AFL-CIO History

In 1955, the AFL and the CIO merged to form the AFL-CIO. This merger was initiated to end the financial warfare, and to unite the house of labor under one roof. During this time period labor represented 16 million members. Roughly one in three workers belonged to a trade union. Fifty years later the AFL-CIO’s membership is down to 10.5 million members. They represent less than one in twelve workers in the private sector. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) is a voluntary federation of 56 national and international labor unions

George Meany was elected the first president of the AFL-CIO at the 1955 convention. Meany held that position for twenty-four years. Meany’s philosophy and policies were directed towards servicing the membership. The business unionism style of Meany encouraged union members to rely on their respective unions for insurance, pensions, and legal representation. Organizing and increasing membership had little merit for concern. Meany was quite blunt about the role of the AFL-CIO in regards to organizing. This was reinforced in 1972 at the AFL-CIO convention when a reporter asked Meany if he was concerned about the decline in union membership. He responded: “ I don’t know. I don’t care.” When the reporter pressed the issue future, Meany responded: “I used to worry about the size of the membership. I stopped worrying because to me it doesn’t make any difference. The organized fellow is the only fellow that counts.” Meany’s disregard to recognize the importance of the AFL-CIO’ s role in organizing could have been a contributing factor in the decline in union representation over his twenty-four year tenure.

Lane Kirkland became the second president of the AFL-CIO at the 1979 convention. Kirkland was endorsed by Meany prior to his death. With the support of Meany, Kirkland assumed the position of president without opposition. Kirkland led the AFL-CIO for the next seventeen years. He followed the ideals and principles of his predecessor, George Meany. He continued the philosophy that organizing was the sole responsibility of each of the affiliated unions. Lane Kirkland spent his energies on creating and improving the organizations role in international affairs.

In 1995, several International union presidents were alarmingly disturbed at the decrease in union membership. This concern led to the creation of an opposition team for control of the AFL-CIO for the first time since its inception in 1955. The result of this opposition led to the election of the “New Voice Team,” composed of John Sweeney, Richard Trumka and Linda Chavez-Thompson in 1995. The team was elected on the pledge to revive the union movement by shifting the AFL-CIO’s resources and finances from business unionism, into increased organizing and mobilization efforts. The team immediately budgeted 30 percent of the federation’s budget to organizing and urged all of the affiliate unions to do the same. They instituted organizing educational campaigns and hired young college students as organizers. They recognized the importance of women and minorities in the organizing campaigns by placing them in key high-level positions.

Despite their efforts over the last ten years union membership has continued to decrease. Union representation has decreased from 14.5 percent in 1995 to its current level of 12.5 percent. The decline in membership can be attributed to several factors. These include; plant closings, outsourcing of jobs, attitude of the public towards unionization, anti union campaigns and unfavorable labor laws. These changes were all contributors to union membership decline, but the leading factor could be attributable to the lack of concern for organizing for the first forty years from it’s inception.