posted September 7, 2005
The AFL-CIO Split and What Next for American Labor

copyright 2005 by Jack Rasmus

Two events of particular import occurred the last week of July: The AFL-CIO split and CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, was passed by Congress. The consequences of the former are yet to be determined. The impact of the latter are much less uncertain.

The coalition of departing unions, known as the ‘Change To Win’ (CTW) group, consist of seven major unions, representing seven million union workers, 40% of the AFL-CIO’s membership base and more than a fifth of the federation’s budget. They include the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), United Farmworkers of America, UNITE HERE, the union of hotel, hospitality and clothing workers, and the two construction unions, the Laborers International Union and Carpenters Union.

Contrary to what has been widely reported in the press, the historic split of the AFL-CIO is not due to personality disputes among the top union leadership. Together the CTW unions have publicly declared the AFL-CIO has not been able to stem the tide of union membership decline and have demanded a major reorientation of AFL-CIO resources toward organizing. But even this re-emphasis on organizing is only the surface rationale for the split, the telltale appearance of a much deeper, more fundamental set of differences within the House of Labor.

Underlying Conditions Behind the Split

At one level the split and the crisis of the AFL-CIO is clearly about the precipitous decline of union membership. Union membership has fallen steadily since its peak in the mid-1950s at around 35% of the workforce. The decline began to occur more rapidly in the early 1980s during the Reagan period as the corporate assault on workers and unions intensified. It has been accelerating even more rapidly since George W. Bush took office in 2001. Today only 12.5% of the total U.S. workforce, including all public employees, is unionized. Only 7.8% of the private sector has unions. It hasn’t been that low since 1931, well into the depths of the Great Depression.

The decline in union membership is due to various causes. But at the center lies the Free Trade policies implemented over the past twenty-five years and the failure of the AFL-CIO to develop any effective strategy to check the corporate ‘free trade offensive’.

Twelve million quality jobs have been lost in the U.S. between 1980-2005. Eight million of those jobs have been lost due to corporate free trade policies alone, and the massive exportation of the U.S. manufacturing base and jobs offshore which has been the direct result of those policies. Over a million jobs lost due to NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, originated under George Bush senior in 1988 and passed under Clinton in 1993. Another two million jobs lost to China trade—originated under Clinton and implemented under George W. Bush—in just the last decade and rising rapidly. Meanwhile, the recently passed CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement and successor to NAFTA, is poised to set off yet a third wave of high paid, mostly union job losses, adding further to the totals. Of the 12 million quality jobs lost since 1980, more than 7 million have been union jobs. And more than 4 million of that 7 million have been lost due to free trade and the exportation of jobs.

Into the vacuum created by such massive job and union membership loss have flowed corporate plant closures and relocations, runaway shops, the breakup of industry-wide bargaining, the decline of union bargaining ‘density’, and the institutionalization of concession bargaining. As a direct consequence in turn, in the wake of concession bargaining have come the narrowing of union-nonunion wage differentials, stagnation and decline of real wages for 80 million workers, 45 million workers without health insurance, employers en masse shifting health care costs to their employees, the unprecedented dismantling of 97,000 private pension plans, a plummeting real minimum wage, new restrictions cutting overtime pay, and dramatic reductions in paid vacation and sick leave for both union and non-union workers alike.

Below the radar of all this has been the corresponding radical restructuring of jobs and job markets by corporations in the U.S., such that today there are no less than 60 million workers in America who are either unemployed or who lack full time, regular, permanent employment. That’s about 40% of the total employed workforce.

In wage terms, de-unionization since 1980 has meant a massive transfer of income from the 100 million or so working class Americans and their families to the corporations and the wealthy who live primarily off the proceeds of those corporations (ie. stock sales, dividends, interest and rent, forms of executive compensation, etc.). For example, assuming the unionization rate today in 2005 were the 22% in 1980, an historical union-nonunion wage differential of about 27%, and an average hourly wage of $15.89 at the end of 2004 (in 2003 adjusted dollars), such conservative assumptions yield a total savings to corporations due to de-unionization alone of $99.3 billion. And that’s just for one year, 2004.

