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

The Second of a Series of Five Articles

By Harry Kelber, Editor, The Labor Educator

April 18, 2011


Let’s start with a shocker. Ever since the founding of the American Federation of Labor in 1886 to the present day, no officer or member of a State AFL-CIO or Central Labor Council has ever been elected to the policy-making AFL-CIO Executive Council. The Constitution effectively denies union members a voice in the choice of their leaders and a role in decision-making. How can you build a labor movement when most of its members are disenfranchised?

The AFL-CIO functions like a constitutional monarchy, not a democracy: Its highest official can retain the presidency for decades without being challenged in an election. Here is the record:

Samuel Gompers, the first AFL president (1886-1924) held the job for 38 years until his death. He was succeeded by William Green (1924-1952), who served for 28 years and died in office. George Meany (1952-1979) was president for 27 years until a terminal illness forced him to retire, and Lane Kirkland, his heir apparent (1979-1995), served for 16 years until he was forced out of office. John Sweeney (1995-2009) was president for 14 years, to be succeeded by Richard Trumka (2009—). Those presidents really enjoyed job security, didn’t they?

And can you imagine what the AFL-CIO would be like with Trumka as president for the next 20 or 30 years?


The AFL-CIO can’t grow under its present structure, because it has a frozen leadership. The Old Guard functions like a private, self-serving, self-perpetuating club. It has no interest or need to make changes that could strengthen the Federation. They prefer to maintain the status quo and you can guess why.

In choosing staff people, the Old Guard emphasizes loyalty and conformity. It has zero tolerance for “dissidents,” who are routinely ignored or harassed. Although its leaders have no plans to rebuild the AFL-CIO, they won’t make way for younger, experienced union members to attain top leadership posts. The “glass ceiling” is a permanent fixture in the House of Labor. .

There is an obvious disconnect between leaders and members within the AFL-CIO. There is no agency that will listen and act on the grievances of members. Union publications rarely print letters from members, especially if they criticize the policies of the leadership. Members have no influence at AFL-CIO conventions, where the delegates are mostly lower-level officials from international unions.


The AFL-CIO has done little to improve the lives of union members in the past two or three decades. Check it out with your own experience. The Federation has suffered many defeats, but can you name any significant victories?

In their legislative campaigns, they mainly call on members to send e-mails and phone calls to their representatives in Congress and to the White House. Most of those e-mails may or may not be counted, but they are not read by lawmakers, not even by their aides.

AFL-CIO leaders avoid sponsoring the kind of non-violent actions that built the civil rights movement, because they prefer a passive membership, rather than a militant one that might call for reforms. They use highly-charged rhetoric against Wall Street, but avoid direct confrontation. It’s all bark and no bite.


The AFL-CIO Executive Council, the highest body within the Federation, needs a drastic overhaul. Its current 43 members (vice presidents) were “elected” at the 2009 convention by merely having their names presented by a nominator, without even saying a word or making an appearance at the convention. Delegates voted for them without knowing who they were or what they looked like. There were no campaign leaflets to describe their qualifications.

The Executive Council meets twice a year or when called into session by the AFL-CIO president. They meet behind closed doors and never reveal differences over policy issues. They are mostly unknown to the rank-and-file, and they rarely make public appearances or issue statements, leaving all that to the president

Most Council members are top leaders of their international unions, and they are usually more concerned with what happens in their fiefdom than the problems of the AFL-CIO, about which they maintain their accustomed silence. They have little contact with the union membership.


The first time any member heard of the AFL-CIO Executive Committee was when it appeared in the AFL-CIO’s Constitution booklet of 2005. The Committee, we learned, consisted of 20 members, a majority of whom were leaders of the 10 biggest international unions who also had seats on the Executive Council.

Section 18 (c) of the Constitution states: “The Executive Committee shall be the governing body of the Federation between meetings of the Executive Council” and it is “authorized to establish the annual budget for the Federation.” The Executive Committee is required to meet at least four times a year. It has never reported what it does, running the Federation in silence and secrecy.

Through the Executive Committee, the 10 biggest AFL-CIO unions are able to tighten their control of the AFL-CIO and treat it as their private corporate property, with no interference from their members. It may have ceased to function or undergone revisions when Change-to-Win, with several big unions, withdrew from the AFL-CIO in 2005. Will we ever know what the Executive Committee did?


AFL-CIO leaders never captured the loyalty and trust of their members, and many of them made no pretense at trying. For decades, the Old Guard found security in a passive membership, as they easily adjusted to the Federation’s continuing decline.

It is ironic that it took the anti-union attacks by a Republican governor in Wisconsin to energize union members and spark a national rebellion — something that AFL-CIO leaders have been unable or unwilling to do.

The Old Guard was caught by surprise at the enthusiastic turnout of their members in Wisconsin and other states. It played a minimal role in the “fight back” spirit that is developing among workers across the country.

Can the Old Guard take control of the new “grass-roots” movement? Not a chance. The ground troops in Wisconsin and elsewhere know enough about the AFL-CIO and its Old Guard to reject them. Most of them say they want their own union and their own leaders.

* * * * *

The big question: Is the AFL-CIO broken beyond repair? Or Is it possible to restructure the Federation to make it a viable labor organization with a promising future? What are the changes that are essential to its rebirth?

In our third article in this series, we will present some of our own suggestions about what is needed to “fix” the AFL-CIO. We welcome members who have alternative views.

Article 3 will be posted here on April 25, 2011 and on our two web sites and on

Comments are welcome.