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Laboring under the Delusions of Democrats

Take a moment and picture the typical American union member. Who do you see? 

If you think of a burly man working with his hands, perhaps on the factory line, then your conception may require updating. Today, half of American union members work for the government.

Timothy J. Minchin’s new book Labor Under Fire is a history of the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States. Minchin paints uneven and shallow portraits of its primary personalities while sloppily citing statistics that offer few apples-to-apples comparisons. Despite a sympathetic treatment, the bosses emerge as hopeless managers who have subsumed themselves into an ungrateful Democrat Party.

The challenge of any union is that their demands simultaneously threaten and yet can only be granted by the success of their members’ employers. In 1955, when the AFL-CIO was formed, an unrivaled industrial sector could lavish employees with benefits. Over the coming decades, automation and foreign competition set industrial employment, though not necessarily productivity, on the decline, yet the AFL-CIO remained stubbornly wed to its historic base. The leadership tried to restore the glory days by fighting for legal changes to make unionization easier and international trade harder. They failed on both counts.


The AFL-CIO was reluctant to reorient itself toward a new economy. Lane Kirkland, president from 1979-1995, publicly belittled the service economy while frequently and secretly eating at non-unionized McDonald’s. If you have recently ordered from an iPad or kiosk, you know that it may now be too late for the unions to organize. There is genuine cause for concern as to where jobs may exist in the future for determined members of the middle class, but the answer will almost certainly be found more readily in schools than union halls.

There was one area that did attract a disturbing rate of new unionization. Here’s the kind of striking statistical mirror you won’t find in the book: In 1955, 35 percent of private sector workers [1] were in a union. Today, less than 7 percent [2] are. In 1955, less than 6 percent [3] of public sector workers [4] were in a union. Today, 34 percent [2] are. In 1955, perhaps 3 percent of union members worked in the public sector. Today, as noted, it’s half. [2]

Minchin occasionally identifies the public sector as a growth area, but he gives no sense of the scale or how this might change the AFL-CIO’s priorities. American politics now face a vicious cycle of unions of government employees spending millions of dollars to elect the bosses who determine their benefits at taxpayer expense.

The shift in composition of the union base helps inform why the AFL-CIO never seriously considered endorsing Donald Trump in 2016. The book ends before Trump enters the scene, but Trump’s skepticism of trade and immigration are consistent with the vision laid out by the AFL-CIO as recently as 2000.

The AFL-CIO has been taken for granted by the Democrat Party: a pure analysis of interest would suggest the rare defection might make the AFL-CIO a more powerful player, not to mention hedging bets against partisan shutout. Instead, the AFL-CIO has become a Democrat Party subsidiary.

The leadership blames Ronald Reagan. Before 1981, the AFL-CIO relied on the strength of its numbers to exercise political influence over both parties, though it obviously preferred the Democrats. Reagan, who famously performed well in union households, recognized the AFL-CIO leadership as partisan players distinct from their members. When he fired the nation’s illegally striking air traffic controllers, Reagan sent a message, soon replicated by the private sector, that outrageous union demands would not be tolerated.

Reagan was a problem because the AFL-CIO leaders have typically been more lobbyists than activists, focusing on D.C. access over mainstreet organizing. But they failed even with Democrat administrations and Democrat Congresses to push through favorable legislation, such as their evergreen priority of disallowing companies to replace strikers or, more recently, opening up the secret ballot in union elections through card check. Instead, the AFL-CIO had to be satisfied with small wins such as Bill Clinton ordering the removal of signs in workplaces that told workers they did not have to join a union-signs which Minchin reports unironically the AFL-CIO identified as an “extraordinary burden.”

When the AFL-CIO has engaged in activism, the results have been expensive and difficult to duplicate. The organization has only occasionally innovated, such as introducing a union credit card which allowed holders to skip three months of payments during a strike. As an umbrella organization with voluntary affiliates, the AFL-CIO actually has relatively little institutional power to compel members. Disputes over servicing existing members versus recruiting new ones have plagued the organization for decades, ultimately resulting in a defection of 40 percent of its members to an alternative federation in 2005, from which the AFL-CIO is still struggling to recover.

