October 4, 1996
An activist labor movement may be the most significant new force in American politics, but the agenda of labor's new leaders is radically different from that of the traditional labor movement. Curiously, much of this new agenda is unconnected with workplace issues, not generally supported among rank-and-file union members, and clearly outside the mainstream of American politics. In recent decades, organized labor has been transformed from a relatively centrist political force into a powerful lobby for liberal special interests and big government. Organized labor has decided to use its billions of dollars in dues revenue to defeat conservative Members of Congress, while also encouraging the Boy Scouts to admit homosexuals and atheists, offering financial contributions to political groups that promote abortion, and opposing welfare reform and a balanced budget.
While political parties have moved to the center and right, union activism has shifted decisively to the left. This transformation has occurred in tandem with a historic change in union membership from private-sector, largely industrial workers toward government and service employees. Unions began organizing the public sector in the 1960s and 1970s to offset a continuing decline in membership, particularly in manufacturing. New AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, the first federation leader from a government employee-dominated union, came to power when his coalition of service and public-sector unions toppled former president Lane Kirkland and his industry-based allies.
The desires of government employees, however, have proven to be in conflict with the interests of blue-collar workers, who now get billed twice for big government: Thanks to their unions' lobbying efforts, private-sector workers pay high taxes to support bloated bureaucracies in Washington and state capitals around the country. Meanwhile, union dues are used to support political causes that are irrelevant to the bread-and-butter interests of the average worker. There is no evidence that the new union leadership's radical political campaign will do anything but accelerate the exit of union members, especially in the private sector. Workers who once formed the backbone of the American labor movement now find themselves paying higher and higher fees to unions that are paying less and less attention to the real interests of their members.
In fairness, it should be easier than it now is for union members to opt out of radical politicking by obtaining a refund of the significant portion of their dues that is used to support such efforts. In view of organized labor's growing politicization, policymakers should re-examine the unique privileges that have been granted to unions.
THE POLITICAL TRADITION OF AMERICAN LABOR
Writing over a decade ago in Policy Review, labor analyst Max Green decried the full-scale embrace of Walter Mondale's presidential candidacy by Lane Kirkland, the AFL-CIO's president from 1979-1995.2 Green argued that Kirkland's actions, taken at the behest of public employee unions, represented the ultimate rejection of the ideas of American Federation of Labor founder Samuel Gompers. Gompers made sure that labor kept "its distance both from socialism and from partisan politics," focusing instead on organizing and winning concessions from business through collective bargaining. In the first half of this century, the AFL even refused to support minimum-wage legislation. In those days, labor was committed to the market economy and "opted for what Gompers and his associates called 'trade unionism pure and simple,' the collective-bargaining strategy on which workers of every political stripe could agree."3
If labor unions did take a political stand, it was generally centrist, especially on social issues. In 1968, when the United Auto Workers threatened to leave the AFL-CIO because of AFL-CIO founder George Meany's opposition to an alliance with activist left intellectuals and students, Meany bid the UAW good riddance. In 1972, labor unions joined with the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, a group established to move the Democratic Party to the center, but abandoned the effort in 1974 in order to concentrate once again on economic issues. The colorful Alan Barkan, AFL-CIO political director in 1972, denounced the McGovernites for turning the Democratic Party into the "party of acid, amnesty, and abortion."4
DECLINING MEMBERSHIP AND THE TURN TO GOVERNMENT
For all the media focus on upheaval in the AFL-CIO, the federation's political aggressiveness and renewed emphasis on organizing have neither stemmed declines in union membership nor markedly improved working conditions; "wage growth is at historically sluggish levels, and labor's share of the growing national income is currently at its lowest level in two decades."5 In spite of these trends, workers apparently do not see joining unions as a remedy. In the mid-1950s, 35 percent of America's workers were unionized; today, fewer than 15 percent belong to unions. Leo Troy, a labor economist at Rutgers University, notes that unions have lost 7.5 million members since 1970, largely in the shrinking industrial sector.6 In response to these declining numbers, unions have attempted to bring more public employees into the fold. Of the 16.4 million union members in America, 6.9 million work directly for federal, state, and local governments.7 Despite the aggressive efforts of numerous AFL-CIO affiliates to recruit government workers, however, Sweeney has been forced to admit failure: "We are still losing members as an absolute number, and as a percentage of the workforce."8 In fact, the number of union members fell from 16.7 million in 1994 to 16.4 million last year.9
The AFL-CIO altered its moderate political stance as it moved beyond the shrinking manufacturing sector. As the union movement has grown more dependent on the public sector, it has moved squarely into the liberal camp, forging the very alliances that Gompers and Meany had shunned.
