Split Union

August 2005


Two major unions left the AFLCIO recently, amid all manner of conflicting stories about what this would mean for unions in the United States. It is difficult to predict the future, especially when you have no idea about what happened in the past.

OK, a show of hands: who knows what the initials AFLCIO stand for? If the readers here are fairly representative of most US residents, then fewer than ten percent answered this question correctly. Incidentally, it stands for "The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations"

History Lesson: The AFL-CIO was created in 1955 by the merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was founded in Columbus, Ohio in 1886 by Samuel Gompers. The AFL was the largest union grouping in the United States for the first half of the twentieth century, even after the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) by unions that left the AFL in 1938 over its opposition to organizing mass production industries. According to Wikipedia:

The AFL also personified a conservative "pure and simple unionism" that contrasted with the more radical aims of unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World. The AFL's "business unionism" favored pursuit of workers' immediate demands, rather than challenging the rights of owners under capitalism, and took a pragmatic, and often pessimistic, view of politics that favored tactical support for particular politicians over formation of a party devoted to workers' interests.

Therein lies the source of the current controversy. Many union members, and some union leadership, have come to the conclusion that the AFL practice of being non-political and working as an alleged partner with management, rather than an adversary of management, is what has led to the gradual demise of unions in the past half century in the United States. The dissenters do not see the policies changing, so they don't see any point in staying on a ship that is in the process of scuttling itself.

The Teamsters Union, for example, is an organization that gains comparatively little from association with the AFLCIO and could possibly have much to lose. As Jim Hoffa, the Teamster General President said recently:

“We must have more union members in this country to fight the political and business forces that are undermining workers in this country. The AFL-CIO has chosen the opposite approach by plans to throw even more money at politicians.”

It is no coincidence that unions have been in decline in the United States. Since the end of WWII, and particularly in the last 25 years, powerful business interests have waged a concerted campaign to undermine unionism in this country through legislation, regulation, education, and other means. Open the typical High School history textbook in this country and you will see very little about unions, and even less favorable to unions. Our national government has a long history of opposing unions abroad, and has even supported regimes who routinely jailed or murdered anyone who tried to organize workers into unions, even community religious leaders.

There are many people in this country who believe that the best result for the country is achieved when we have a balance between owners and workers, with nothing going all one way. The reason why we are witnessing an entire generation of people who expect to have a lower standard of living than their parents had, is because of the loss of the power and prestige of unions. It is very simple. With no opposing force to curb their greed, the owners are demanding (and getting) more and more return for their investment as we get less and less return for our labor. We Americans now work longer and harder than people in any industrialized country and we have less and less every year to show for it.

Sure, unions are flawed. They have people in them, so what do you expect? But they're like democracy: a flawed solution that is preferable to any of its competitors.

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