What are the implications of the AFL-CIO’s expanding membership criteria?

October 28, 2013

[Joshua Tucker: The following is the second of two guest posts from political scientists John S. Ahlquist (University of Wisconsin) and Margaret Levi (University of Washington) in conjunction with their newly published Princeton University Press book: In the Interest of Others: Organizations and Social Activism; their first post on the political implications of the decline of union membership can be found here. The current post was also co-authored by University of Washington political science Ph.D. candidate Amanda B. Clayton.]

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At its recent convention the AFL-CIO passed a series of resolutions that will pave the way for nonunionized workers and even environmental, immigrant, and civil-rights groups to join the labor federation.  The organizational details for incorporating these nontraditional members are presumably the subject of furious debate.  Will traditional unions be able to find common cause with these new groups?  Will the labor movement broaden its scope of action?  Will existing members come to view their unions as avenues for acting on behalf of a broader community of fate?

Based on our research into political activism in transport sector unions we find cause for both hope and caution.  On the one hand, we find that the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), long known for its internal democracy and activist politics, managed to extend its actions to include social and environmental causes well beyond conventional collective bargaining.  We also find that participation in the ILWU affected the political views and behavior of the members.  Some of the evidence for this claim comes from our survey of over 600 ILWU members all along the West Coast.  For comparison we also conducted a parallel survey of non-ILWU members in the same communities. In terms of support for environmental causes we asked our survey respondents “Do you think the US government is spending too much money on improving and protecting the environment, too little money or about the right amount?” We used matching techniques to construct comparisons between ILWU members and their otherwise demographically similar neighbors. (A description of the methodology appears in the book; data are here.  We matched respondents’ on their location, age, sex, race/ethnicity, and education). The figure below shows ILWU members’ opinions on environmental spending compared to matched respondents from our random digit dialing (RDD) sample.

We find that ILWU members are more likely than their similar neighbors to say that environmental spending is insufficient.  Furthermore, we find that this difference strengthens the longer workers are exposed to the union.  And these are workers who make a living in an industrial setting, often moving cargo that is the target of environmental activists.  Their background and immediate interests would not lead you to expect such a progressive disposition.

But recent events also give cause for caution. Within the ILWU there are disputes over environmental issues.  The ILWU local in Longview, Wash. has decided to support a new coal terminal there, expecting to gain 135 jobs from the project.  Environmental groups, Native American communities and others oppose the project.  So does the ILWU local just a short distance down the Columbia River in Vancouver, Wash. where members recently passed a resolution in opposition to the coal terminal.  The union’s official stance is unclear.  But clearly, for some, economic interests dominate environmental concerns, even in a union known for pro-environment positions.

Another cloud on the horizon is the fact that the ILWU just left the AFL-CIO, in part because the ILWU viewed the AFL-CIO’s positions on health care and immigration as not going as far enough.  Without affiliates like the ILWU inside the organization, it will be harder for the federation to develop governance rules and organizational principles likely to provoke greater levels of activism from its membership, both new and old.

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John Sides · October 28, 2013