What is AFL-CIO's Real Agenda?
By Vin Suprynowicz
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
AFL-CIO president John Sweeney came to Las Vegas Feb. 12, vowing to make the city a starting point for a nationwide campaign aimed at restoring organized labor's slipping share of private sector workers.
(The percentage of American workers who belong to unions is down from 35 percent in the 1950s, to 15 percent today. Nearly half the remaining membership work directly for government.)
The union will invest at least $6 million in the next year, the white-haired union organizer vowed, in an attempt to "make Las Vegas a 100 percent union town."
"If America needs a raise, then the buck start here," Mr. Sweeney vowed.
The union movement has much to be proud of. All Americans can celebrate labor's eventual victory for the freedom of association, the end to the days when state and local government could all too often be counted on to help prevent workers from organizing and bargaining ... sending in guys with belt-fed Brownings, if it came to that.
But it may be significant that Mr. Sweeney speaks of workers "needing a raise."
Today, an ever-more-sophisticated work force increasingly realizes that higher real wages can only be earned if the worker helps make his or her employer more productive ... often by adopting an entrepreneurial approach considerably at variance with the old "when do I get my break" attitude of the factory floor.
Today's private-sector worker is far more likely to place a higher value on such innovative approaches as flex-time and profit sharing. Yet the mindset of the labor leaders of Mr. Sweeney's generation has been to view any such proposals with deep suspicion.
Even more puzzling -- at first glance -- is the way the AFL has rushed to back every leftist "social" cause to come down the pike of late, ignoring the more conservative drift of its membership (according to numerous polls.)
Kenneth Weinstein and August Stofferahn of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, writing in their October, 1996 background paper "From Meany to Sweeney: Labor's Leftward Tilt," attribute this growing mis-match precisely to the fact that Mr. John Sweeney is the the first AFL-CIO leader from a government employee-dominated union.
"The desires of government employees ... have proven to be in conflict with the interests of blue-collar workers, who now get billed twice for big government," Messrs. Weinstein and Stofferahn write. "Thanks to their unions' lobbying efforts, private-sector workers pay high taxes to support bloated bureaucracies. ... Meanwhile, union dues are used to support political causes that are irrelevant to the bread-and-butter interests of the average worker."
AFL founder Samuel Gompers (1850-1924) warned that labor, to succeed on a broad front, must "keep its distance both from socialism and from partisan politics," focusing instead on the basic business of collective bargaining. "In the first half of this century, the AFL even refused to support minimum-wage legislation" for this reason, the Heritage researchers report.
More recently, however, "Organized labor has decided to use its billions of dollars in dues revenue to defeat conservative Members of Congress, while also encouraging the Boy Scouts to admit homosexuals and atheists, offering financial contributions to political groups that promote abortion, and opposing welfare reform and a balanced budget." Messrs. Weinstein and Stofferahn report.
"There is no evidence that the new union leadership's radical political campaign will do anything but accelerate the exit of union members, especially in the private sector," since private sector employees "would benefit more from balanced budgets, lower taxes, and less intrusive government," the Heritage analysts conclude.
Organized labor may yet regret tying its horse to the one market segment where the customer base is -- literally -- captive.
If labor costs make American-made TV sets too expensive, customers buy Sony. But if customers find the cost of their government firemen too high, can they sign up with a cheaper, competing bunch of firefighters? Are they allowed to stop paying their school taxes if they grow unhappy with the bureaucratic sclerosis there, using the money to patronize less expensive private schools?
No, they are not. And so the public increasingly associates "union member" with "high-handed, tax-sucking government leech."
Mr. Sweeney chose Las Vegas because it's America's fastest-growing city. But it may not be a coincidence that Nevada is also a right-to-work state with no state income tax, where my union friends complain that workers "can still be fired at will." (They never tell me whether they also oppose "quitting at will.")
Mr. Sweeney did not launch his campaign in cities already dominated by his big-government, big-union notions, like Detroit or Gary or Philadelphia, because those cities are already economic basket cases.
Instead, he looks to feed on fresh meat. The pattern is parasitic.
Organized labor could still move quickly to research and champion the real and fast-changing concerns of 21st century private sector workers. But there seems little reason to expect such innovation under the "Big government is good for you" agenda of Mr. Sweeney and his fellow government employees.
Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The web site for the Suprynowicz column is at http://www.nguworld.com/vindex/. The column is syndicated in the United States and Canada via Mountain Media Syndications, P.O. Box 4422, Las Vegas Nev. 89127.
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