Analyzing The AFL-CIO Breakup

Larry Price
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Wednesday - August 03, 2005
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History shows quite clearly that the split in the AFLCIO does not mean the end of organized labor. I’m sure many managers are gloating over the split, hoping that the labor movement has been dealt a crushing injury. It would be unwise to count on that happening.

At the end of World War II, the strikes that followed and the election of a more conservative Congress which resulted in amending of the Wagner Act, led to the enactment of the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, better known as The Taft-Hartley Act.

One of the main features of Taft-Hartley was that employee rights were expanded to include the right to refrain from union activities beyond membership or paying dues. It went further, prohibiting union membership as a condition of continued employment. Union leaders were furious, but could do nothing, it was the law. The legislation was an effort to balance the relative power of unions and reduce the likelihood of a recurrence of labor strife of the magnitude seen in 1946.

The clash between labor and management led to the greatest incidence of strikes in U.S. history. Between August 1945 and August 1946, 4,630 strikes involved 4.9 million workers. The strikes affect the coal, rail, auto and steel industries. They were settled with wage increases of about 18.5 percent per hour!

The record shows that members of the AFL and the CIO have always had issues. If not for the deaths of William Green and Philip Murray in 1952, leaders of the AFL and CIO, the merger of the two federations would not have occurred. One group of unions was dominated by blue collar workers and the other by skilled workers. It was during this time that the Democrats adopted the majority of the union issues as an important part of their party platform.

But Taft-Hartley changed their thinking. First, unions were needed to spend more and exert more influence in lobbying and publicly advocating popular union issues. Second, the time had come for the unions to concentrate on labor unity.

One of the first things the new leaders cooperated on was a no-raid agreement in 1954. It began a nearly 25-year period in which most large employers accepted unions as legitimate representatives. What history shows is that the merged AFL-CIO did not become more powerful than the two federations had been in the past. By 1964 the percentage of unionized members had fallen to 30 percent — a decline of 700,000 members. The record shows the main reason was a less than aggressive organizing philosophy.

John Sweeney’s ascension to the presidency of the AFLCIO was the first election of an insurgent candidate in 70 years. At the time of the election, he was president of the Service Employee International Union, representing less-skilled workers in a variety of building maintenance and medical support occupations.

Ironically, his platform and promise was to re-energize the union movement’s organizing. That did not happen, and the union’s membership decline continued. For the labor movement the 21st century suggested that the bottom had been reached and the trend would be reversed.

If history teaches us anything, it would appear that the split in the AFL-CIO means that the labor movement is alive and well, and has re-energized union organizing, much to the chagrin of management forces. The reason is simple. There are more disgruntled workers in the work force than ever before. The research shows that the only reason more workers have not unionized is because there is a social stigma attached to belonging to a union.

As one union leader, Lynn Williams (president of the United Steelworkers of America), said, “Only a union can provide workers with the security and dignity that enables them to be true participants in the workplace.” It’s likely to be their battle cry in the future.

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