At the recent convention of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organization’s, the members spent a great deal of time surveying the reality of the labor movement in the United States and the significant changes since the last meeting of this group in 2009.

Not only has the number of households with a wage earner working under a collective bargaining agreement dropped, the full onslaught of the Koch Brothers funded war on labor has taken a dramatic toll on unions in the public service sector and new laws further restrict the ability of labor unions to function on anything resembling an even playing field. Unions may have been in an orderly retreat in 2009, today it might be better to call them scattered remnants.

Scattered remnants, however, can still be powerful and can be reunited into a stronger labor movement. On the plus side of life since 2009, the US Steelworkers have discovered worker ownership and partnered with Mondragon to establish industrial unionized worker cooperatives in the United States. The Cincinnati Union Coop Initiative has been working to get a number of projects up and running.

While I am really excited about the activity around worker cooperatives in the labor union world, I also realize that it isn’t enough. According to Gary Chaison, in his book Unions in America, labor unions need to recruit almost 1,000,000 new members every year just to account for retirements, business closings, and decertification campaigns. It is estimated that Unions add only about 20-60,000 new members each year right now.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka proposed a new strategy for this year’s conference: allow people to join the AFL-CIO who aren’t members of labor unions. This would allow organizations such as the Sierra Club and the NAACP to join the AFL-CIO as well as individual members. One the arguments for this radical proposal, reported in the New York Times argued that when a union loses a collective bargaining vote by 49-51%, why should the 49% of workers who wanted a union be ignored by the union? Shouldn’t the AFL-CIO find a way to keep in contact with those pro-union workers and help them build a majority?

A similar idea was put forward in 1985, but it didn’t go anywhere. The buy-in by locals wasn’t there and the reality is the the full effect of Reagan’s PATCO action and the looming effect of globalization hadn’t become evident. The unions were able to believe that the world wasn’t changing around them. Thirty years later and the number of labor leaders in denial about the state of the movement has dropped as fast as membership.

As the convention concluded, the proposal was limited to only allow organizations in solidarity, not individuals, the ability to join, but the delegates also passed a resolution stating: “The labor movement consists of all workers who want to take collective action to improve wages, hours and working conditions. Our unions must be open to all workers who want to join with us.”

I understand the concern of just letting individuals join without some structure or understanding what they are joining; however, I also think that the idea of a “solidarity membership” would be invaluable to the labor movement. I imagine that depending on the range of dues, millions might join and be a great resource to assist locals in their area by pressuring businesses to bargain in good faith and helping business owners and marketers recognize that treating workers well is good business, not just an expense line.

In the end, the challenges facing the labor movement won’t be wished away with new membership categories. The iron cage of the Wagner Act, written for a very different labor environment, and the over-regulation of the various amendments (Taft-Hartely, etc) have created a legal framework that hampers the ability of workers to organize. Of course, labor’s historic unwillingness to change tactics, embrace emerging industries, and spend resources on organizing have as much to do with a pathetic 6.6% union households (maybe just over 10% with public sector unions) as the actions of management and globalization. Nevertheless, creating alliances with social movements can only help labor unions if for no other reason than the AFL-CIO can gain allies in modernizing the National Labor Relations Act by connecting mass movements that often represent the same individuals.

In my mind, Unions in the US have spent the last 30 years in retreat and doing the one deadly thing in politics: allowing their enemy to define them. Hopefully that is starting to change. Although they didnt take the plunge to accept individual solidarity memberships, they have started to engage non-union movements. The movement that brought us the “weekend” and created the “middle-class” needs a re-boot and it looks as if the current leadership has learned a lot watching the people act over the last couple of years. It will be interesting to see where the AFL-CIO convention  finds itself four years from now.



About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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