There are a number of earnest Republicans in . . . the AF of L, who would not take kindly to the notion if we, who are elected as officers by their votes as well as the votes of others, were to publicly and practically officially use the offices, or the influence which these offices [give], to secure the defeat of their party, and the success of the party to which they are opposed.
—Samuel Gompers (1850-1924)
One of the most significant features of this year’s election season may turn out to be neither the rightward tilt of Bill Clinton nor Bob Dole’s conversion to supply-side economics but the political ascent of organized labor. The American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), heretofore a moldering force in contemporary American politics, has mounted a glitzy and aggressive campaign to undo the Republican revolution of 1994. By imposing an extraordinary surcharge of $35 million on union locals, the AFL-CIO has raised a fund which it is spending to unseat vulnerable Republican congressional freshmen in 75 systematically chosen races across the land.
This campaign, which has conferred heightened visibility and clout on organized labor, is the brainchild of a fresh team at the AFL-CIO’s helm. Since succeeding Lane Kirkland as president in October 1995, John J. Sweeney has brought in new faces and has sought to impart new energy to the movement under his command. Some 3,000 union employees have been trained as organizers and political activists in field programs set up in localities throughout the U.S.; workers from the apparatus of the Service Employees International Union, the AFL-CIO affiliate from which Sweeney himself springs, have been excused for several weeks from their usual duties to lobby against Republican policies; and rallies have been staged across the nation to advance labor’s latest battle cry, “America Needs a Raise” (a phrase which also happens to be the title of Sweeney’s new book1). Sweeney’s aim, he says, is to piece together “a seamless garment of activism,” and thereby to “change the nature of politics itself.”
Sweeney’s strategy has already racked up some impressive accomplishments. This past winter, labor helped elect Ron Wyden, the first Democratic Senator from Oregon in decades, in a by-election after Senator Bob Packwood’s seat fell open. Earlier this year, the Federation scored a major victory in Washington when its attacks helped crack Republican-party unity in Congress and win a hike in the minimum wage, which serves as a benchmark for union pay scales throughout the economy.
For the Democratic party, Sweeney’s militant stance and warm embrace have been something of a godsend. During the years of the cold war, organized labor often differed with the party: in 1972 George Meany, then head of the Federation, broke with the Democratic presidential nominee, George McGovern, in disgust over the latter’s plan to sue for peace in Southeast Asia by “going to Hanoi.” And the differences were not confined to foreign affairs; Meany also rejected the party’s move toward environmentalism, arguing that new regulatory regimes would come at the price of jobs and economic growth. Today, by contrast, Sweeney has pushed against the Republicans with such ardor that the AFL-CIO has wholly restored its position within the Democratic party; the warmth of their mutual regard was unmistakably on display at the Democratic national convention in Chicago this past August.
The new momentum of the AFL-CIO is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that there has been, for decades, a steady decline in union membership. Total membership, in both private- and public-sector unions, went from 22 million in 1975 to a little over 16 million in 1995. For private-sector unions, the drop has been particularly steep: from 11.9 million as recently as 1983, the rolls have fallen to 9.4 million in 1995, a period in which the country has generated between 20 and 30 million new jobs.
To be sure, along with this shrinkage there has come a profound shift in the composition of labor’s ranks: while private-sector unionism has faded, public-sector unionism has grown. The roots of this change can ultimately be traced to the immense swelling of the federal workforce in the two decades of crisis that began with the Great Depression and continued through World War II into the cold war. Until the early 1960’s, however, a great obstacle stood in the way of union organizers seeking to recruit workers in the public arena—namely, federal, state, and local law.
The basic framework of American labor practices had been set out in the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935. That bill, which was passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by a Democratic President, assigned to unions the exclusive privilege of representing workers in the private sector. But Franklin D. Roosevelt was adamantly opposed to giving government employees the right to bargain collectively, and the NLRA refrained from granting that privilege.
