The AFL-CIO Evolves: How a Union Plans to Take on Declining Membership

The largest labor union in the country has approved a plan to expand its membership base to more closely align with progressive groups. But traditional members have expressed concern those changes could hurt the wider cause.

The AFL-CIO may have 12 million members, but one thing it does not have is the momentum it once did.

Which is not to say that the issues its member organizations cover aren’t still important to its organization but rather that, overall, union membership continues to be on the decline.

However, AFL-CIO’s president, Richard Trumka, has an idea to increase the union’s numbers despite that trend—and it could change the makeup of the group forever. More details:

At the end of the day, it’s on us. It’s on us to build a movement not for the 99 percent, but of the 99 percent.

The issue: Over the years, unions have lost clout as a part of the larger population, with a January estimate showing a decline of 400,000 members in 2012 and unions making up 11.3 percent of the population as a whole—the lowest level since the nadir of the Great Depression in 1936.

The move: On Monday, Trumka offered up a fresh vision for the union movement to encourage membership beyond traditional workers—beyond simply traditional union employees. In a speech during the AFL-CIO’s quadrennial convention in Los Angeles, he pushed a resolution that would expand the union’s mission to outside groups, through forming coalitions with politically aligned groups and those who aren’t actually in unions. “We must begin, here and now, today, the great work of reawakening a movement of working people,” he said during the speech, according to The Hill. The move was approved in a voice vote.

Coalitions matter: Prior to the event, Trumka outlined his ideas to The New York Times, speaking about the potential of creating ties between known progressive groups, such as the NAACP and the Sierra Club, to help enliven and expand the labor movement. “The crisis for labor has deepened,” Trumka told the paper. “It’s at a point where we really must do something differently. We really have to experiment.” This comes at a time when unions are beginning to change form, with organizations such as the Freelancers’ Union having much in common with associations, and fast-food employees (who aren’t members of traditional unions) taking part in organized nationwide protests over pay—protests supported by the Service Employees International Union.

Pushback: The proposal didn’t sit well with many labor traditionalists, who expressed concern that the changes could hurt the AFL-CIO’s core goals by aligning too stridently with political causes. “This is the American Federation of Labor,” International Association of Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger told The Hill. “We are supposed to be representing workers and workers’ interests. … We are not going to be the ‘American Federation of Progressive and Liberal Organizations.’” Meanwhile, author Julius Getman, who has written about the labor movement in the past, argued to the Los Angeles Times that moving away from collective bargaining would be “heading for disaster” for the union.

But Trumka sought to reassure anxious members that the union’s original goals are not being lost, just expanded.

“At the end of the day, it’s on us. It’s on us to build a movement not for the 99 percent, but of the 99 percent,” he said during the speech. “Not just the 11 percent we are right now. The 99 percent.”

You may not run a union, but how could you think beyond your current membership approach, no matter how traditional it might be? Let us know your take in the comments.

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, who is pushing for a wider membership pool. (photo by

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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