demands.

While Mr. Stern and his allies do not have the votes to defeat Mr. Sweeney in the federations’s presidential election, they certainly have the power to split the federation. The 2005 convention is shaping up to be a repeat of 1935, and the next two decades almost certainly will not be nearly as kind to the labor movement as the 20 years that followed Lewis’ creation of the CIO.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide