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

The fourth of a Series of Five Articles

By Harry Kelber, Editor, The Labor Educator

May 2, 2011


If the AFL-CIO eventually fades into oblivion because its top leaders won’t take the basic steps to reform it, the good news is that a new, labor movement, led by union members in dozens of states, is in the initial stages of being born.

Of course, the AFL-CIO can be reinvigorated, but its current leaders will have to agree to the following basic principles of unionism:

• Free and honest elections, in which candidates are assured of an equal chance to compete for high office;

• Compliance with the rule of transparency, by which union members are kept informed of the policies and activities of the Federation and are given an opportunity to comment, even criticize, them.

• Use a major portion of union dues money to organize the millions of non-union workers who say they want a union.

Structural changes are needed to increase the AFL-CIO’s ability to grow. They include:

• Revise the functions and responsibilities of the three national executive officers.

• Reduce the AFL-CIO Executive Council from 43 to 18 vice presidents , giving each of them special administrative functions..

• Provide financial support and additional resources to affiliated State AFL-CIOs and Central Labor Councils, that are furnishing the front-line troops to fight the Republican legislative attacks on unions.

AFL-CIO’s top leaders have steadfastly remained silent about reforms. They insist on the status quo because it ensures them a monopoly of power within the Federation.


The AFL-CIO has become a feeble image of what it was only 30 years ago. In 1983, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent and there were 17.7 million workers in unions. Today, union membership is down to 11.9 percent.

Or to put the decline in another way: In the late 1970s, one out of every four workers belonged to a union. Today, only one of 10 workers is in a union.

The situation is worse in the private sector, where the rate of unionization has plunged to 6.8 percent, the lowest in a century!

AFL-CIO officials may be concerned about the steep decline in membership, but they are not willing—or able—to do anything about it. The subject gets hardly any mention on the Federation’s web site and in their public statements. They have no specific plans to organize. non-union workers as a way to rebuild the organization..

Many labor leaders are sitting out the storm, confident that “hard times” won’t last forever. They are awaiting the time when they can retire with a sizeable pension.

Meanwhile, millions of workers still remain unemployed, while the wages of those who are lucky enough to have jobs remain stagnant. Unions are forced to make concessions lest the employers go elsewhere.


There are no reliable statistics about how much money union members pay per year in dues and assessments, but by keeping each of their payments at the very lowest level, we can form some estimate of the total. So let’s do a little math:

If each union member pays an average of only $10 a month in dues, then the average dues per year would be $120. Now multiply that amount by 10 million members (actually the AFL-CIO, as we’ve reported, has 11.9 million), then the total amount of dues payments per year is: $1,200,000,000 ($1.2 billion)

A portion of the dues money stays with the local. Another portion goes to the international union, and a third portion in the form of a per capita tax on the internationals goes to the AFL-CIO. As a rule, members never see their union dues, because they are deducted by “check off” from their salaries.

Are members entitled to know how their dues money is spent? AFL-CIO- leaders say “No.” In the past 18 months since their election, they have not said a single word about the Federation’s finances, despite rumors that it is operating at a deficit.


AFL-CIO leaders reserve the right to make decisions without consulting the membership. An example is their decision to prohibit any mention of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on the AFL-CIO’s web site or in its campaign literature in the 2010 elections, despite the fact that millions of union households are keenly interested in news about the two wars.

Why did the AFL-CIO decide to sign an agreement with the United Chamber of Commerce, labor’s worst enemy, without telling union members what advantages could be gained by such a deal? Did they think that Chamber lobbyists would be a valuable ally in the fight for jobs?

It is indisputable that AFL-CIO officials turn a deaf ear to any suggestions or complaints from their members. Check it out: When have you heard from, or talked to, a high-level AFL-CIO official? They are in full control of the Federation, and they don’t need—or want—comments, least of all from critics.


AFL-CIO officials haven’t caught up with the fact that we’re living in the 21st century, and that there are global unions defending workers on five continents against profit-hungry, marauding multinationals.

The AFL-CIO has a minimal presence on the international labor stage. Its officials have made few attempts to establish good relations with labor leaders in other countries for mutual benefit. They play hardly any role at global labor conferences.

Union members are not informed about important developments in the world labor market. The AFL-CIO web site does not provide a weekly menu of international labor news. It is rare that AFL-CIO’s top officers are invited to worldwide labor conferences and even rarer that they attend.

The Federation is doing nothing to stop the outsourcing and outshoring of hundreds of thousands of good-paying American jobs each year. As a result, our workers are slowly being dragged into a “race to the bottom.”


It is still possible for a group of union officers and members with courage, conviction and competence to initiate a reform movement to save the AFL-CIO from eventual impotence . But where are these heroic leaders? Or does the membership feel that the AFL-CIO isn’t worth saving, and that w e need to build a new labor organization, based on union democracy and members’ rights?

Our final article deals with the opportunities and problems of building a “bottoms-up” labor federation, starting with a grass-roots effort.


Article 5 will be posted here on May 9, 2011 and on our two web sites and on