In addition, the $99.3 billion doesn’t account for additional corporate savings due to reductions in health benefits, pensions, paid leave, and other costs also due to de-unionization that easily add another 25%-40% to the total. Nor does it account for similar corporate savings over the preceding 24 years since 1980. The cumulative net result for corporate America since 1980 runs easily in the $ trillions.

And that still doesn’t account for income transfer after wage payments, due to the effects of the massive shift in relative tax burdens favoring corporations and the wealthiest 1% households at the expense of a rising federal total tax burden for workers. For example, since 1980 the federal tax rate (income and payroll tax) for a median income family ( a worker earning in the $40,000 a year range) has risen from 23% to 31%, while the federal tax burden for the wealthiest 1% of households has fallen from 31% to 20%.

Were the union movement today able to maintain a 22% membership level that it had in 1980 when the current corporate offensive began, it would have approximately 27 million members instead of only 14 million today. That’s 13 million more members than it has at present. That’s how many members the union movement now needs to organize anew in order to get back just to where it was 25 years ago.

The ‘Density’ Debate

But if the trade union movement today needs to organize more than a million new members a year for at least a decade in order to restore lost ‘union density’, that still leaves the related task of how to restore ‘bargaining density’ and ‘political density’.

‘Union density’ is a measure of the percent of total workers organized. At one level the debate between the CTW and AFL-CIO unions is about how to increase the ‘union density’ rate from its current historic lows of 12.5% and 7.8%. But numbers of union members are only part of the story. The equally important issue is how those numbers of union members are distributed across industries and how much bargaining power they can wield. ‘Bargaining density’ is thus about the concentration of membership in an industry. It is about whether workers are scattered across countless unions and contracts, or concentrated in fewer unions and within larger regional or national contracts. The related concept of ‘political density’ is similarly important. It’s not just a question of how many potential union voters there are, but where they are distributed geographically.

The split in the AFL-CIO is thus not just about organizing new members and how much money and resources to commit to that task, as it has at times been reported in the press. It is about how to concentrate unions and union bargaining power once again. The split is also about what is the best path for restoring political density. Does it makes sense to continue to throw hundreds of millions of union members’ dollars at politicians in elections as union membership freefalls? Or is it better to rebuild the union membership base before doing so.

But whether union, bargaining or political ‘density’, the density debate is largely a surrogate for the even more fundamental set of differences at the heart of the split. Those are differences over the way in which the AFL-CIO is currently structured and organized. The CTW camp maintains the current structure is a major obstacle to implementing changes that are necessary to restore union and bargaining ‘density’, which in turn are the prerequisite for later restoring political density. The remaining AFL-CIO unions reject that position, argue the AFL-CIO is basically sound, requiring only minor reforms, and that the way to grow union membership is to reform labor laws that prevent union organizing. Thus, politics is the way to grow membership, which in essence means electing Democratic candidates to office. What comes first: the commitment of resources and action at the point of production (e.g. organizing, bargaining, strikes, etc.) or political action (electing Democrats to reform Labor Law)?

At no time in the past nine months of debate between the two camps, however, has it become clear what structural or organizational changes are necessary for the AFL-CIO. There have been some proposals from some of the unions in the CTW camp, most notably from SEIU, about requiring the merging smaller unions into larger ones. And some discussion about reducing the size of the executive council of the AFL-CIO, where a host of small, weak unions have virtual collective veto power. But the CTW camp has yet to fully clarify a comprehensive set of organizational reforms. Meanwhile, the unions left remaining in the AFL-CIO fall back on their perennial proposal to commit more resources to politics to elect Democrats who will save labor by enacting Labor Law reform—a proposal that has been unable even to get to the floor of Congress for a vote in more than 25 years and shows less likelihood of doing so with each year.

Standing History On Its Head

The unions most heavily devastated by the corporate offensive—both in terms of membership and concession bargaining—have been the manufacturing unions: the steelworkers, autoworkers, paper, rubber, oil, and other such unions. Yet these unions have not led the exodus from the AFL-CIO. They have remained loyal to the status quo policies and strategies of the AFL-CIO, to the old AFL-CIO (read: AFL) structure, and to the leadership team of John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, elected in 1995 and re-elected once again at the recent AFL-CIO convention this past July. It is appropriate to ask: why so? These unions have clearly been the most devastated, both in terms of membership loss and bargaining concessions. Yet they apparently remain the most committed to maintaining the approaches and strategies that have reigned during this remarkable period of union membership and bargaining decline since 1980.

