The AFL-CIO is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, but don't expect any champagne to be flowing at the organization's annual convention next week. It's been a lousy year -- indeed a miserable several decades -- for Big Labor. With union membership falling to historic lows and the unions' political clout on the wane, even while unions pour, literally, hundreds of millions of dollars into politics, the coup de grace for the AFL-CIO may come at the convention itself. Five unions, including the federation's biggest, have announced they will pull out of the group unless the AFL-CIO changes its focus to organizing new members. But even these dissident unions seem clueless when it comes to what really ails the shrinking labor movement.
Less than 8 percent of private sector workers belonged to a union in 2004, and, overall, only 12.5 percent of American workers carry a union card -- down from about one-third of workers in labor's heydays in the 1950s. If it weren't for compulsory union membership laws in 27 states, the number would no doubt be even lower.
The unions claim the deck is stacked against them when it comes to labor laws, but the truth is many private and public sector workers are forced to pay union dues as a condition of their employment, yet they have little say in how the unions spend their money. Despite court rulings that grant union members the right to withhold that portion of their dues that goes beyond negotiating and administering the union contract, most union members -- 78 percent according to one poll -- are in the dark about their rights, and the unions themselves want to keep it that way. Nor has the National Labor Relations Board, the federal government's chief enforcement agency, done much to force unions to inform their workers of their rights.
So how did unions spend their members' money last year? The 1.8 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the largest union in the AFL-CIO and the one spearheading the threats to pull out of the federation next week, spent $65 million not organizing new members but trying to defeat President Bush and Republicans in Congress. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees spent $48 million in the same, failing effort. The AFL-CIO spent $44 million trying to defeat Bush, and the Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA) spent another $8 million in the same quest.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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