Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #40 December 25, 2001

Labor Fell Far Short of Organizing Goals
But Lacks Strategies to Reverse Trend

By Harry Kelber

This is the third and final article on the 24th AFL-CIO biennial convention in Las Vegas on Dec. 3-6.

Despite its growing political clout, the AFL-CIO is in serious trouble. This year it has recruited less than half of the one million new members it needs to keep from declining further. And unless it does considerably better in 2002, the economic bargaining power of affiliated unions will be seriously weakened.

Sweeney told the 1,000 delegates: “The basic fact is this: While the labor movement stood still, the American economy grew strong and millions of new jobs were created. And for the most part, those new jobs have gone non-union…We have declined in union density from representing one worker in three to now representing one worker in eight.”

Work in Progress, which keeps an official tally of organizing gains by AFL-CIO unions, reports that, as of Dec. 17, 2001, a total of 446,039 new members was organized this year. But this figure includes the 275,000 members of two long-established independent unions that merged into the AFL-CIO.

The AFL-CIO’s current membership is little more than the 13 million it had in 1955, when the merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations took place. In that 46-year period, the nation’s work force has doubled.

Some causes for the stagnation are beyond the control of unions and their leaders. The economy has changed dramatically, with new industries cropping up on the Internet. There has been an enormous loss of good paying, unionized manufacturing jobs. Corporate mergers and restructuring of the work force have taken their toll. Companies are continuing to close their U.S. plants and relocate offshore to cheaper labor markets. And employers are more aggressively fending off union organizing campaigns.

A large part of the blame for labor’s poor organizing record lies with the national union affiliates, Sweeney said. He reminded the delegates that “the federation does not file election petitions. We do not sign up new members or bargain contracts. This is the responsibility of national unions and your affiliates. The burden of this hard work falls on you. We can only offer help and leadership.”

Actually, the AFL-CIO has done a great deal to energize the organizing efforts of national unions. Sweeney has used the “bully pulpit” and his coalition-building initiatives to enhance labor’s public image. But most important, the federation finances promising recruiting drives with funds from its own organizing budget. It also provides strategic planning for affiliates, especially in multi-union campaigns.

Only a small number of the AFL-CIO’s 66 international unions can show significant progress in recruiting new members. They include the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the American Federation of Teachers, the Communications Workers and UNITE!, the apparel union. Hard-hit manufacturing unions, like the Steelworkers, are struggling to hold on to a decreasing membership.

Despite the earnest convention rhetoric, the AFL-CIO has come up with very few ideas on how to boost the membership on a massive scale. It has asked every union to devote 30% of its budget to organizing — virtually the same request it made at the 2000 convention. While more money for organizing is important, even more important is how it is spent and what results it brings. The record clearly shows that unions are not getting enough of a bang for the bucks they spend on organizing.

The AFL-CIO is still relying heavily on the Organizing Institute to train qualified organizers. “The AFL-CIO must increase its assistance in recruiting and training organizers through the Organizing Institute and Union Summer,” a convention resolution declared.

But the O.I.’s three-day training program (usually a weekend} is woefully inadequate to produce organizers who can match wits and strategies with the highly-skilled anti-union professionals hired by employers. Moreover, only a fraction of the participants qualify for advancement to a three-week apprenticeship program. And only a small number of those will ever become full-fledged union organizers.

In 1995-98, the first four years of the Sweeney administration, AFL-CIO unions lost 5,907 NLRB representation elections or 54% out of a total of 11,131 contests. In the best of years, AFL-CIO unions haven’t won better than 52% That’s not a great record for the months, often years, of preparation for an election.

The stark fact is that unless the federation increases the number of its organizing campaigns dramatically — and wins most of them — it cannot attain its goal of a million new members a year. But it also faces a critical shortage of experienced organizers to staff such an expanded effort.

That’s why its imperative for the AFL-CIO to provide professional-level training for the hundreds of new organizers who are needed in its desperate struggle to grow.

NOTE: Starting in 2002, “Inside the AFL-CIO” will appear periodically instead of weekly. We will continue to comment on major developments within the labor movement. Our “LaborTalk” column can be viewed every Monday at

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