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AFL-CIO Super PAC

[ 10 ] August 23, 2011 |

In an utterly unsurprising move, the AFL-CIO has started its own Super PAC. It intends to compete with the big corporate Super PACs, trying to use its considerable lobbying power to push for workers’ rights.

I only mention this because of my ambivalence about AFL-CIO political strategy. I understand all the reasons this kind of thing is necessary. Big changes happen on Capitol Hill and in the statehouses. Without labor’s lobbying skills, what voice would workers have in legislation? A Super PAC could make a considerable difference in lobbying for small but important changes, as well as larger legislation.

So what’s to be ambivalent about?

In the bigger picture, I think the labor movement has gone a bit astray in its political strategy. Again, I understand all the reasons for this strategy. And I can’t argue against any of them except to say that labor’s real power comes from organizing workers, not Capitol Hill. We all know that numbers of organized workers continues to decline, even if I have some optimism about this changing. Would diverting some money away from the political strategy in favor of increased organizing make a long-term difference for the labor movement? That’s a question I think is worth asking.

Again, I don’t want to sound political naive. If the AFL-CIO isn’t representing workers’ interests in Washington, no one is going fill that role. And that could have serious consequences. At the same time, I wish more of these resources went into organizing workers and less into lobbying politicians.

Comments (10)

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  1. mpowell says:

    Okay, but politicians pass laws that make it harder (or easier) to organize workers. If capitol hill was just about minimum wage laws and such, your argument would carry a lot more force. But in the current environment, it’s not clear whether you will get more union workers by just focusing on organizing, or by diverting some of the resources lobbying to create an easier environment to organize in.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I admit that this may be true.

      To clarify, my argument is 2-fold.

      1. That sometimes the AFL-CIO seems to emphasize lobbying in Washington more than organizing workers.

      2. That maybe this is a problem and at the very least it’s a conversation worth having.

      Nothing more than that.

  2. Hogan says:

    As a federation, the AFL-CIO doesn’t do any organizing; that’s the task of individual unions. They can provide resources to individual unions for that purpose, but I would imagine there are problems of the “They got $20 but we only got $5!” variety, as well as the “Hey, they’re using our organizing money to poach my members!” variety. It may actually be best for the AFL-CIO to take over more DC lobbying so that, e.g., AFSCME and SEIU don’t have to, which would indirectly free up resources for organizing.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Well, technically that is true, but the federation does has significant power over what its members do. Certainly some unions are much more organizing-friendly than others, but it’s not as if Trumka has no say in this and can only influence the movement through lobbying.

      • Hogan says:

        the federation does has significant power over what its members do.

        Not really. The federation isn’t providing anything to the affiliates that they’re counting on for survival; if anything, it’s the other way round–the federation’s budget comes from per capita taxes paid by the affiliates. The federation doesn’t have many credible threats; they can’t even throw out an affiliate except by a majority vote at a national convention. They couldn’t stop five major affiliates from leaving to start the Change to Win Federation, precisely over the issue that the AFL-CIO as currently constituted can’t force member unions to engage in more organizing, for lack of carrots and sticks. I’d like to see that change, but we’re not there yet.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          Right–all true. What they could do is make it the national message of the central body to organize, organize, organize, and favor those unions inclined to do so, through money or access to power, or whatever. But certainly they can’t make the Piano Tuners or whoever organize if they don’t want to.

  3. David Kaib says:

    At the same time, I wish more of these resources went into organizing workers and less into lobbying politicians.

    I wish this too, but I don’t think this gets to the heart of it. A lot of the money spent on politics isn’t really spent on lobbying – it simply involves supporting Democratic candidates, especially incumbents. In theory, giving such money gives them access to Democratic office holders, but as the EFCA debacle showed, it’s not clear that is worth anything. There has been rumblings that they will no longer be funding the worst Dems, and that they will shift to have more attention on state and local races. But there still needs to be a shift in strategy, where they make people contenders, rather than simply backing winners (this was the approach used by Miguel Contreras in the LA County Federation to great effect).

    One more thing – if labor uses its money to do things like big media buys, than that money may impact elections but it can’t help directly with organizing. On the other hand, when grassroots organizing is the strategy, the skills developed and relationships built in the electoral arena can translate to workplace organizing (as well as policy organizing). Done right, the choices are less stark.

  4. massappeal says:

    It seems worth noting, if only for historical reasons, that labor unions invented the PAC. The great Sidney Hillman created the CIO Political Action Committee in 1943 to focus and direct labor’s efforts to influence the 1944 elections (and in particular, FDR’s reelection).

  5. S Nelson says:

    I just listened to Mr Trumka on CSpan and the idea I got was to open support for unions to non union members, in other words any worker, like me who has no union at my job and I doubt the business owners will never allow union organizing in their business, and don’t say they can’t stop it, they can. So now if I understand I can join or at least support what the unions are trying to do and I think that is a good thing, It will give the Unions more money to work with and hopefully those of us with no unions, a voice.

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