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Unions Look to Congress for Survival. They Should Try Listening to Workers Instead

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Richard Trumka, then president of American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), speaks during the AFL-CIO 2013 Convention in Los Angeles, Calif., September 10, 2013. (Kevork Djansezian/Reuters) Even if lawmakers grant unions exactly what they want, reversing the movement’s slide might prove impossible.

The U.S. labor movement is facing a crisis of dwindling membership and hitching its hopes for survival on Congress. But even if lawmakers grant unions exactly what they want, reversing the movement’s slide might prove impossible.

Why? Because the labor movement’s interests are increasingly at odds with those of workers. Take, for example, its desire to rewrite workplace laws, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act, to push more people into joining unions — and in some cases to give workers no choice but to join. Many workers value their freedom to choose whether to belong to a union or not and will resent that being taken away.

Currently, only 10.8 percent of the American workforce is unionized. That’s almost half what it was when the Labor Department first started tracking the figure in 1983 and far below the union movement’s 1950s heyday, when (according to the U.S. Census Bureau) about a third of all workers were unionized.

The movement has been struggling for years to reverse this decline. Former AFL-CIO president John Sweeney — who led the organization from 1995 to 2009 — decided that one major problem was that unions fell out of the habit of recruiting new members. The movement had become dependent on long-unionized industries in which existing contracts required new workers to join. As the economy changed and new businesses emerged, such as those in Silicon Valley or big box retailers like Walmart, the labor movement fell behind in recruiting those workers.

By the time he stepped down, Sweeney had moved the AFL-CIO to devoting at least 30 percent of its resources to ground-level organizing. His successor Richard Trumka reversed that, deciding instead to focus on politics. Under Trumka, the organizing budget fell to just 10 percent; during his 12-year tenure

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