One might conclude that the unions suffering the greatest loss in membership would have been the most disgruntled and led the way out of the AFL-CIO—in a repeat of what in fact occurred during the mid-1930s when the industrial unions were those that broke from the old AFL, complaining about an AFL organizational structure that inhibited organizing the unorganized in the new mass production industries. But no so this time.

John L. Lewis, the head of the United Mineworkers Union and leader of the emerging industrial union movement in 1935, led the charge out the AFL door at that earlier convention, decking the head of the Carpenters union with one punch as he left—in a single, unforgettable historic gesture. Then it was about organizing millions of industrial workers; today it is about losing millions of the same. Today John L. would be turning in his grave, were it not for the fact he were being stood on his head.

Instead, it has been largely those unions in the services and related industries who have driven the ‘Change to Win’ (CTW) coalition and have led the way out of the AFL-CIO.

Many of the CTW unions are the same unions that a decade ago started a ‘mini-revolution’ in the AFL-CIO and began to orient toward immigrant, even undocumented workers, and forge a new kind of approach to organizing. Not waiting for Labor Law Reform from politicians in Congress, promised by politicians back in the 1970s and still not forthcoming, unions like SEIU, UNITE-HERE, Laborers and others broke new ground in new approaches to community alliances and organizing immigrant workers. SEIU’s janitors organizing campaign, UNITE-HERE’s Las Vegas campaign and other clothing workers’ sweatshop organizing drives, and the Laborers International Union’s reorientation to latino workers—all have resulted in organizing victories. As a consequence these unions have grown in membership while traditional AFL-CIO unions have declined in membership.

Without explaining this apparent anomaly—of the unions most devastated in terms of membership and concession bargaining remaining and unwilling to change old organizational forms and strategies while the unions growing in membership and developing new growth strategies are those leaving—it is impossible to understand the current split in the AFL-CIO.

The Organizational Failures of the AFL-CIO

With the precipitous fall in union membership since the early 1980s, many unions suffering large membership losses in their historical jurisdictions (i.e. autoworkers in auto, steelworkers in steel, etc.) have tried to recoup membership (and dues) losses by organizing outside their traditional jurisdiction. Articles 20 and 21 of the AFL-CIO constitution theoretically prevent one union from raiding the members of another under contract with a company. But the AFLCIO constitution provides no obstacle to another union launching organizing drives where workers are not under a collective bargaining agreement, regardless of the issue of jurisdiction. Thus the Steelworkers have gone out and organized bus drivers and hospital workers. Similarly, the Autoworkers have organized freelance writers. The Communications Workers have organized city employees. Mineworkers have organized nursing home workers. Even the AFT, the teachers union, has gone after hospital workers. And so on. This has often resulted in a patchwork of ‘balkanized’ bargaining agreements in a particular industry. Adding to the ‘balkanization’ have been corporate strategies since 1980 resulting in the break up of once industry-wide and region-wide union bargaining agreements.

Unions like SEIU, UNITE-HERE and others in the CTW coalition complain of the inability of the AFLCIO to regulate this growing fragmentation of bargaining. SEIU has by far the largest proportion of hospital workers organized. When other unions come along and organize a patchwork of small bargaining units in healthcare and then negotiate from a position of weakness, standards are lowered. Often unions with a weak position in the industry settle for far less just to hold onto the membership.

This situation has been the source of why Andy Stern, President of the SEIU, has called for ‘forced mergers’ if necessary of smaller unions in an industry with larger, dominant unions. This idea has evoked a visceral response by other unions trying to organize in new industries out of their jurisdictions. They point to the fact that SEIU at one point had no hospital workers either. They were a janitors union. So why can’t they (Steelworkers, Teachers union, etc.) also organize hospital workers? Sweeney and the AFLCIO, with articles 20 and 21, theoretically are supposed to mediate these disputes. But the constitution and the AFLCIO as structured today has failed to do so, leaving the larger unions in the only growing sector, the services sector, of the economy increasingly frustrated.