In October 1995, public employee unions such as the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and Service Employees' International Union (SEIU) spearheaded a successful rebellion to depose Lane Kirkland as president of the AFL-CIO. John Sweeney, head of the SEIU, became the first AFL-CIO president from a largely public-sector union, completing the federation's transformation from a voice for workers in negotiating with management into one of the nation's principal defenders of big government.
The labor movement's efforts to organize public employees may do more for big government than for private-sector union members, who would benefit from balanced budgets, lower taxes, and less intrusive government. Although bloated bureaucracies might be in the interest of a federal employee in Washington, D.C., or a municipal employee in Cleveland, Ohio, the man or woman on the automobile assembly line in Hamtramck, Michigan, benefits directly from lower taxes. Deficit spending comes out of their paychecks. By siding disproportionately with the interests of government employees, the AFL-CIO is neglecting the millions in its ranks who work in the private sector.
More significant than its defense of big government is organized labor's continuing leftward lurch on a broad array of issues. Liberal activists have captured the union movement and are using its influence to move the Democratic Party to the left by "controlling the debate," as AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka puts it.10 Trumka and other AFL-CIO officials, for example, regularly denounce the so-called New Democrats who have sought to move the party away from its traditional big-government agenda. Trumka has decried the agenda of the Democratic Leadership Council, the leading organization of centrist Democrats, as "immoral ... anti-worker [and] a blueprint for political disaster."11
The AFL-CIO's "Union Summer" project, originally designed to train 1,000 young people to become union organizers, also is being used for "voter education and registration" as well as to fight the California Civil Rights Initiative.12 This shift epitomizes the transformation from recruitment to politicking. It is not surprising, however, considering that Union Summer's director, Andrew Levin, boasts of having made a career of "apartheid, anti-nuclear, environment, civil rights, community organizing, union organizing, and student protest" activism.13
The AFL-CIO has become a leading funder of liberal causes, lending its rhetoric, foot soldiers, and coffers to a variety of movements. Under Sweeney, this shift to the left has accelerated, leaving organized labor outside the political mainstream on issues ranging from racial preferences to sexual preferences, tax policy, and protecting American national interests abroad:
During the 1996 election cycle, as part of their drive to control the debate, the activists who have captured the AFL-CIO have not hesitated to use workers' hard-earned dues money to fund their aggressive political campaign. The AFL-CIO has pledged to spend $35 million -- seven times the amount it normally spends in an election year -- in an effort to unseat 75 conservative Members of Congress.
The AFL-CIO's new leaders are pushing a cultural and economic agenda that does not represent the views of the federation's members. In some cases, labor leaders have taken positions directly counter to the interests of working families. Often, they have chosen to highlight issues with no relevance to collective bargaining, taking advantage of their roles and organizational resources to advance their own agenda.
For instance, the leadership of the Detroit chapter of AFSCME passed an emergency resolution last year condemning the death sentence meted out to a man convicted of murdering a police officer in Pennsylvania.14 As leader of the AFL-CIO, John Sweeney has continued this trend. In a March 1995 address to Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, for instance, Sweeney declared "that as long as I am president of our federation, the AFL-CIO will 'be there' for you."15 Yet Jackson remains one of the most controversial figures in American politics; a December 1995 Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that of 2,007 Americans polled, 46 percent viewed Jackson either somewhat negatively or very negatively, compared to just 26 percent who viewed him either very positively or somewhat positively.16
Consider some of organized labor's recent stances on issues wholly unrelated to collective bargaining:
Joe Velasquez, Director of Community Services for the AFL-CIO, led a 1995 campaign to force the Boy Scouts of America to include homosexuals and atheists. Velasquez even lectured the Boy Scouts about the need to reexamine their views and "decide if they are living up to their mission of teaching America's children the values that made this country great."17 AFL-CIO affiliates in Colorado and Maine took leading roles in campaigns to oppose efforts in those states to outlaw ordinances that would have given homosexuals special constitutional privileges. Other unions have taken an active role in promoting homosexual rights through donations to political action committees. Since 1993, AFSCME has donated over $5,000 to the Human Rights Campaign Fund, which promotes homosexual "marriage." The Service Employees International Union has pushed actively for spousal rights for homosexual partners.18 All of this despite the fact that over 80 percent of Americans support a law banning same-sex marriages.19
William Hamilton, Jr., who ran the Planned Parenthood Federation of America's Washington office for 13 years, now directs the legislative and political program of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.20 Hamilton was one of 12 members of the AFL-CIO Political Action Transition Workgroup, which decided to launch the effort to defeat 75 conservative members of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1996.21 Through its various political action committees, the union movement has funded several pro-abortion groups. Earlier this year, AFSCME donated $5,000 to Americans for Freedom of Choice. Over the past three years, Emily's List has received contributions of $2,500 from the AFL-CIO, $5,000 from the NEA, $10,000 from AFSCME, $5,000 from the Communications Workers of America, $7,500 from the SEIU, and $7,000 from the UAW. Voters for Choice has accepted $7,000 from AFSCME and $4,000 from the NEA. The NEA also donated $2,500 to the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. The Women's Campaign Fund has taken money from numerous unions, including AFSCME ($5,000), the AFL-CIO ($4,000), the CWA ($7,500), the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers ($15,000), the Letter Carriers ($6,000), the UAW ($15,000), and the UMW ($5,500).22 AFSCME was sued earlier this year by Edward P. Kelly, a devout Roman Catholic who objected to the use of union funds to lobby for abortion rights.23 A federal judge ruled that AFSCME had violated Mr. Kelly's religious liberties under the 1964 Civil Rights Act and allowed him to donate part of his agency fees to a charitable organization instead.
