This isn't the AFL-CIO labor hero John L. Lewis once knew. And what the heart of Big Labor is becoming won't be much better. At its quadrennial convention in Los Angeles next month, the Big Labor coalition will officially amend its bylaws to allow nonunion people to join. It will become a bigger tent — but not one focused on the most basic concerns its union members.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is doing this to cement its existing ties with liberal activist groups like Sierra Club and the National Council of La Raza. Those groups will in turn encourage their rank and file to become dues-paying AFL-CIO members. Why is Trumka doing this? Survival. Unionization has been in a long-term decline. It is now just 11.3 percent of the total workforce, down from 20.1 percent in 1983. The declines have weakened the movement so much it is now losing fights in Rust Belt states like Michigan and Wisconsin.
"[H]ere's the way I look at it: What we've been doing the last 30 years hasn't worked real well. We need to do things differently," Trumka told USA Today Aug. 7. So, Trumka is finally conceding that Big Labor cannot just wish the 1950s back into existence, as it has been trying to do years now. That would be good news if it meant the AFL-CIO was fundamentally rethinking collective bargaining itself. Instead it is selling out existing members in a way that's only likely to speed their exit.
The most likely result of the rules change is that it will turn Big Labor into something indistinguishable from groups like MoveOn.org. Even Trumka conceded the move might "dilute" the movement. Then again, Big Labor has been moving in this direction for years. Its "Blue-Green Alliance" with environmentalist groups was intended to push for federal green energy jobs funding. It instead resulted in the AFL-CIO not taking a clear position on the Keystone XL pipeline project, frustrating member unions who wanted the jobs in order to placate their green allies.
Similarly, Communications Workers of America has had to pull back its opposition to the Senate immigration bill's high-tech visa provisions because the AFL-CIO leadership backs reform. Trumka now wants to go even further in this direction. The announcement makes clear that the AFL-CIO is evolving into little more than a fundraising and get-out-the-vote organization for left-wing causes and candidates. That's hard luck for the traditional rank-and-file members who'd prefer the union focus its energies on them.
The great irony here is that a major reason why Big Labor leaders want nonunion members onboard is to ensure the movement remains strong enough to prevent the further spread of right-to-work laws. In other words, labor leaders want nonunion members to help them prevent union members from becoming free to decide whether they want to be in unions. Does it not occur to anybody in the leadership of Big Labor that their ranks are declining precisely because they have based the movement on forcing people to join?