This organizational failure also goes one step further, however. Not only problems of runaway jurisdictions but outright raiding of union members by another union has also grown more common as union membership in general has declined. Unions have been raiding each other for years, especially in the public sector. But raiding has become more aggressive, in particular during the past few years. The practice has also spread among other unions as well. Once again, the AFL-CIO has not been able to check this deteriorating internal trend. Labor has begun to ‘eat its own’. Ultimately the causes lie in the declining industrial and traditional sectors of the economy being devastated by free trade and the exportation of jobs. In terms of day to day reality, however, it takes the form of the breakdown of union jurisdiction agreements and understandings and the failure of the AFL-CIO to regulate the same within its own house. After decades of the corporate offensive and declining membership, Labor has thus been turning in on itself and especially so since the decline of membership has accelerated since 2001.

Another fundamental difference between the two camps is the related question of coordinating bargaining between unions. Across many industries today, as corporate management has gotten the upper hand in terms of concession bargaining it has increasingly succeeded in playing off one union against the other in situations where multiple unions negotiate with the same employer. A typical case in point is the newspaper industry, where aggressive management typically picks off the weakest (or most terrorized) union in a coordinated bargaining situation, then moves on demanding even more concessions from the remaining unions. The message is clear, agree early and abandon coordinated bargaining and your union might get a little more than the others this time (or we’ll lay them off and not your members). A mini-‘race to the bottom’ occurs.

The CTW coalition unions demand that weaker unions be prevented from undermining other contracts in such situations. Once again, the CTW camp would argue the answer is to merge smaller, weaker unions more willing to accept concessions more quickly and easily into one or just a couple unions to face the same employer. Moreover, other unions agreeing to less point to the right of union members to accept whatever contract they want. That’s basic union democracy, they argue. Another union has no right to force them to accept something else. One again in the middle, the AFL-CIO lacks even the remotest structure or authority to enforce such CTW demands, or even the right to ‘mediate’ such internal disputes. It is not structured to deal effectively with such situations.

Just as in the case of the increasing ‘balkanization’ of bargaining, the breakdown of any semblance of union jurisdiction, and the inability to deal with the problem of raiding of membership—so too has the demise of coordinated bargaining been a factor underlying the current split from the AFL-CIO.

The CTW unions have also publicly expressed frustration with the current political process and the hundreds of millions $ of union dues money given to politicians, largely Democrats, with little or nothing to show for it the past two decades. In contrast, the remaining AFL-CIO unions point with pride to the increasingly efficient ‘get out the vote’ apparatus of the AFL-CIO, especially since 1995. They note, accurately so, that organized Labor has increased the turnout of union voters in the last several campaigns and point out, without that effort, the vote for Democratic candidates would have been much less and the party would have suffered even greater losses. The CTW unions counter that it means little to turn out a greater percentage of union members to vote when the total membership available to vote is falling so rapidly. Turning out 80% today is less than turning out 40% twenty years ago. That money could be spent to better use, they argue, elsewhere.

Critics of this point will argue that SEIU and other CTW unions have been spending extraordinarily large sums on Democrats in recent elections, so they are not increasingly disenchanted with the political process as is. But one might counter in turn they could not have been expected to do otherwise while still within the AFL-CIO structure. The true test of their attitude on this question is yet to be seen, and must await the outcome of the CTW upcoming convention on September 27 and how it formulates its own new political action strategy.

Although perhaps not fundamental, yet another factor underlying the split has been the differences in cultural outlook and even personality conflicts between the leadership of the CTW and AFL-CIO camps.

It is not a question of Andy Stern vs. John Sweeney and who will be the powerbroker appointing the new head of the AFL-CIO. Behind John Sweeney lie the AFL-CIO ‘hard liners’ who have contributed their part to the split. They are Gerald McEntee of AFSCME, the AFT, and the CWA. Nor can it be ignored that differences in culture and personality have exacerbated the internal conflicts. With nearly every critique of Stern or John Wilhelm, President of the HERE, by the remaining AFL-CIO hard liners is the accompanying sneering reference to their college backgrounds and education. Their origins in the student and civil rights movements of the 1960s is viewed derisively in some quarters of the AFL-CIO. In terms of cultural orientation, a number of the leaders of the remaining AFL-CIO unions also still feel quite uneasy about the ‘corporate campaign/community alliance’ approaches of unions like SEIU and UNITE-HERE, and in particular the unequivocal support of the latter for organizing undocumented workers. For the CTW’s part, it is also no secret that Teamster President, James Hoffa, has no love lost for AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer, Richard Trumka. And so it goes. The role of individuals and personalities in historical events is at times consequential.