Racial and Gender Preferences
Polls indicate that over 80 percent of Americans -- black and white -- oppose racial preferences,24 but the AFL-CIO staunchly supports these measures, using union members' dues to support programs that will discriminate against members and their families.25 The UAW lobbied against H.R. 2128, a bill to eliminate federal affirmative action programs,26 and several unions are organizing to oppose the California Civil Rights Initiative, which would end racial preferences in public education, government hiring, and government contracts. The California Teachers Association, the United Farm Workers, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and local affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers, the SEIU, and the AFL-CIO all plan to publish pamphlets and man phone banks to get out the vote against the CCRI.
English as Official Language
Despite the fact that eight out of ten Americans support making English the official language, several national and international unions, including the UAW, the NEA, and the AFL-CIO, have opposed legislation to implement the idea.27 The AFL-CIO Executive Council declared that it was "deeply disturbed" by the U. S. House of Representatives' passage of the English as the Official Language of Government Act, claiming that the law "would weaken the federal government's ability to deal effectively with the challenges of living in a global age."28
In a recent poll of 1,000 union members, 87 percent voiced support for welfare reform that both requires recipients to work and limits the amount of time someone may receive welfare checks.29 Nevertheless, labor unions have tapped into the dues of their members to assure that the indolent not have to seek employment. In its year-end report for 1995, AFSCME has bragged about its work with the American Civil Liberties Union in suing various state and local agencies concerning welfare issues.30 AFSCME has been particularly aggressive in opposing time limits on cash payments and in fighting workfare, the concept that welfare recipients should work for benefits.31 John Sweeney described the recently passed welfare reform bill as "anti-poor, anti-immigrants, anti-women and anti-children," and said that it was a "sad day" when President Clinton signed it.32 The AFL-CIO also has decried attempts to prohibit alcohol and drug addicts from receiving welfare through Supplemental Security Income (SSI).33
The Federal Budget
Some 82 percent of union members surveyed support amending the Constitution to require Congress to balance the budget.34 Yet the AFL-CIO leadership opposes a balanced budget amendment.35 The average working family pays thousands of dollars a year in taxes simply to pay the interest on the national debt, but the AFL-CIO and its allies have chosen to side with the status quo and leave working families to pay the bill. According to a February 1995 AFSCME Legislative Alert, "President McEntee and Secretary-Treasurer Lucy have announced that defeat of the Balanced Budget Amendment is our number one national legislative priority. It is urgent that you call your Senators and urge them to vote 'NO' on any version of the balanced budget amendment."36 Moreover, says the AFL-CIO, "We strongly oppose the [$500-per-child tax credit and other] tax provisions of the 'Contract with America.'"37 Given the fact that 78 percent of union members support the tax credit, one wonders just who the AFL-CIO means by "we."38
Christian Conservatives and New Age Religion
As part of its efforts to "build solidarity among many kinds of movements,"39 organized labor gave its blessing to an April 1996 "Summit on Ethics and Meaning" organized by Michael Lerner, a 1960s radical who has emerged more recently as a sort of New Age "politics of meaning" guru to Hillary Clinton.40 AFL-CIO President Sweeney was the featured dinner speaker at the conference, which was convened by, among others, People for the American Way, the Utne Reader, the Institute for Policy Studies, and Planned Parenthood of America's Clergy Advisory Board. In his speech, Sweeney declared that participants in the conference were the "core of a progressive coalition that will expand the frontiers of social justice." One of key goals of the conference was to educate the public about "the deprivation of meaning in daily life and how our hunger for meaning is used and manipulated by racist, xenophobic, nationalist, fascist and fundamentalist religious groups in ways that set people against each other."41 The AFL-CIO's bias was made even clearer by an attack in the AFL-CIO News on the Christian Coalition, the American Family Association, Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, and the National Association of Christian Educators. The AFL-CIO News alleged that these "religious extremists pose a significant threat to those candidates who would best represent America's working families."42 At the same time, the AFL-CIO and the Letter Carriers union have given political action committee donations to the quasi-religious Natural Law Party.43 This party, founded by adherents of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, claims that a few government-run centers for Transcendental Meditation would reduce crime, illness, terrorism, and war by reducing the global stress level.44 Professionals skilled in this meditative technique allegedly can become smarter, halt the aging process, and levitate.