By the late 1950’s, however, attitudes toward public-sector unionism had quietly changed. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10988, at a stroke legalizing collective negotiation between the federal government and postal workers, as well as some other categories of federal employees. Though the press gave the executive order little coverage, seeing the story as one with implications largely confined to the post office, its impact was nevertheless far-reaching. According to David Stebenne, a student of the period and the biographer of Kennedy’s Secretary of Labor, Arthur Goldberg,2
The order transformed what had been government-employee organizations little different from company unions into ones of the sort that composed the AFL-CIO. This change rippled outward from the executive branch of the federal government to public employees in state and local governments. From these quarters would come millions of new union members, whose numbers would offset at least partially the decline in private-sector unionism. This was a major victory for organized labor, by far the most significant of the early 1960’s.
As government workforces expanded over the course of the ensuing decades, the impact of Kennedy’s executive order intensified; of particular significance in accelerating this trend, notes the labor scholar Leo Troy,3 was Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation. In 1960, a mere 6 percent of all union members worked in the public sector; today the number has risen to approximately 42 percent. The average union member is now nearly as likely to be a county data-entry clerk as a bare-armed steelworker. The largest union in the country is made up not of coal miners or teamsters but of civil servants; its members are the 2.2 million teachers and educational administrators of the National Education Association.
As the composition of the trade-union movement has changed, its goals and interests have followed suit.
In the glory days of the American trade-union movement, its most successful leaders never failed to understand that a thriving private marketplace was essential if workers were to have jobs. Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor, detested the stultifying effects of socialism and preached the benefits that would flow to the workingman from a measure of cooperation between labor and business. His successors at the AFL became attached to Keynesian economics, and particularly to the use of government spending to stimulate demand; this approach seemed to have rescued capitalism from crisis in the Great Depression, and it promised a way to fine-tune the economy during more normal times, mitigating if not avoiding cycles of boom and bust. But these same labor leaders married their infatuation with interventionist solutions to an understanding of the market and its benefits.
Even the Teamsters’ flamboyant Jimmy Hoffa saw private-sector growth as the best way to help the American worker. Walter Reuther, president of the United Automobile Workers of America and later of the CIO, praised the productivity gains of the private American economy in the 1940’s and 50’s for lifting workers into “a whole new middle class.” In the 1960’s, as Max Green points out in his excellent new book, Epitaph for American Labor,4 it was the leadership of organized labor that defended capitalism and waged a counterattack when American economic institutions were subjected to withering criticism from left-wing professors and radical intellectuals. George Meany, for example, had nothing but contempt for John Kenneth Galbraith’s redistributionist best-seller of the late 1950’s, The Affluent Society .(In 1968, incidentally, Meany dismissed the students and yippies outside the Democratic convention in Chicago as a “dirty-necked and dirty-mouthed group of kooks.”)
Today, an ideological sea-change has overtaken the AFL-CIO. Where the private-sector unions of earlier days shared JFK’s vision of a rising tide lifting all boats, Sweeney seems to place much greater emphasis on fighting against inequality than on achieving growth. In America Needs a Raise, he writes that “the balance of power between American workers and their employers is dangerously out of kilter,” allowing business to skim off profits while stepping on its employees. Indeed, according to Sweeney, the “wildly uneven accumulation of wealth is making the United States the most unequal country in the entire industrialized world.” His cure for this inequality is simple: extract more from business and enlarge government programs. Although such demands may be in one sense congruent with the perennial goals of labor, they differ dramatically in their focus: where a previous generation believed the solution to improving the workers’ lot lay in expanding the economic pie, today’s is disposed to strengthen the grip of the state over the economy. It is surely not coincidental that the “leading strategist” for Sweeney’s program is the head of the state and local government employees’ union (AFSCME).
In the areas of trade and foreign policy, the shift in the AFL-CIO’s positions is equally stark. Having struggled to expel Communists from its ranks in the late 1940’s, the AFL leadership spent decades funding and organizing an international network to push the Soviet empire back. An ironclad commitment to fighting Soviet Communism abroad was seen not only as a good in itself but as a way to keep member unions at home free from penetration by the radical Left. An essential component of the AFL-CIO’s anti-Communist stance, as Max Green reminds us, was support for free trade. As other nations prospered from the flow of goods and services across borders and seas, workers would benefit, trade unions would flourish, and Communism would be stymied around the world.
