Lack of Organizing Deters AFL-CIO

By Bill Johnston

In 1972 George Meany, the longtime president of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO), was interviewed by Haynes Johnson, Pulitzer Prize winner at the Washington Post, for his book, The Unions.

Union membership had been at 35% of the American workforce in 1955 but was dropping by 1972. Concentrated in the ten largest industrial states, the number of union workers remained weak in the growing South and Southwest. “Some labor leaders see the entire future of unions threatened,” Johnson wrote -- but he found organizing was not a priority concern in the executive offices of the AFL-CIO leadership..

“To me, it doesn't mean a thing,” Meany told him. “I have no concern about it.” Lane Kirkland, the AFL-CIO's secretary, who was to succeed Meany in 1977, was of the same frame of mind. Kirkland added that he didn't care if any more American workers joined unions – that he had no “ideological compulsion to organize them ...”

For 30 years I worked for unions, both in the private and public sectors, and those quotes from Meany and Kirkland go a long way to explain a great deal as to why private-sector union membership is now at only 7% of the American workforce. Also why public employees are in the dire predicament they are in today -- especially in Wisconsin. With few exceptions this lack of interest in organizing was the attitude held by the hierarchy of union leadership that I saw throughout the 30 years I worked on staff -- often as an organizer.

Organized labor still functions on a model developed in the 1890s and used to organize in the 1930s. Over the last 70 years American unions have failed to evolve as organizations.

They have failed to educate their members; failed to educate and reach out to the public; failed to develop a popular culture showing Americans how union collective bargaining moves everyone up the economic ladder; failed to improve the workplace benefits that were basically in place by the late 1950s and finally they have failed to see their membership as the only real power they possess and work to develop that power.

Organized labor by 1955 had bought into the “ME” society. Labor made a deal with business that they would not challenge growing economic inequity to the community as long as part of growing wealth of big business came their way. Unions became much like the businesses they dealt with. In fact, in academic circles it is called “Business Unionism.” Big cars, big salaries, big expense accounts – the days on the shop floor were easily forgotten. Meany even bragged he had never walked a picket line!

Unlike “Business Unionism,” organizing is labor intensive, expensive, disruptive and more than often good organizers are mavericks, unconventional and don't like to be told what to do. And in a system that rewards loyalty over competence, the organizer's irreverent attitude is often met with the autocratic prescription when presented with unwelcome interference -- “Kill the messenger.”

Organized labor failed to examine its philosophy of operation even after Reagan's attack on the Professional Air Traffic Controllers union in 1981. They failed to realize this was just the beginning of a continuing attack on all private sector unions. Today private-sector unions are rendered basically ineffectual, proving how terribly wrong Meany was in his interview with Haynes Johnson in 1972 – numbers do matter! Wisconsin is the equivalent of that attack but on public workers.

Early in December 1971 35 businessmen – all chairmen or presidents of a cross-section of America's largest corporations -- attended a private dinner in New York of what came to be called “the Labor Law Study Group.” The group met to discuss a plan they all agreed on: how to destroy any union economic or political power.

That was 40 years ago.

The fact is organized labor has been caught -- again without a plan -- flat-footed in a life-or-death struggle -- evidence of the sorry state of labor organizations. Its inept and mostly incompetent leadership has failed not only to recognize the class war they are involved in but have failed to educate and recruit the very soldiers they need to fight that war – that is: their members and the communities in which they live!

Bill Johnston is a retired staff organizer of the United Food and Commercial Workers. He is a member of the National Writers Union (Pacific Northwest Chapter). Email

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2011

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