Many union members do not agree with such extreme positions. AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson admitted earlier this year that "labor was all over the place [in 1994]: taking positions on gun control, on abortion. Those issues affect us, but our membership told us in surveys that they felt we were not concentrating enough on bread-and-butter issues: pay increases, job security, a better tomorrow for them and their families."45 When union members are evenly split on a controversial issue that has little to do with their standard of living, their leaders should avoid taking either a conservative or a liberal position. At the very least, members should not be forced to finance causes they oppose.
SWEENEY'S FIRST YEAR: LABOR SOCIALISM IN ACTION
The union movement is gradually adopting the tactics of European-style labor socialism. In a December 1995 speech, Sweeney offered the following insight into his thought: "I was in Europe last week, traveling with President Clinton, and I couldn't help but be impressed with what is going on in France. In this country, when we're faced with cuts in vital services that benefit workers and the poor, we shut down a few parts of the government. In France, the workers shut down the country -- even though only 8 percent of the work force is organized!"46 Sweeney's admiration for the efforts of the French Communist-backed General Confederation of Labor and its stranglehold on many of France's key public-sector agencies is an ominous indication of the AFL-CIO's political agenda.
The New Voice platform on which Sweeney ran for the AFL-CIO presidency promised to "challenge the right-wing domination of the media in politics."47 This unusual claim shows just how far out of the political mainstream Sweeney and his colleagues are. In a recent Roper Center survey of Washington print correspondents and bureau chiefs, only 2 percent described themselves as conservative, compared to 91 percent who saw themselves as liberal to moderate.48
This vision of American politics is not surprising given Sweeney's political history. Democratic Left, a publication of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), boasts that Sweeney is a card-carrying DSA member.49 The DSA, founded by avowed socialist Michael Harrington, seeks to establish "an openly socialist presence in American communities and politics." While running for AFL-CIO President, Sweeney worked closely with the DSA by picketing the Columbus office of House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich (R-OH).50 The DSA, moreover, is urging youth involvement in Sweeney's Union Summer project: "single-issue progressive young activists have all found a home in unions. And through the labor movement, those activists have learned the connectedness of various forms of oppression and exploitation."51
Under the leadership of George Meany and even Lane Kirkland, the AFL-CIO supported the Cold War and military intervention, if necessary, to protect American national interests. The DSA, a bastion of the very type of "blame America first" thinking that Meany, in particular, condemned, opposed U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the Persian Gulf. Although Sweeney has issued few statements on foreign policy, it is worth noting that in January 1991, when he was head of the SEIU, he and Steve Rosenthal, now the AFL-CIO's political director, spearheaded a coalition of labor leaders opposed to the Gulf War.
Sweeney and the rest of the new AFL-CIO leadership have even been praised by the Communist Party, U.S.A., a virulent critic of the federation under George Meany's leadership. "Headed by President John Sweeney," writes CPUSA National Chairman Gus Hall, "the new leadership is also involved in a process of radicalization and militancy that is already evident in the activities and commitment of resources in the election campaign, organizing the unorganized and the campaign to win a higher minimum wage."52 Reflecting on various speeches at the AFL-CIO convention (including Sweeney's), Hall wrote that "The radical shift in both leadership and policy is a very positive, even historic change. We do not want to take any credit for the shift, but our Party has advocated class struggle policies throughout its 75 years."53
POLITICAL EXPLOITATION OF UNION MEMBERS
The shift from collective bargaining to aggressive political activism has not been limited to issuing cultural manifestos and press releases. Several unions have become heavily involved in partisan politics as well. Despite the fact that union members split their vote roughly 60-40 between the two major parties in 1994, the AFL-CIO has launched an overwhelmingly partisan $35 million "voter education project," funded mainly by mandatory union dues, to defeat conservative members of the 104th Congress. In the words of AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal, the 40 percent who supported Republicans simply voted "wrong."54
Unions played a key role at the 1996 Democratic National Convention. NEA President Keith Geiger spoke at the convention and was preaching largely to the choir: 405 NEA members were among the approximately 5,000 delegates.55 In addition to that huge total, 889 other delegates came from 44 different international unions, according to the AFL-CIO.56
The AFL-CIO leadership's efforts to re-elect President Clinton undoubtedly will continue through the fall. Executive Vice-President Linda Chavez-Thompson proclaimed at a union rally that "we will not have a day of rest until Bill Clinton and Al Gore are back in the White House."57 Other unions, including the SEIU, plan to close their headquarters in late October and use their staff for a get-out-the-vote effort. This blatant partisanship would be illegal if undertaken by any other type of organization. Even more important, however, it does nothing to advance the economic interests of working-class families.
