AFL-CIO president: ‘We’re not going to let the employer decide who our members are any longer’

May 9, 2013

As a general rule, when Harold Meyerson writes about the future of organized labor, you should probably stop what you're doing and read him.

Today he looks at labor's effort to open up the labor movement. “We’re not going to let the employer decide who our members are any longer,” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka told Meyerson. “We’ll decide.”


AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka in his office. (Bill O'Leary - WASHINGTON POST)

The ideas Meyerson relates for opening up the labor movement mostly take the form of having unions focus on political organizing more than on workplace organizing. The hope is that winning those political fights then leads those workers to get interested in using the union to win workplace fights, as well.

The problem, as Meyerson points out, is that these new forms of representation don't come with members paying significant dues. And absent significant dues, labor won't, in the long run, have the money to be a particularly powerful force in American politics, or a powerful organizing force in American workplaces.

This is already beginning at the presidential level. This graph from OpenSecrets.org shows how totally outgunned labor -- and everyone else -- is when compared to American business:

Graphs like this one can be over-read. "Business" has a much less unified agenda than American labor, for instance. And it doesn't always get its way. According to OpenSecrets.org, business contributions slightly favored Democrats in the 2010 election cycle. But voters certainly didn't.

Whomever it benefits, this is a deeply unbalanced political system. And I see little reason to believe that labor will make the sort of comeback required to balance it anytime soon. All of which ultimately speaks to the importance of fundamental campaign-finance reform. While one way to balance out corporate money in American politics would be to somehow resuscitate organized labor, a much more straightforward way to do it is to pass legislation that reduces the power of all moneyed interests in American politics.

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Ezra Klein · May 9, 2013