Just when the AFL-CIO regained some political momentum through wins at the ballot box and on the picket line, it’s running into internal division about whether to prioritize broader progressive causes over core workplace-policy issues.
That’s not necessarily a new debate within the world’s largest worker group, which includes relatively conservative building trades and unions at the left end of the spectrum. But officials at some of the federation’s member unions say the conflict has reached a crescendo coming off a November election in which Democrats took control of the House and a number of state governor’s offices.
In Pennsylvania’s congressional races, some AFL-CIO unions worked to elect a Democrat who opposed raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and backed a Republican over a liberal environmentalist. The federation also split over whether to support the Democratic candidate for governor in deep-blue Maryland even though he was once one of its members and backed traditional labor causes.
Member unions have been on both sides of debates over the Dakota Access Pipeline and other infrastructure projects, whether to work with groups including Planned Parenthood to push for single-payer health care, and efforts to scuttle
“Labor does not have a unified agenda and that makes it hard for us to make the case that we’re as powerful as we once were,” one official at an AFL-CIO member union said.
Several union leaders spoke with Bloomberg Law on the condition of anonymity to talk freely about what they described as a delicate situation.
Union leaders on both sides of the debate say the disputes are ones they can’t afford amid slipping unionization numbers, a Supreme Court decision expected to reduce income, and the spread of automation and gig work. Some say it’s time to bury the hatchet, with Democrats about to take control of the House and successes in hand in highly publicized teacher and hotel strikes.
“The labor movement is not homogenous,” American Federation of Teachers President
In one camp, union leaders are pushing the federation to hitch its wagon to a wide progressive agenda. They point to labor’s recent success joining with environmental, health, and other groups to fight trade deals. With labor groups representing only 6 percent of the private workforce, they argue unions aren’t big enough to go it alone.
Others want the AFL-CIO to direct its attention to raising wages and increasing benefits, protecting union health plans, and beating back an onslaught of pro-business regulatory moves from the Trump administration and some Republican state houses.
“It forces you to stay away from risk and controversy because of, say a more conservative or more radical affiliates will disagree,” said Rand Wilson, an organizer for Labor for Our Revolution and a local Service Employees International Union leader. The SEIU and Teamsters left the AFL-CIO in 2005, in part over concerns the federation focused too much on politics instead of organizing. “So it sort of drives policy to the center.”
Building trades unions are aligned with traditional labor foes like the Chamber of Commerce to push pipeline and other projects they say will create new jobs. They’ve also taken aim at unions that have joined with environmental groups to oppose the projects.
“My observation sitting where I sit is that the labor movement as we have known it is dead,” one official at an AFL-CIO member union told Bloomberg Law. “It no longer exists today. Over the next five to 10 years something will emerge, and I don’t see the building trades being part of that.”
Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers International Union of North America, in a 2016 letter to the labor community slammed a number of unions that sided with environmental activists to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline project. O’Sullivan called them “self-righteous,” and “bottom-feeding organizations that are once again trying to destroy our members’ jobs.”
Then there’s health care. The AFL-CIO and other labor groups are fighting the long game against a delayed Obamacare provision that would tax “cadillac” health plans like those unions often negotiate for their members. But some aren’t sure why the federation is joining progressive groups’ calls for “Medicare for all,” given that unions have secured that valuable employer-sponsored health care coverage for the workers they represent.
The federation has an established system for resolving member turf battles and other internal disputes. An impartial umpire makes a recommendation to the executive council, comprised of the federation’s three top officers and 55 vice presidents.
A separate general board and delegates to the federation’s convention every four years, make decisions about the larger policy agenda. General board votes are weighted based on the size of the unions, while delegates are distributed based on how much each union pays in “per captia tax” or dues.
“There absolutely is a growing rift there,” one member union official told Bloomberg Law. “The mechanism within the AFL-CIO to resolve these types of issues is minimal if not broken.”
Polls showed many union households voted for President
Labor for Our Revolution is a coalition of the seven unions that supported Sen.
Last year, the federation’s convention delegates approved a resolution shunning what they called the AFL-CIO’s practice of supporting “lesser of evils” candidates. They committed to support “candidates who are friends and allies of workers” but also focus on state and local ballot initiatives and referendums.
It’s already unclear whether they’re sticking to that script.
Unions helped Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) win two tough election battles running on a platform that included defending core labor rights while questioning an effort to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.
The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO in a separate Keystone State contest joined with some building-trades unions to back Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), one of a small group of GOP candidates to see organized labor support. Several other unions, including the AFT, AFSCME, and the United Automobile Workers, supported liberal environmentalist Scott Wallace, who lost narrowly.
In the Maryland governor’s race, the state AFL-CIO didn’t endorse Democrat Ben Jealous—a former CWA member—in his long-shot bid to unseat Republican incumbent
An AFL-CIO official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, tried to tamp down talk of internal strife, telling Bloomberg Law that the federation is focused on the issues that matter most to workers. “For us, it’s not so much about picking a side, it’s about being an independent voice as unions.”
Labor groups got a big win earlier this year when they helped roundly defeat a Missouri right-to-work referendum that would have banned fees for nonunion members covered by collective bargaining agreements. That kind of effort, which reversed a trend of red states going right-to-work, is where some members want the AFL-CIO to devote more of its attention.
It’s also an example of how having a big tent of friends can pay off. Progressive groups including Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club urged voters to reject the right-to-work initiative. They argued that unions have helped close the pay gap for women and that many health and environmental safety workers are union members.
“Labor is no longer big enough to win a lot of the fights by itself,” a former AFL-CIO official said.
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