Future of Labor Looms Over Union Federation’s Elections

From labor disputes cases to labor and employment publications, for your research, you’ll find solutions on Bloomberg Law®. Protect your clients by developing strategies based on Litigation...

By Josh Eidelson (Bloomberg) and Jacquie Lee (Bloomberg Law)

For the top officers of the largest U.S. union federation, getting re-elected will be the easy part.

No one has stepped forward to challenge AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, or Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre. All three will stand for re-election to new four-year terms on Sunday, at the start of the federation’s convention in St. Louis.

The trio formally launched their low-key re-election campaign through a mailer to affiliates that started arriving this week. They pledge to build unity within the labor movement, foster political power and independence, amplify the voices of workers, and grow the ranks of the shrinking movement.

“Together we will meet this moment in history,” the three leaders write in their campaign materials.

It’s a perilous moment for organized labor. Membership has been declining for decades. Last year it reached a record low of a little under 11 percent and in the private sector around 6.5 percent. Unions’ failure to keep President Donald Trump out of the Oval Office paved the way for a series of new blows to their clout and size, chief among them a potential U.S. Supreme Court ruling that could enable all government workers to opt out of paying union fees.

“We’re in a precarious time,” said Randi Weingarten, president of one of the AFL-CIO’s largest affiliates, the American Federation of Teachers. “We’ve just had a president win an election by hijacking our message and our values,” she told Bloomberg News. Cresting automation, deindustrialization, and globalization “are all very big tides that are hitting us, and we have to figure out how we navigate it,” Weingarten said.

The numbers aren’t all bad for unions: Public support for unions is above 60 percent, according to a 2017 Gallup poll, the highest since 2003.

In their campaign materials, Trumka, Shuler, and Gebre emphasize some recent victories for the federation, like the defeat of President Barack Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and of Trump’s Obamacare repeal. Those successes, they say, proved the importance of “focus, discipline, and a vision for change.”

AFL-CIO Gets Overhauled

The AFL-CIO has undergone a major restructuring this year.

It dismissed several dozen of its employees and dissolved departments in an attempt to focus the organization on core functions of running campaigns, promoting worker-friendly legislation, and growing the labor movement, Trumka told Bloomberg News in March.

“Unless we really change and focus on our priorities we’re not going to be successful—we’re not going to be able to ultimately drill our way back,” he said.

Beyond political threats, some labor officials say the federation’s budget has been hurt by long-foreseen factors. Those include a reduction in revenue from a royalty license agreement with Capital One Financial Corp. for a union-branded credit card.

“I haven’t completed what I want to get done,” Trumka said earlier this year, adding that there is still work to be done to “become more dynamic, more focused, and more efficient.”

Speculation earlier in the year suggested that challengers would emerge, perhaps capitalizing on the federation’s budget challenges or disagreements over how to handle the Trump administration. Now, leaders of major unions like the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees and the United Food & Commercial Workers say the incumbents have earned another term.

“I do in fact like what I’m seeing” from the current leadership, said Marc Perrone, president of the UFCW, the AFL-CIO’s largest private sector affiliate. The federation’s current leadership is trying to act in the best interests of the affiliates, which is why a change wouldn’t be beneficial, Perrone said.

“I don’t think it’s good to change when you’ve got so much disruption in the political arena in Washington today,” Perrone said, “and I certainly don’t see anyone that’s out there that could do any better of a job.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Jacquie Lee (Bloomberg Law) and Josh Eidelson (Bloomberg) in Washington at jlee1@bna.com and jeidelson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Request Labor & Employment on Bloomberg Law