The ‘Run-Up’ to the Split

In the weeks and days leading up to the split, Sweeney and the AFL-CIO attempted to bridge the gap between the two camps with concessions. Significant cuts in AFL-CIO personnel were implemented during the spring, a proposal for rebating 30% of unions’ per capita dues for organizing, modest changes were proposed in articles 20 and 21 to strengthen jurisdictions and to shore up coordinated bargaining to prevent the undermining of contracts by smaller and weaker unions, an executive committee was proposed added to the unwieldy AFL-CIO executive council, and so on. The CTW response, however, was ‘too little too late’.

Several tactical moves by Sweeney and others earlier in 2005 at the Executive Council’s meeting last winter and during the spring exacerbated the internal conflicts and contributed to the inevitability of the split. Sweeney and others effectively cut off debate on the CTW unions’ at that early 2005 AFLCIO Executive Council meeting, aggravating the opposition. Sweeney then unceremoniously declared himself the future ‘winner’ of a new term as head of the AFL-CIO well before any voting at the convention, several weeks before it convened. Under known pressure from his ‘hard liners’, he then sent out letters to all the central labor councils and state federation bodies indicating that any union that might leave the AFL-CIO would no longer be allowed to participate in any local central labor council or state body of the AFL-CIO. These moves made it appear that the remaining AFL-CIO unions were daring the CTW to leave and had already decided they were going to do so. For its part, the CTW unions began withholding their per capita payments to the AFL-CIO in anticipation of a split, months prior to the July AFL-CIO convention as well. Both camps thus began digging in their heels well before the convention. Intensive negotiations by a few unions trying to mediate a solution at the last moment during the weekend prior to the start of the convention on July 25 produced little movement off of positions by either side.

On Sunday, July 24, the process thus began with SEIU, then Teamsters, and then other unions leaving the convention and considering disaffiliating as well from the AFL-CIO.

In the Wake of the Split

Following the close of the AFL-CIO convention several important developments have begun to emerge.

Within days hard liners within the AFL-CIO appear to have stepped up pressure on UNITE-HERE, one of the major unions in the CTW coalition that left the convention but had not as yet disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO. The CWA, for example, withdrew $50 million in deposits from UNITE-HERE’s labor Amalgamated bank, in a warning sign that other remaining AFL-CIO unions will soon follow with similar action as well.

The CTW declared a date for its founding convention for September 27 set in Cincinnati. Rumors have begun also to abound of possible mergers between the CTW unions, as it puts into practice its declaration of the need to consolidate unions to enhance bargaining density and power. Most likely candidates for such will be the Teamsters with one or more of the other unions.

The AFL-CIO, for its part, has begun to consider further cuts in its operations in addition to those announced this past spring, as more than 20% of its budget has now disappeared with the departure of the CTW unions. Meanwhile, Democratic Party leaders are scurrying around meeting both camps seeking assurances of future financial support.

One of the more significant developments post-convention, however, is the apparent growing resistance at the grass roots level of the AFL-CIO central labor councils to Sweeney’s directive to prohibit CTW unions from participating henceforth in the central labor councils and AFL-CIO state federation of labor bodies. The pressure from below, among the central labor councils, was significant enough that Sweeney was forced soon after the convention to undertake a review of the prior hard liners decision to kick out the CTW unions from the local labor councils and state labor bodies. The Sweeney decision to kick out the CTW unions raised critical implications for the AFL-CIO in places like California, and in particular in Southern California-LA area. By far the dominant, most active unions in such places are the CTW unions. A split at this juncture would have serious consequences and high stakes for many workers in California, given the upcoming special elections initiated by Governor Schwarzenegger targeting them. Perhaps in places like Detroit or Pittsburg, expelling the CTW unions might find some support. But not so in many other places.