An entire chapter is devoted to “Solidarity Day,” a 1981 march organized sort of in response to Reagan’s firing of air traffic controllers, but mostly just to protest Reagan generally, and ultimately serving as a platform for then-president Kirkland’s re-election. The march is remembered fondly and proudly by interviewees, and the attendance is inflated with every page, starting with the 260,000 estimated by the National Park Service and increasing to over 500,000 with famously fuzzy crowd counting. And yet, for all the good feels about the march, it produced no results. To bolster numbers, the AFL-CIO invited every anti-Reagan group under the sun to participate, including Communists, and publicized no less than 14 “centerpiece” issues that the march was supposed to address. The Reagan administration dismissed the gathering as smaller than a recent Simon and Garfunkel concert.

But the march, aside from being totally ineffective, is symbolic of how terribly unfocused organized labor has been-all the more damning given how much trouble it has faced. Claiming the mantle of “the People’s Lobby,” the AFL-CIO has pursued liberal agenda items that are tangential, if not counterproductive, to its members’ interests. While the AFL-CIO controversially reasserted its neutrality on abortion in 1990, it is perfectly happy to delve into other issues. During the life-and-death struggle over NAFTA, Minchin mentions that the AFL-CIO was hesitant to work with fellow critic Ross Perot because, among other things, he opposed gun control, an issue that has precisely nothing to do with labor. By 2000, the AFL-CIO reversed its traditional opposition to immigration to better align with liberal allies, never mind the potential effect on its members’ wages. In 2003, the AFL-CIO opposed the Iraq War, a position that, regardless of its independent soundness, was irrelevant to union interests.

Today, the AFL-CIO appears to exist primarily to launder union dues into the campaign war chests of Democrats who don’t even deliver on the core organized labor agenda. The typical American runs across labor disputes probably only to the degree that they threaten their fall schedule of television shows or football games. Labor Day is for barbeques, not marches. And union misleadership and distraction has as much to do with labor’s diminished status as economics.

Grant Starrett is a real estate executive who lives in Murfreesboro, TN. He ran for Congress in 2016. Follow him on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/GrantforTN/ [5]

27 Comments (Open | Close)

27 Comments To "Laboring under the Delusions of Democrats"

#1 Comment By Tag Murphy On May 17, 2017 @ 2:37 am

I was surprised to read that the “AFL-CIO has been taken for granted by the Democrat Party,” I’ve spent considerable time in Thailand and follow Thai politics and I don’t think the Democrat Party pays any attention at all to the AFL-CIO or any other American union, even though I suppose the Democrat Party might be defined conservative.

(For readers who may not be aware of it, the Democrat Party is a Thai political party — description can be found here: [6] )

So I found this article mystifying.

#2 Comment By balconesfault On May 17, 2017 @ 6:20 am

The shift in composition of the union base helps inform why the AFL-CIO never seriously considered endorsing Donald Trump in 2016.

It wouldn’t have anything to do with the dedicated anti-union stance of the GOP over the last 3 decades?

Perhaps it was Trump blaming loss of American jobs to overseas on unions?

Or maybe his war with workers who wanted to unionize at one of his properties, first spending half a million on an anti-union consulting firm, filing numerous complaints against the NLRB when he lost the vote (all were dismissed), and finally refusing to negotiate with the union even after the NLRB rulings?

Or perhaps him declaring during the campaign that the reason the US has trouble competing globally is because “our wages are too high”?

(I’m pretty sure he wasn’t referring to CEO or reality TV star wages, fwiw …)

#3 Comment By Tom Usher On May 17, 2017 @ 9:11 am

Things that make you go Hmmmmmm.

The author ran for Congress? Under the banner of which party, I wonder. That’s a tough one.