All this, once again, stands in the sharpest contrast to the AFL-CIO of today. From its opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to its efforts to impose ever greater restrictions on auto imports from Japan, the AFL-CIO offers ample evidence of embracing protectionism across the board. (“We have met the enemies,” says Sweeney, “and they are American-based multinational companies.”) Even Lane Kirkland, not long ago a staunch advocate of free trade, has gone so far as to liken the battle against imports to the struggle against Communism, comparing conditions in Mexican factories to those prevailing in the Soviet Union during the worst years of the Communist regime.
In short, an institution with a blue-collar orientation and a powerful interest in securing what is best for industrial workers through the mechanism of collective bargaining has been transformed into one which places increasing emphasis on seeking what is best for government employees through the mechanism of politics. An institution dedicated to defending workers’ rights within the framework of a market-based economy now increasingly fights for an America with a greatly expanded public sector and an economic structure resembling European-style social democracy. And an institution embracing free trade and open borders now increasingly favors protectionism and isolationism.
The leftward drift and growing militancy of the trade-union movement raise a number of disturbing questions. One of these concerns, simply, the interests of workers. A glance at recent history is enough to reveal that many trade-union members, particularly blue-collar workers but even some civil servants, find themselves powerfully repelled by the radical style of politics that Sweeney represents. Despite labor’s historic attachment to the Democratic party, as far back as 1972 a significant number of unionists pulled the Republican lever, contributing to George McGovern’s defeat and sending Richard Nixon to a second term. In 1980, trade-union members formed a key part of Ronald Reagan’s constituency, the so-called Reagan Democrats. Even after Reagan crushed PATCO, the air-traffic controllers’ union, support for him did not waver; the same voting pattern held in his 1984 race against Walter Mondale (the recipient of heavy AFL-CIO backing). In 1988, the patrician George Bush scored well enough among union workers to help secure victory. In the congressional elections of 1994, union members once again made a significant contribution to the Republican party’s stunning triumph at the polls.
For the rank-and-file, this year’s election season has offered even more ample grounds for disaffection. In at least one congressional district—Cleveland’s West Side—some local unions decided to endorse the incumbent Republican, Martin Hoke, only to discover to their chagrin that Federation headquarters in Washington had chosen to carpet-bomb him with specially tailored negative ads. The millions of dollars being expended on this and other individual campaigns come, as I noted earlier, from dues extracted from workers, in many cases compulsorily. (In 29 states, workers in union shops must pay dues or their equivalent whether they belong to a union or not, and though they are entitled to a rebate on the share used for political purposes, President Clinton has halted enforcement efforts of this provision of the law, virtually forcing them to go to court to retrieve their money.) Such indignities cannot but sharpen feelings of disconnection between workers and their “leadership.”
Another question concerns the AFL-CIO’s effort to have the United States borrow elements from, or adopt wholesale, the European model of social democracy. It is incontrovertible that workers in countries like Germany and France have secured extraordinarily generous benefits from their employers as well as from the state. It is also incontrovertible that these benefits have been extracted at an extraordinarily high cost: namely, unshakable economic stagnation and chronic double-digit unemployment rates. European industrial workers have been hit especially hard by the malaise created by statist economics; public-sector employees—insulated as they are from the strictures of the market—have continued to fare better, but this is unlikely to remain the case for long. The sad fact is that over the span of a few decades, the headlong pursuit of “pro-worker” policies has served to deprive Western Europe of what it needs most: jobs.
In one sense, it may be easy to understand John Sweeney’s intention to “change the nature of politics itself” as an attempt to save a movement in decline. Yet to any friend of America’s workers, it must remain a painful and disquieting irony that just as a good portion of the world is finally breaking out of the irons of state planning and government control, the AFL-CIO, once a proud defender of freedom, should be attempting to push America down that retrograde path.
1 America Needs a Raise: Fighting for Economic Security and Social Justice. Houghton Mifflin, 167 pp., $18.95.
2 Arthur J. Goldberg: Liberal Democrat. Oxford, 576 pp., $45.00.
3 Troy's book, The New Unionism in the New Society (George Mason University Press, 1994), contains one of the best discussions of this shift.
4 American Enterprise Institute, 220 pp., $24.95.