Labor's Future

By now most people have heard about the schism that roiled the American labor movement last summer. When the AFL-CIO wrapped up its Chicago convention in July, reelecting John Sweeney as president, several unions that had been threatening to leave the coalition decided the moment had come to do so.

The departing unions included the two largest in the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees and the Teamsters, besides the Food and Commercial Workers, and the clothing, hotel, and restaurant workers. They joined the Carpenters, which had left the AFL-CIO five years ago, to form the Change to Win federation with the Laborers International Union (LIUNA) and the United Farm Workers (UFW). The UFW subsequently withdrew from the AFL-CIO, while LIUNA, still a member of Change to Win, continues for the meantime as a member of the AFL-CIO, pending a final decision on departing. Thus far the AFL-CIO has lost more than 35 percent of its affiliated membership, a disaster of unprecendented scope.

What led to this breakup? The dissident unions’ demands make for a long list, but it’s the frustration and anxiety behind the demands that really matter. Presidents of the disembarking unions noted with alarm the continued erosion of labor’s foothold in the workforce, union membership having dropped to 12.5 percent of the nation’s total, and just 8 percent in the private sector, the lowest proportion in fifty years. (The recent...

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About the Author

John T. Joyce