#4 Comment By Tiber On May 17, 2017 @ 11:39 am

Counterpoint: The amount of productivity (meaning output per hour worked) has gone up over the last 50 or so years, but wages have been relatively stagnant since around the 70’s. Sure, a lot of that has been from mechanization, but the benefits have gone almost entirely to the owners and not the workers.

You can say the unions are flawed, and I agree. You can say the unions are corrupt, and I’ll say there is probably some corruption, though Republicans overstate it. But what alternatives do workers have? Employers, especially large employers, have most of the negotiation power and they know it.

And is it really any wonder that unions support the Democrats when the Republicans do everything in their power to lower wages and make it easier for managers to fire you on a whim? Why would they do otherwise? If I must accept corruption in this world, better the corruption that makes my life better (even if incidentally), than the corruption that makes my life worse.

#5 Comment By Cash On May 17, 2017 @ 11:48 am

With some editing, this piece could have run anytime in the last 75 years. The same lad same old.

In truth, the collapse of the American middle/working class goes hand in hand with the collapse of unions.

Unions and higher minimum wages matter because they set the US economy’s reference wages. Increase the reference wage and everyone else’s pay goes up lockstep.

A while back, when Walmart bumped starting pay for bottom-rung workers, lower level managers saw their pay jump a few weeks later.

Wrecking labor unions has had terrible consequences for America. Average people are desperate to see their lives get better, which almost always means higher paying jobs that offer benefits and security. Promising to bring such jobs back is how Trump got elected. His respect for democratic norms is minimal.

Strengthening unions is how we rebuild America. Good jobs lead to good communities. The ultimate social program. It’s the conservative solution.

#6 Comment By collin On May 17, 2017 @ 12:05 pm

Today, the AFL-CIO appears to exist primarily to launder union dues into the campaign war chests of Democrats who don’t even deliver on the core organized labor agenda.

What is core organized labor agenda? It was higher pay, better benefits and increased job security but these are something companies don’t like to offer. Sounds Reagan and the 1980s broke the organized labor agenda and the AFL-CIO is in a long term losing status role. Or labor unions have been too focused on manufacturing and more interested in service working class positions. Reading about the Hospitality Union in Las Vegas in 2016 would suggest a avenue.

#7 Comment By cka2nd On May 17, 2017 @ 12:26 pm

A note to the editors of The American Conservative from a TAC SUBSCRIBER of over ten years:

The name of the Democratic Party is the DEMOCRATIC Party, not the DEMOCRAT Party. I happen to loathe the Democratic Party, but I loathe sloppy editing, partisan dishonesty and Frank Luntz almost as much. I don’t ask that you correct the comments posted in reply to your articles, but I demand, yes, DEMAND, that you correct the articles themselves.

#8 Comment By cka2nd On May 17, 2017 @ 12:35 pm

Funny that the author never mentioned PATCO.

Cash makes some very good points, especially about unions setting a “reference” wage, which is another reason to support a large and in one fell swoop raise in the federal minimum wage as it will have a domino effect on the wages of millions of other workers.

Neither of the twin parties of American capitalism has anything to offer the working class. Workers need to declare their independence from both the Democrats and the Republicans. Andrew Cuomo is just a quieter version of Scott walker.

#9 Comment By cka2nd On May 17, 2017 @ 12:39 pm

By the way, this is yet another article under the new regime at TAC that could have just as easily been published by National Review or the Weekly Standard.

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 17, 2017 @ 12:46 pm

Te only thing missing from this article is the explication of how the union leadership undermined US employees and by expanding the union internationally tat opened the door to vastly lowered economic competition. The turn of the leadership towards self promotion and increased salaries and benefits is a devastating story waiting for an author.

AFL-CIO could and should have been the protectorate of the US employee, instead they have helped orchestrate their diminution. It is spot on that the union leadership filed to act in the employee’s best interests by ignoring the decreasing profits and changing economic environment that the leadership helped create, withn their respective industries.

No. the GOP did not dismantle unions. And its obvious that millions of union members are members of the GOP or vote republican.

