Reasons Why the AFL-CIO Is Broken;
Let Us Start a Debate on How to Fix It

The First of a Series of Five Articles

By Harry Kelber, Editor, The Labor Educator

April 11, 2011


A basic principle of unionism (and democracy) is the right of members to choose their officers in a free and fair election. In the AFL-CIO, members do not have that right. They are given a prepared list of candidates to vote for, in a sham election where there are no opposing candidates.

Nor do members have the right to run for high office on a par with a list of favored candidates. If they dared to be a candidate, they would be guaranteed a humiliating defeat, because the election results had been fixed beforehand.

Union members lost a voice in AFL-CIO policies and activities when a group of presidents from big international unions seized control of the AFL-CIO, because they had a majority of votes and delegates at the Federation’s conventions. This group now runs the AFL-CIO with full authority to make whatever decisions they want to, without fear of opposition.

The new oligarchy relies on the AFL-CIO Constitution, which gives international unions as many convention votes as they have members, while it accords each State AFL-CIO and Central Labor Council one delegate and only one vote for each. Here is an example of how this worked out at the 2009 convention in Pittsburgh:

The Communication Workers of America (CWA), was given 583,500 convention votes in accordance with its membership. Since it had 15 delegates, each delegate could cast 38,900 convention votes. Meanwhile, New York and California State AFL-CIOs, each representing more than one million members, had one delegate and one vote apiece.

At this convention, the Federation of Professional Athletes had 2,111 convention, votes, which was six times the combined votes of the State AFL-CIOs and Central Labor Councils.


In the late 1970s, the AFL-CIO had 17 million members. In 2010, it had only 11.9 million members. In the private sector, union membership dropped from 7.2 percent to 6.8 percent, the lowest rate in a century. The losses could be partially blamed on the pullout of the Change-to -Win unions, as an excuse for doing nothing to rebuild the Federation.

When BLS figures showed that 1,383,000 workers had dropped out of unions between 2008 and 2010, AFL-CIO leaders should have been alarmed and taken some actions to at least stem the exodus of their members. But they did nothing. The problem got hardly a mention on the AFL-CIO web site or in public statements by union leaders, who pointedly refrained from talking about the crisis. The subject was as dead as last week’s weather report.

If any major company had suffered such a loss of customers, its CEO and the management team would have been fired. But not in the AFL-CIO. The top AFL-CIO officials get their salaries and perks and maybe a pay increase, even if the Federation should lose a million more members. In the AFL-CIO, it is almost impossible to remove a top official for negligence or incompetence or worse; because the Constitution has no recall provision.


There is little likelihood that the AFL-CIO will ever become a bigger and stronger organization if it is allowed to continue in its present form of operation. Its leaders have hardly any connection with their members, without whose support they can’t possibly grow. They have no blueprint for organizing workers. They have no victories to brag about. The truth is, that with all the talk about change, they are perfectly content with maintaining the status quo.

The AFL-CIO spent millions of dollars trying to sell Congress on the idea of passing the Employee Free Choice Act, with its “card check” provision, as a means to “level the playing field” between labor and management. But its campaign for passage of the EFCA came to naught, although debate about the reasons for the measure’s failure persists.

In lobbying strongly for the EFCA, AFL-CIO leaders took great pains to indicate that without government legislative assistance, they were no match for the nation’s corporations and would not be able to organize some 50 million workers who had indicated, in surveys and polls, that they would like to join a union if they were assured they would not be harassed or fired.

AFL-CIO leaders displayed their incompetence and timidity during the campaign to “Make Wall Street Pay!” They never talked directly to the bankers, face-to-face; they only made tough speeches against them. Nor did they offer a proposal for a settlement. The banks got off without paying a cent.

And what about the “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs” campaign? AFL-CIO leaders called for the immediate creation of millions of “decent jobs NOW,” knowing that they did not have the power and influence to make Congress even listen to their proposals. Nor did they make a serious effort to organize the long-time unemployed to fight for jobs.

So, without government assistance, AFL-CIO leaders decided to limit costly and risky organizing campaigns, and instead spend the Federation’s money, resources and staffing on electoral politics, as it did in the 2008 presidential elections. Did the election of Obama in 2008 increase labor’s economic and political power? Will unions become stronger and negotiate better contracts for their members if Obama is re-elected?


The AFL-CIO’s primary source of income is our union dues, which it receives in the form of “per capita” payments from national and international unions. Its officers refuse to tell us how it spends our dues money. Since September 2009, when its present officers were elected, it has not said a word about the AFL-CIO’s financial condition, despite repeated requests from members for information.

Since there is no independent oversight committee to check on AFL-CIO expenditures, officials can spend our money freely, for whatever purpose suits them. If the Federation suffers financial losses in poor investments, they do not have to disclose the losses. If they make costly mistakes, they can keep them secret. With all that money around, the opportunity for embezzlement may be enticing to some unscrupulous individuals.

We have written letters about our complaint at being denied information to Helen Solis, Secretary of Labor, and to President Barack Obama, but we have not received a reply from either of them.

If we are kept completely in the dark about AFL-CIO’s finances, how can we feel a sense of loyalty to the Federation? Would this kind of behavior be tolerated in any other organization? It is “taxation without representation.”


The founders of the AFL-CIO, who created an Ethical Practices Committee, stated they are ”committed by word and deed, to the concept that free, democratic trade unionism must be clean, honest trade unionism.” They appointed a committee to enforce the ethical practices requirements.

The initial committee issued a 48-page booklet, “AFL-CIO Code of Ethical Practices” (AFL-CIO Publication No. 58; reissued May 1958) that contains individual codes in six areas that may require special attention: (1) Local Union Charters; (2) Health and Welfare Funds; (3) Crooks, Communists and Fascists; (4) Investments and Business Interests of Union Officials; (5) Financial Practices and Proprietary Practices of Unions, and (6) Union Democratic Practices.

The AFL-CIO has refused to adopt or comply with the original Ethical Practices Committee or propose a similar one in its place. Thus, there is no AFL-CIO agency to protect union members against various forms of discrimination and abusive treatment, often in violation of the Constitution.

Remember the scandal involving more than twenty current and retired AFL-CIO national leaders who were found guilty of insider stock trading as directors of the Union Labor Life Insurance Company (ULLICO)? Those guilty labor leaders didn’t get so much as a mild rebuke from the AFL-CIO Executive Council, and several continued to retain their Council seats.

The AFL-CIO’s Executive Council takes a relaxed attitude toward evidence of corruption. For decades, it has refused to hold hearings in cases about the embezzlement of union funds and other criminal acts. Union members know that it is pointless to complain about discrimination and other unethical practices, because there is no AFL-CIO committee to hear them. Wrong-doing tends to flourish when it fears no punishment.


The AFL-CIO is currently in the hands of an oligarchy of middle-to-elderly white males who do not depend on the membership for re-election. To keep up the fiction of diversity, they appoint women and minorities to the Council, who can be removed if they criticize the established policies of their leaders. When vacancies occur on the Council, it appoints the new vice-presidents, rather than hold an election to choose them.

The AFL-CIO’s ruling group has stripped its members of their basic right to have a voice in the conduct of union affairs. It has created a climate of fear, so that members face vengeful reprisals if they dare criticize the leadership.

How long can the AFL-CIO survive if its leaders maintain a policy of secrecy and silence toward its members?

Article 2 of This Five-Part Series Will Discuss:

Why the AFL-CIO Can Not Survive
Unless It Makes Structural Changes

By Harry Kelber, Editor, The Labor Educator

Article 2 will be posted here on April 18, 2011 and on our two web sites and on

Comments are welcome.