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  were in a union. Today, less than 7 percent  are. In 1955, less than 6 percent  of public sector workers  were in a union. Today, 34 percent  are. In 1955, perhaps 3 percent of union members worked in the public sector. Today, as noted, it’s half. 
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/