The unions that serve as target and rightfully so are the public sector unions. Those that deal with public employees in other-words their salaries are derived from the tax payer.

#11 Comment By Mike Bradley On May 17, 2017 @ 1:19 pm

Interesting article, in that it appears here instead of the left-wing Labor Notes. I guess labor’s issues are so common, so ordinary, so simple that everyone knows them.

The key, for me, is this, “The challenge of any union is that their demands simultaneously threaten and yet can only be granted by the success of their members’ employers.” Unions are caught in a bind from which there is no escape; the best they can do is mitigate the impact, largely through government action that mediates the difficulties of their precarious partnership with employers. In more ways than might appear, the unionization of government employees is a life-and-death struggle for the entire labor movement.

#12 Comment By c matt On May 17, 2017 @ 5:10 pm

Sure, a lot of that has been from mechanization, but the benefits have gone almost entirely to the owners and not the workers

If the owners paid for the mechanization, and the mechanization contributed to the increased productivity, why shouldn’t the owners get the benefits of it?

#13 Comment By Ken On May 17, 2017 @ 5:23 pm


I was surprised to read that the “AFL-CIO has been taken for granted by the Democrat Party,” I’ve spent considerable time in Thailand and follow Thai politics and I don’t think the Democrat Party pays any attention at all to the AFL-CIO or any other American union

Ummm… What do you think “takes for granted” means? Unions support dems, no matter what, so why should dems pay attention to unions? It doesn’t gain them anything to pay attentions, since they already have their votes, so why bother?

#14 Comment By Cedric On May 17, 2017 @ 5:23 pm

Add a tic to a Democrat and you get the Democratic Party, a party filled with tics and ticks.

#15 Comment By Ken On May 17, 2017 @ 5:43 pm


It wouldn’t have anything to do with the dedicated anti-union stance of the GOP over the last 3 decades?

And the American people, with less than 10% of workers in unions, and with American workers consistently rejeting unions, when given the chance (a chance people like you try to deny Americans). The American people know how corrupt and useless the AFL-CIO is, so ignore them. Only democrat hacks want them around because you guys know that they are an enormous source of money laundering for dems.

#16 Comment By Ken On May 17, 2017 @ 5:44 pm

Tom Usher,

The author ran for Congress? Under the banner of which party, I wonder.

Under the one that is against such obvious and blatant corruption demonstrated by the AFL-CIO.

#17 Comment By Doctor Lecter On May 17, 2017 @ 5:59 pm

Not-so-fun fact: The SEIU has stolen millions of dollars from crippled kids and their families in Minnesota through fraudulent ‘organization’ drives. Truly, these are parasitic organisms.

#18 Comment By David Skerry On May 17, 2017 @ 6:19 pm

I’m shocked, shocked. Round-up the usual suspects.(AMA,ABA,AIPAC,etc.) So what-see Citizens United.

#19 Comment By Clyde Schechter On May 17, 2017 @ 6:31 pm

It could be said that the leadership of the Republican party hate and despise working people, whereas that of the Democratic party merely despise them.

#20 Comment By ZZMike On May 17, 2017 @ 8:11 pm

We call it the ‘Democrat’ Party because, for one thing, it isn’t very democratic; for another, it’s a way of expressing our dislike.

#21 Comment By Mkelley On May 17, 2017 @ 9:23 pm

I am a member of the Steelworkers’ Union, and I know exactly why unions are dying out in the private sector. They do a lousy job of representing their members’ interests. Leftism is all they care about. My local union is in the mining industry, and our union President and the International bankrolled Democrat politicians who did their best to harm our industry, former President Obama and our Senator, Jon Tester.

#22 Comment By LEB On May 17, 2017 @ 11:28 pm

This article is absolutely correct. I spent 20 years as a union member and found it to be a frustrating experience overall. The leadership and executive board was weak and ineffective in getting and negotiating contracts so they spent more time promoting left wing agendas that had nothing to do with labor and work place issues, going after members who owed dues, and driving away members who didn’t want to just be neck down their whole career.