LABOR'S LEFT WING
The nation's largest union, the National Education Association, epitomizes labor's leftward political tilt. At its 1995 annual convention, delegates passed a resolution stating that "the NEA believes that the following programs and practices are detrimental to public education and must be eliminated: privatization, performance contracting, tax credits for tuition to private and parochial schools, voucher plans... and evaluations by private, profit making groups."58 The NEA also has been outspoken in supporting multiculturalism, bilingual education, condom distribution, and abortion. With public school education in a downward spiral, the NEA should be concentrating on stopping this decline; instead, it is pursuing a partisan political agenda. The NEA employs nearly 1,500 people to organize teachers to participate in political activity.59 Clearly, though, it is the close financial ties between the NEA and the Democratic Party that should be of the greatest concern to dues-paying members. "In 1994, [the NEA] gave 99 percent of its PAC money -- about $2.27 million -- to Democrats" despite the fact that 30 percent of NEA members are Republicans.60
Several unions are trying to push the AFL-CIO even farther to the left. The United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, and the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers used union dues to finance last month's founding convention of the Labor Party, a new organization which plans to compete with the Democratic Party on the left.61
The National Labor Relations Act, the basic federal legislation governing labor unions, empowers unions to provide on-the-job representation for workers in terms of wages, benefits, and working conditions. The AFL-CIO's new leaders have shunned this role, preferring to serve as spokesmen for and financial supporters of an activist political agenda. Politicking and other non-collective bargaining activities cost the average union member hundreds of dollars per year in dues.62 The labor movement needs to return to basics and concentrate on representing union workers in collective bargaining with management. If organized labor is unwilling to return to its chartered role as collective bargaining agent, then union privileges should be re-examined.
Although unions have a right to participate in politics, they should not finance their political activities through compulsory membership dues. Simple fairness demands that union leaders not be permitted to exact dues from members and then divert union resources to political causes many of those members do not support. The U. S. Constitution itself protects workers against such abuses.
In a 1988 decision, Communications Workers of America v. Beck, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that union members are entitled to a refund of the portion of their dues used for purposes other than collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment.63 But these traditional union functions may represent only a small fraction of today's union spending; in a case involving the NEA and two of its affiliates, for example, the union was able to justify only 10 percent of its general treasury funds as chargeable to bargaining activities.64
Labor unions are supposed to defend the rights of working men and women, not trample them: The law says that workers should have this money returned to them if they wish. The Luntz survey cited above showed that 78 percent of union workers were unaware that they had the right to a refund of the portion of their mandatory dues that goes to political activity. The same survey revealed that 56 percent of those union members would be likely to request a refund rather than let labor leaders use the money to advance their own political agenda.65 The number of members who would ask for refunds probably would increase substantially if members knew that labor leaders were spending their dues money to fight tax cuts for working families, welfare reform that requires recipients to work, and a balanced budget--all of which rank-and-file members support overwhelmingly.
The tide may be starting to turn. John Joyce, head of the International Bricklayers and Allied Craftsmen, recently refused to join in the AFL-CIO's endorsement of President Clinton for re-election. Spurred by the President's veto of a bill that would have banned partial-birth abortions, Joyce said that while labor leaders should be taking positions on economic issues, "union members do not necessarily want or expect union leaders to take a position on issues, like abortion or gun control, where there's no obvious connection to their lives as a union member."66
While labor unions have a right to get involved in politics, they should not use compulsory membership dues to finance a specific political agenda. Labor leaders are free to associate with such groups as the Democratic Socialists of America, the Natural Law Party, or Planned Parenthood; but as the Supreme Court declared in Beck, they have no business trying to compel millions of union members to support this extreme political agenda with mandatory union dues.