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

The fifth of a Series of Five Articles

By Harry Kelber, Editor, The Labor Educator

May 9, 2011


Let’s be frank with each other. Are there any union officers or members who believe that the AFL-CIO can ever become a bigger, stronger and democratic organization? If there are any, let them speak up. Are there any who will publicly say that the AFL-CIO’s top leaders have done a good job for America’s working families? I haven’t heard of any. Have you?

In the first four articles of this series, I offered many reasons to prove that the AFL-CIO was “broken.” Until now, I have not been challenged by any of the Federation’s officers, even though my criticism of them was, I believe, sharp and well-deserved.

Their policy of silence and secrecy, which I have documented, cannot possibly serve the interests of union members. It merely confirms their desire to keep the Federation as their private corporate property, with the power to spend our duees money as they see fit.

Why not have a national poll of the membership on the performance of AFL-CIO leaders? Let’s find out how popular they are with our women members, Hispanics, Black-Americans and other constituencies in the Federation.

The AFL-CIO has used the Philip D. Hart polling services before. A well-constructed poll would give us a chance to express our true feelings without fear of reprisal.


Can we build a new, “bottoms-up,” national labor organization that can supplant the tightly-controlled, do-nothing AFL-CIO?

It won’t be easy, but it can be done. What better example than the Committee of Industrial Organizations (CIO), that seceded from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and went on to organize millions of workers in such major corporations as General Motors, General Electric, U.S. Steel, Westinghouse, Hormel and others?

To create a new labor federation, we are not starting from scratch. We have many thousands of local unions and some 500 central labor councils, plus 51 state organizations that are already functioning. What we have to do is to reconstruct the new organization so that it is controlled by the membership and not by a group of self-serving international union presidents.

In recent months, union members, once passive within the AFL-CIO, have become energized since the start of the attacks against public employee unions by Republican Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. The Republicans and their right-wing allies have shifted their anti-union attacks to the states, where they are pressing legislatures to enact laws that would cripple unions economically and politically.

With the battleground shifting to the states, this has increased the importance of State AFL-CIOs, Central Labor Councils and local affiliates, who are mobilizing their members in a campaign to save our unions. Union members, realizing what’s at stake, are fighting back in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Florida, Utah and in other states, and winning widespread public approval in their opposition to the Republican attacks.


A new labor federation can be established by following the process and guidelines that most institutions have gone through in creating their national organizations. It is fortunate that many labor leaders have lots of know-how about conducting elections and running conventions.

As a first step in forming a national labor federation, it is suggested that in each state, a two-day convention be called, to which each local and state organization can send elected delegates, based on their membership.

The two-day convention can then elect a Provisional Council of an agreed upon size, that will be authorized to draw up a draft of a Constitution within a specific time. State labor organizations have a history of organizing conventions, so that this one should be within their competence.

The Council can be authorized to set up the following departments: Organizing, Collective Bargaining, Economic, Political, Legislative, Social Welfare and Global Affairs. Union members will be invited to volunteer for any of these departments, each of which will elect a director.

In a new labor federation, members would have a voice in choosing their officials, who would have to campaign for their jobs in open, honest elections against competing candidates. In the AFL-CIO, the rank-and-file have no voice in electing their officials, because only the candidates of the Old Guard can be on the ballot..

In a new labor federation, the rights of union members are safeguarded. The Constitution can also contain an ethical practices provision to judge and penalize wrongdoing by union officials and members, including the abuse of union authority.


In the meantime, the battle against the Republican effort to destroy our unions must continue with heightened intensify. Efforts must be made to reach out to every unionized workplace and call upon workers to become involved in various aspects of the “save our unions” campaign.

In these statewide struggles, some individuals will emerge as leaders, who command the respect of co-workers for their outstanding contributions to the campaign. Those workers may eventually become the union leaders of tomorrow, and they will owe their position to the rank-and-file that will elect them. That’s how a bottoms-up, democratic labor organization can be built.

A coordinating committee representing key states will be needed to develop solidarity relations between workers in each state and within states, Workers have to feel that they are not alone, but part of a large struggle to build an organization that will improve the quality of life for all working families.


For the past two decades, the AFL-CIO has failed to stop our giant corporations from shipping tens of thousands of good-paying American jobs to low wage countries that ignore worker rights. In fact, it hasn’t really made a serious effort to stop it.

Nor has the AFL-CIO developed a working relation with the new global unions that are challenging transnational corporations and winning some agreements. Our top leaders have minimal influence at world labor conferences. They rarely attend them, even when they are invited. Hardly any of them are known to the delegates from other countries. They are not a factor on the developing world labor scene.

It should be obvious that U.S. cooperation with labor unions from other countries with the same employer is the best way to organize giant multinationals, but the AFL-CIO has spent little time, money and resources in building close working relations with unions from abroad.

In a new labor federation, a campaign to organize corporations with dozens of subsidiaries can adopt a model suited to developments in the 21st century. A major multinational corporation can be targeted by unions from several countries; the exchange of information can be invaluable.


In this series of articles, we have made the case that the AFL-CIO is broken and needs to be repaired through a number of democratic and structural reforms. We said that if the current AFL-CIO leadership refuses to respond, union members should be thinking about creating a new labor federation.

Well, our AFL-CIO leaders refuse to respond. They are maintaining their usual silence and secrecy. They simply will not talk to the membership about problems that concern not only unions, but working families. They are sure they will not be challenged, because until now they really haven’t been.

We do not claim that our proposals are the only possible answers or the best answers. We are eagerly awaiting what other members have to say.

In conclusion, I feel confident that in the course of our struggles, new union leaders will arise that have the respect and trust of the membership. I also believe that bigger and stronger unions can be organized, and that there will always be members who defend union democracy and worker rights.