No different than so many Labor Days before, this Labor Day finds the U.S. labor movement weak and in trouble. Just 6.4% of private sector workers are protected by unions and 10.7% of workers overall. It is unclear what, if anything, can counteract this longstanding trend, and the Trump presidency certainly does not help. Trump’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is likely to reverse decisions made by the Obama-era NLRB to modernize rules on collective bargaining in ways that could have helped unions.
The AFL-CIO is the peak labor federation bringing unions together under one banner and attempting to forge a common purpose and strategy. The AFL-CIO formed in 1955 as a merger between the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. To onlookers at the time, they must have looked like strange bedfellows since, just a few years prior, the AFL had kicked out the cadre of unions that would go on to form the CIO. There were a number of differences between the AFL and the unions aligned with the CIO. Fundamentally, the CIO wanted to organize the disorganized into unions including all members of an industry, while the AFL only wanted to represent skilled workers in particular trades. The CIO had a class consciousness, political orientation, and social vision not shared by the AFL.
Several factors co-mingled to bring the AFL and the CIO together in the mid-50s, factors including leadership changes in the AFL and in the CIO and changing concepts of skilled and unskilled labor in the post-war economy. Taft-Hartley, too, was a major blow to both the AFL and the CIO, taking away some of the traditional tools for organizing the trades and also forcing the purge of Communists that had been quite active in organizing CIO locals.
The merger resulted in the AFL-CIO espousing five principles relayed in its original Constitution. These related to bargaining over wages, hours, and working conditions; organizing the unorganized; encouraging the sale of union-made goods; eliminating union corruption; and encouraging union mergers to reduce duplications. As Hutchinson wrote in 1958, the AFL-CIO Constitution reflected conditions and issues concerning unions at the time, including relatively uncomplicated membership growth in a robust economy, widespread corruption in unions, and jurisdictional disputes between unions competing for the same members. Despite difficulties stemming from union autonomy, the merger of the AFL-CIO affirmed the autonomy of member unions and restricted its own powers to intervene in the affairs of locals. An exception was union corruption; the AFL-CIO claimed the power to investigate instances of corruption and expel unions refusing to improve practices with 2/3 of the vote. On jurisdiction, however, the AFL-CIO stopped far short of devising a disciplined method for sorting out union jurisdiction.
Stephen Lerner, architect of the SEIU’S Justice for Janitors organizing campaign, argued in a 2003 essay that the persistence of the AFL-CIO structure is a problem in a service economy increasingly based in subcontracted labor. In his view, the AFL-CIO’s lack of central control tolerates nonstrategic unionism whereby unions survive through nonsensical mergers or by capturing riled up workers mad at their employer whether or not important or germane to the union’s jurisdiction. Lerner points out the result is haphazard- unions stepping on each others’ toes, acting to preserve their institutions rather than build labor power, and abandoning an older conviction that unions build power by dominating the whole of the market in their industrial sector or trade.
The AFL-CIO, state and local federations, and individual unions keep trying to revive themselves and the labor movement, but the gravity of the challenge has even unions looking to worker cooperatives and other alternatives that can promote the interests of working people in ways that have eluded the labor movement. Scaling these alternatives is likely to require institutions or federations that, like the AFL-CIO, forge a common purpose and strategy in a community with divergent perspectives. Solidarity will look different across worker cooperatives than it does across unions but, perhaps the clearest lesson from the AFL-CIO, is that a movement needs to balance the autonomy of members with peak-level institutional power to counteract instances of self-interest sinking the whole. Easier said than done, of course, but a necessary question for relevant actors to engage as the cooperative economy advances as so many hope it will.