A Crack in Big Labor's Armor

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 23, 2005 | Go to article overview

A Crack in Big Labor's Armor


Byline: THE WASHINGTON TIMES

As AFL-CIO President John Sweeney prepares his labor federation for its national convention in Chicago next month, he and his fellow delegates will no doubt be recalling two important anniversaries.

Fifty years ago, with organized labor representing 35 percent of the U.S. labor force, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) consummated a merger that joined two extremely powerful labor factions. The other anniversary offers less celebratory memories. Seventy years ago, at the 1935 AFL convention, John L. Lewis split the labor federation when he and his United Mine Workers left the AFL to form the CIO. Unlike the AFL, which mostly organized skilled workers according to their crafts, the CIO concentrated its organizing efforts on entire industries, such as autos and steel. At next month's convention, Big Labor will fondly recall its heyday in 1955, but the Chicago confab will more likely resemble the explosion of 1935.

Following decades of unrelenting contraction, the proportion of workers represented by unions has collapsed. Today, the labor movement represents only 12.5 percent of the national work force, a third of its peak proportion in the mid-1950s. On the plus side, labor has succeeded in organizing public-sector workers, nearly 40 percent of whom are union members today. But that success masks labor's utter deterioration in the private sector, where fewer than 8 percent of workers carry union cards today - about one-fifth of the percentage of private-sector workers organized 50 years ago.

Largely in response to labor's inability to organize new industries and recruit new members, John Sweeney of the Service Employees International Union led a dissident labor faction 10 years ago to oust the AFL-CIO's old guard.

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