If you want to understand why the AFL-CIO brass made a hard-left turn in the 1990s, some closed-door remarks of federation President John Sweeney provide a major clue.
The scene was an assembly of union presidents at the federation’s 2001 national convention. Sweeney was giving the bosses a do-or-die warning: Unless unions did far more to increase membership, he argued, organized labor could soon be irrelevant.
“Not only are [current membership] numbers totally unsatisfactory,” said Sweeney, “but if we don’t begin to turn this around quickly and almost immediately, drift in the other direction is going to make it virtually impossible to continue to exist as a viable institution and to have any impact on the issues we care about.” (Emphasis added.)
On the same wavelength, Gerald McEntee uttered a similar warning last year. He’s president of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
“If we go down lower than 10 percent of the American work force,” said McEntee, “—and as I said we’ve been dropping—we really become really no social force in this country, with no power to change national social issues.” (Emphasis added.)
Note that in each instance, the union bosses’ expressed worry was not for the welfare of workers or even union members. Instead, it was that union officials might end up having less “impact on the issues” or “power to change national social issues.”
While Sweeney and McEntee would argue that their political power and the welfare of union members are one and the same thing, union members themselves know better. Multiple polls over recent decades have shown that members feel the union bosses ignore their grievances, shove political preferences down their throats and use union office for self-enrichment.
McEntee’s own union is a case in point—corruptly dependent on the notorious District Council 37 in New York. With 120,000 government employees in 56 locals, DC 37 has been known for over three decades for rigged elections, mass altering of ballots, officers stealing from the membership and deep penetration by the Columbo and Gambino crime families. After the latest wave of major scandals broke in the late 1990s, McEntee consented to put DC 37 under “trusteeship”—but it was a trusteeship that insisted on keeping in place both the corrupting system’s structure and the gang whose leaders had been marched off in handcuffs.
Given such recurring realities, it’s not surprising that a Zogby poll released in March of this year found that 71 percent of questioned union members believe “Government ought to do more to protect union members from corrupt union officials. Unions should be required to give detailed reporting of union finances to discourage abuse.” But the AFL-CIO hierarchy hates the idea of such accountability. When the U.S. Department of Labor recently began drafting more-detailed financial reporting rules, Sweeney & Co. responded with a demagogic and dishonest campaign of opposition.
Unhappiness with union bosses is a long-running story inside American unions—as is a significant degree of unhappiness, period. Even 20 years ago a Lou Harris poll—commissioned by the AFL-CIO itself—found that nonunion employees are happier than union employees: more satisfied with job security, recognition of job performance and participation in the decisions that affect their jobs.
All these factors have combined with private firms’ bidding up of wage and benefit packages to produce an ever-accelerating exit of workers from private-sector unionism. From 35 percent of the private workforce in 1955, union members have declined, as of 2003, to a mere 8.2 percent. In the last 20 years only government-sector union membership has grown (though peaking 10 years ago and fluctuating beneath that level since). The result is that government employees are an ever-greater proportion of the ever-shrinking AFL-CIO.
This, in a nutshell, is why the AFL-CIO has gone explicitly socialist. Those members were secured to the AFL-CIO by politics—laws passed by politicians mandating union control of government workplaces. And such political deals—i.e., governmental coercion—are the only way bosses atop the federation can now see to continue reaping their perks, power and dues money.
Socialism, in the classic definition favored by leftist economist Joseph Stiglitz, is “an economic system in which the means of production are controlled by the state.”
The union bosses hope that if more and more of the economy can be placed under the thumb of the government, an unlimited river of perks, power and dues money will once again flow into the AFL-CIO’s coffers.
Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute