There's a Reason Union Membership Is Plummeting

The AFL-CIO is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, but don’t expect any champagne to be flowing at the organization’s annual convention next week. It’s been a lousy year — indeed a miserable several decades — for Big Labor. With union membership falling to historic lows and the unions’ political clout on the wane, even while unions pour, literally, hundreds of millions of dollars into politics, the coup de grace for the AFL-CIO may come at the convention itself. Five unions, including the federation’s biggest, have announced they will pull out of the group unless the AFL-CIO changes its focus to organizing new members. But even these dissident unions seem clueless when it comes to what really ails the shrinking labor movement.

Less than 8 percent of private sector workers belonged to a union in 2004, and, overall, only 12.5 percent of American workers carry a union card — down from about one-third of workers in labor’s heydays in the 1950s. If it weren’t for compulsory union membership laws in 27 states, the number would no doubt be even lower.

The unions claim the deck is stacked against them when it comes to labor laws, but the truth is many private and public sector workers are forced to pay union dues as a condition of their employment, yet they have little say in how the unions spend their money. Despite court rulings that grant union members the right to withhold that portion of their dues that goes beyond negotiating and administering the union contract, most union members — 78 percent according to one poll — are in the dark about their rights, and the unions themselves want to keep it that way. Nor has the National Labor Relations Board, the federal government’s chief enforcement agency, done much to force unions to inform their workers of their rights.

So how did unions spend their members’ money last year? The 1.8 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the largest union in the AFL-CIO and the one spearheading the threats to pull out of the federation next week, spent $65 million not organizing new members but trying to defeat President Bush and Republicans in Congress. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees spent $48 million in the same, failing effort. The AFL-CIO spent $44 million trying to defeat Bush, and the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) spent another $8 million in the same quest.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. These unions also gave millions to so-called 527 organizations, which can collect and spend unlimited amounts trying to elect or defeat candidates. According to its own press releases, the SEIU alone gave $26 million to America Coming Together, an anti-Bush 527, while the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) gave $1 million to the Media Fund to run ads against the president and Republicans. All of this money came from union dues, not from the voluntary contributions unions collect through their Political Action Committees, which spent an additional $52 million in the 2004 election cycle, 86 percent of it going to Democrats.

Some 43 percent of voters in union households voted for President Bush in 2004, according to exit poll data. But these union members have virtually no say in how their unions spend their hard-earned money. Next week’s vote among AFL-CIO union leaders won’t change that one whit. The president of the SEIU, Andy Stern, claims he wants the AFL-CIO to spend more on organizing new members and brags that his own union spends half its budget on signing up new members, a boast that is impossible to verify given the arcane methods unions use to hide their finances. But the AFL-CIO dissidents are among the worst offenders when it comes to wasting their members’ dues on politics. Enforcing union members’ right to withhold that portion of their dues that goes to politics would do more to reform the labor movement than any phony bolt from the AFL-CIO.