#23 Comment By Fran Macadam On May 18, 2017 @ 1:32 am

Without unions, we’ll have the same set of dire circumstances Americans found themselves in, before there were unions.

It’s always tragic, of course, when union leaders betray their own folks to get on the gravy train with elites, and there never is any lack of those elites willing to entice them against their members.

#24 Comment By BostonLiberty On May 18, 2017 @ 9:53 am

Disband all unions. They served a purpose 100 years ago before OSHA and modern employment laws. They are just another power hungry (legalized) crime syndicate who are bankrupting America. Check out all of the pension funds that cities and towns are legally bound to fund at the expense of tax payers, while cutting services and raising taxes. All so the greedy union drones can retire early, get a lifetime pension, with many double dipping. Unions have killed the public sector as well, with the Teachers Unions leading the way. Tell me, why does a teachers union need 22 offices and 1000+ employees in a state as small as Massachusetts? 300 million dollar budget fully funded by the extortion known as ‘dues’. Why do the members willingly hand over 7% of their GROSS pre-tax pay to the union? Oh and good luck being hired or promoted if you aren’t towing the party line. If you aren’t union, you are the enemy. And if you step out of line, the thugs and criminals from Teamsters Local 25 in Boston will come and slash your tires and physically assault you. Cowards and trash, the lot of them. Disband them, burn down the union halls, freeze the pension money they have stolen and return in to the municipality from which it was taken.

#25 Comment By Odyss On May 27, 2017 @ 10:47 am

Interesting that no mention is made of the impending demise of public sector unions. Last year, after Scalia’s death, SCOTUS deadlocked 4-4 on whether union membership can be made mandatory. With Gorsuch and a new case hat is wending its way through the lower courts, it is likely that public employee union membership will be optional, and so will the dues. Think Wisconsin! There will be no AFSCME, SEIU, nor teachers’ unions.

#26 Comment By Dave Heller On May 30, 2017 @ 4:38 pm

I am a conservative, and I support the existence and utilage of Unions, but gosh how the Union Leadership of the past 40 years has failed it’s members.

If Unions want to continue to exist, they have to become part of the solution, not part of the problem. Unions should do everything they can to ensure their employer-partners gain market share and increase profits; and they should demand and gain a full share of those increased monies. What I see however, is the Unions demanding the money, but road-blocking corporate survival improvements. For example; when was the last time anyone at all, has heard about Government Union employees at the Federal, State, or local levels, making efforts to improve the efficiency, productivity, and accuracy of their work efforts ????? It just doesn’t happen. Feather-bedding is theft, corporate theft, and if the unions gained a fair share of the monies from productivity increases, it would be theft from their own members.

I suggest, that the unions in America, become less shills for the Democratic Party, and begin a new compact with their corporate partners (think of Germany as an example), to increase the well-being of management as well as Labor.

Most of America, when they think of Unions at all, think of the debacle of Hostess (the Twinkies Strike) when the company went out of business, or of Public Teachers Unions, that always and everywhere screw-over the students in order to protect incompetent and corrupt teachers.

Unions are going to completely disappear, unless they get the public to hear their story, and ally with union members. If Unions have no story to tell except greed, they lose.

#27 Comment By Jim Keller On June 5, 2017 @ 10:12 am

As a member of three labor unions and the son of a Teamster, I’m not going to even try to argue that unions are perfect, or their leadership is never corrupt, or their blind support for a Democratic Party that increasingly has abandoned them isn’t a problem. What I object to is this argument made by conservatives that when labor organizes into unions it’s inherently bad but when capital organizes into corporations it’s inherently good. Anything negative that can be said about labor unions can be said about corporations and at a much larger scale.

Also, do we really think that a real estate executive knows anything at all about unions? He’s probably mad because the stonemasons carpenters and bricklayers who develop his properties actually demand a decent salary and benefits.