The American labor movement is in a mess, and the current leadership doesn't seem to have a clue what to do about it. The most recent figures on union membership from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show yet another decline in what has become a decades-long trend. In 2004, only 12.5 percent of American workers and 7.9 percent of private sector workers were members of unions, down from 12.9 percent and 8.2 percent respectively in 2003. Fifty years ago, more than one in three workers belonged to a union, but this is not your father's -- much less your grandfather's -- labor movement. Today's union honchos are more interested in politics than in collective bargaining. And they've hitched Big Labor's wagon to the Democratic Party, to the detriment of both institutions.
Earlier this month, the AFL-CIO Executive Council, the governing body of the 58-union federation, announced it would raise the dues it charges affiliates in order to pay for a huge increase in political spending. The AFL-CIO will now spend $90 million over each two-year political cycle, more than double what it spent in the 2004 election and equal to three-fourths of its entire yearly budget. But that money is only a drop in the bucket of what unions spend overall on politics. In 2004, one union alone, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), spent $65 million -- most of it aimed at defeating President George W. Bush -- and a single local affiliate of the SEIU spent an additional $35 million. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Unions spent $48 million; and the Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA) spent $8 million -- and these unions represent only the biggest spenders in the AFL-CIO.
Nor does this money even count what unions gave to candidates through their political action committees (PACs). The National Education Association (which is not affiliated with the AFL-CIO) spent almost $4.4 million; the American Federation of Teachers (which is an AFL-CIO affiliate), almost $6 million; and the Teamsters spent nearly $10.5 million -- and these are just three unions. In all, union PACs contributed over $52 million to candidates in the 2004 cycle, 86 percent of which went to Democrats. That percentage, while extraordinarily high, is actually down from previous years.
With Republicans in control of the White House and both branches of Congress, some unions decided that it might be time to "invest" a little money in union-friendly Republicans, like Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, who, with labor's help, beat back a primary challenge from a conservative congressman. Unions also manned the barricades for liberal candidates. In the 2004 election, the SEIU claimed 50,000 part-time "volunteers" nationwide, many of whom were being paid their full union salaries while they campaigned. In addition, the SEIU dispersed 2,000 full-time union activists into battleground states for the last few months of the campaign -- at a cost to union members of $35 million, a hefty sum for a supposedly "volunteer" force.
So what has all this money and manpower bought? It certainly has purchased influence in the Democratic Party, which could not survive without Big Labor's largess and therefore kowtows to the unions on most policy issues. The Democrats' willingness to block Social Security reform, for example, is a direct payoff to the unions, which have long considered the program sacrosanct. But at the polling place, the returns have been decidedly less profitable.
Despite an unprecedented political spending frenzy, unions lost big in last year's elections. Not only did President Bush easily win re-election with 51 percent of the vote, he won 43 percent of votes in union households as well, one of the strongest showings by a Republican presidential candidate in recent memory. And of course the Republicans retained control of Congress, actually boosting their numbers by four additional GOP senators and four more congressmen.
Not only are unions losing members, many of the big unions are nearly broke. Yet they insist on playing the role of bankers to the Democratic Party. Back when Bill Clinton was putting the squeeze on Democrat donors, the Teamsters gave away so much money they nearly went bankrupt and ended up borrowing $16 million to fund political activism, according to the Center for Public Integrity. If it weren't for their power to tax the workers they represent through forced dues, unions would long ago have had to change their ways.
The AFL-CIO's decision to up the ante in its high-stakes political gamble proves that union bosses will continue to squander their members' money no matter what. No wonder unions are losing members each year.