At its annual convention on Monday, the AFL-CIO approved a resolution opening up union membership to non-workers. The effort is an attempt to strengthen the political clout of labor unions, who have witnessed a steady decrease in membership in recent decades. Still, some labor unions worry that the move would dilute the union’s focus on issues related to its union members and workers in general.
“[T]his is the American Federation of Labor, Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters told The Hill. “We are supposed to be representing workers and workers’ interests. … We are not going to be the American Federation of Progressive and Liberal Organizations.”
There are some fears that the move will entice environmental groups like Sierra Club or progressive groups like MoveOn to join the AFL-CIO. This would push labor unions deeper into issues they have traditionally avoided. Labor unions are strong supporters of the Keystone Pipeline, for example, a project Sierra Club has vowed to block. Unions have generally avoided most social issues, also–a key organizing focus for many progressive groups.
The move to open up union membership to non-union workers is something of an act of desperation. Just over 11% of all workers in this country still belong to a union. As low as that number is, it masks an even more troubling trend for the labor movement. Last year, just 6.6% of private sector employees were members of a union. Just 30 years ago, more than 15% of private sector workers were union members. However, over 35% of all public sector workers are union members. There are now more public sector union members than private sector members.
This is not your father’s labor movement.
This demographic shift in union membership has already pushed the labor movement into more leftist positions than it would have taken decades ago. In recent years, Big Labor has fought to protect unrealistic wage and benefit packages for public sector workers, even though those wages are paid out of the taxes on private sector union workers.
The resolution is also an outgrowth of Working America, an AFL-CIO affiliate whose membership consists of non-unionized workers. Working America will now be able to formally join the union and impose membership dues on its reported three million members.
Yes, whether stated of not, it’s about dues.
With a shrinking unionized private sector workforce and state and local governments clamping down on bloated union contracts and pensions, union bosses face a certain prospect of declining dues revenue in future years. This effects not just the livelihoods of thousands of union officials across the country, but also their financial muscle in political campaigns. Broadening membership beyond its core foundation offers the possibility of new membership dues.
Still, it is uncertain how successful this effort will be. The resolution only authorizes individual unions to take this action at their discretion. If a union wants to keep its membership exclusive to union members, it has that option.
Even if a leftist group were to join the AFL-CIO and work out some kind of dues structure, it isn’t clear that it would really be able to galvanize union membership behind its cause. I doubt the Brady campaign would be able to convince a lot of rank-and-file union members to support gun control, for example.
Decades ago, America had a great labor movement. It has been slowly dying for years. On Monday, it was finally put to rest.