In a most recent development, the rebellion from below has forced the AFL-CIO to come up with the idea of ‘Solidarity Charters’ as a concession to the CTW unions. Such charters would allow the latter unions to participate in the local labor councils, but they couldn’t hold office in the councils, would have to sign no raid pledges, and would have to pay an extra 10% dues surcharge. But it is not likely that the CTW unions will find the prospect of ‘more taxation without representation’ in the Solidarity Charters offer very appealing.

On the other hand, the AFL-CIO’s building & construction trades department (BCTD), appears to have gone in the opposite direction, recently ordering all non-AFL-CIO unions to leave the department and the local building trades councils under it. This hard line move might well force the Laborers International Union, part of the CTW coalition, out of the AFL-CIO and to abandon its approach of trying to maintain a presence in both groups. There is some talk, however, of local construction unions forming separate parallel building trades councils on the local level outside the BCTD in order to continue to cooperate with Teamsters, the Laborers, and Carpenters that are now in the CTW. There too the situation remains fluid.

It remains to be seen whether more stable heads in the local central labor councils and state bodies can continue to check the hard liner union heads among AFSCME, AFT, and CWA at the national level who appear intent on widening the chasm between the CTW and the AFL-CIO. A much smarter position by the remaining AFL-CIO unions would have been to assume a higher ground during the events leading up to and immediately following the CTW unions’ departure from the convention and disaffiliation. Instead of driving unions further apart, strategically leaving the ‘door open’ in various ways for one or more of the CTW unions’ eventual return would have been a far smarter approach. But that has not occurred, and instead has set in place a dynamic and momentum driving the two camps further apart. It remains to be seen if local, grass roots union forces can succeed in offsetting this top level AFL-CIO hard liner drive to separate the two camps even further in the wake of the July convention.

Some Concluding Remarks

How one sees the recent split in the AFL-CIO depends on whether ones general perspective is seeing the glass ‘half full’ or ‘half empty’. The departure of the CTW unions has already produced some modest reforms by the AFL-CIO that the latter only discussed over the course of the preceding ten years and never came close to acting upon. The split has also caused a fluid situation that, at a minimum, opens the possibility for further significant changes and even reforms. However, it remains to be seen whether the CTW unions create a new form of organization and clearly chart a new course and strategy for labor at their convention—a course that will excite, energize and mobilize the union membership base. How differently will the CTW be structured? Will they advocate fundamental organizational change while still employing old strategies and tactics? Will the process begun at the top expand to the membership below to add further impetus to the historic process now set in motion? Or will they attempt to keep the reigns in hand? If the latter, the process of change and reform will slow, only to cause further tensions and release at a later date. For the corporate offensive today which fundamentally underlies the historic split in American Labor is not going away. On the contrary, it shows all indications of intensifying further, producing even greater negative impact on workers’ income and union membership in the years immediately ahead.

For more fundamental change to occur new levels of union membership will have to be brought into the process. New organization forms will have to be developed to mobilize ‘from below’. New kinds of union membership created that even more closely integrate community allies. Initiatives recently begun to establish international bargaining with multinational companies will have to quickly expand and deepen. A massive organizing campaign to bring in a million members each year will need to be launched. Not just Wal-Mart, but a Wal-Mart-like campaign initiated every year for the next ten years. Industry-wide bargaining agreements once again must be restored, and by any means necessary. A restructured and revitalized grass roots approach to point of production activities will need to be launched. And a new approach to political action undertaken—one that runs independent candidates against targeted politicians outside the Democratic Party, while supporting progressive candidates within it and simultaneously targeting those in the Democratic Party that ‘cross the line’, such as those 15 who recently voted for CAFTA. Not a party at first, but an independent, united political coalition of Labor and its natural community allies. A coalition that writes no blank checks for any party or any candidate any longer.

Jack Rasmus

(For more on proposals for reorganization of the AFL-CIO and CTW, see the just released 532 pp. book by Jack Rasmus, THE WAR AT HOME: THE CORPORATE OFFENSIVE FROM RONALD REAGAN TO GEORGE W. BUSH, which can be viewed and ordered from the website:

Monday, August 02, 2021 1:09 pm | login | xhtml
"The play succeeds in giving a human face and emotion to the meaning of solidarity. "

Jack Rasmus Productions
211 Duxbury Court
San Ramon, CA 94583