Work in Progress: The State of the Unions Two Years after the AFL-CIO Split

Work in Progress: The State of the Unions Two Years after the AFL-CIO Split

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney recently took a strange trip. It was a short one, just a half-mile or so from the federation’s sandstone fortress near the White House to a sleek, smoked-glass office building that America’s fastest growing union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), was dedicating as its new headquarters. What made Sweeney’s appearance at the January dedication so strange was that SEIU—the union he led in the eighties and nineties—had stormed out of the AFL-CIO less than two years earlier and established the rival Change to Win (CTW) federation with six other unions. Back then, many feared a bitter war would break out between the two federations and that an already dwindling labor movement would disappear completely. Yet, there in SEIU’s glass-walled atrium, with beatific portraits of workers all around, the breakaway union’s staff applauded warmly when Sweeney was introduced. Though he didn’t speak at the ceremony, Sweeney stayed for the reception and chatted with old friends in the crowd.

Mostly, that’s how things have gone in labor since the split. Formal ties may have been broken, but relations between the two sides have been surprisingly civil. In theory, the two groups weren’t all that far apart during the debate that preceded the split at the July 2005 AFL-CIO convention. Both sides acknowledged that the movement, in decline for decades, faced a grave crisis. Both agreed that far more aggressive organizing was needed. But in the end, the CTW unions—and especially SEIU, which has poured more than a billion dollars into organizing since 1996—doubted that the AFL-CIO loyalists were serious about spending the money and making the changes necessary to recruit millions of new members.

After the split, a few skirmishes broke out. But the two biggest combatants, SEIU and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the AFL-CIO’s largest affiliate, soon signed a peace pact, pledging not to steal away one another’s members. And in California, which has more union members than any other state, the two federations set aside their differences and worked together to defeat a set of antilabor initiatives on the November 2005 ballot. In a matter of months, labor’s cold war had moved from an era of brinksmanship to détente.

But this relative peace hasn’t stopped labor’s slide. In 2006, union membership in the United States fell to just 12 percent of the workforce, and private sector membership dropped to 7.4 percent. These dismal numbers make one wonder whether either side has a solution to labor’s crisis.

SO HOW SHOULD we gauge the performance of the two federations since the split? Mere survival has to be seen as an achievement for the AFL-CIO, which had to cut a quarter of its 420-person staff in 2005. And the old federation has done more than survive. It’s made important progress in the fight to improve the country’s terri...