NEW ORLEANS – As has been the case ever since a team led by John Sweeney, Richard Trumka and Linda Chavez-Thompson assumed the leadership of the AFL-CIO in October 1995, organizing the unorganized was high on the agenda at the recent meeting of the AFL-CIO Executive Council.

The council laid out an ambitious campaign that will see the AFL-CIO working with its affiliates in organizing campaigns across the country. And, for the second time since 1995, the federation registered a net membership increase in 2001.

Although progress has been much slower than hoped for, the federation has stopped the years-long decline in membership. Statistics prepared by the Labor Department show that the AFL-CIO has grown by more than 250,000 since 1997 and, at 13,248,844, now exceeds the level last reached in 1995.

This is despite the disaffiliation of the 330,000-member Carpenters Union and the United Transportation Union, with more than 70,000 members, and an economy that has wiped out more than two million jobs in the last year.

According to its annual membership report the average membership of unions affiliated with AFL-CIO increased by 325,865 last year. While more than 200,000 of that increase was the result of two new affiliations to the AFL-CIO, more than 115,000 new workers – 93,000 of them women – joined unions last year.

The AFL-CIO says 2.5 million workers have joined unions since 1995, less than half the million-member-per-year pace the federation has set for itself. The heart of the new campaign is a “partnership” arrangement that sees the AFL-CIO assisting organizing efforts of its affiliates by providing field organizers and research assistance to help build what it calls “strategic multi-union projects.”

The AFL-CIO says these partnerships involve unions representing at least 80 percent of the AFL-CIO membership and cover workers in a full spectrum of industry sectors, income levels and geographic areas.

Sweeney has promised to increase the federation’s organizing budget and to shift 25 staff members to the department. One of the most ambitious projects is the four-union Pipeline Union Mobilization Project (PUMP) that sees a combined effort of the Operating Engineers, Laborers, Teamsters, and Plumbers and Pipe Fitters joining forces to bring the benefits of unionization to workers who build the nation’s network of pipelines that carry natural gas and petroleum products.

Until the 1970s nearly all pipeline construction, which provides jobs for as many as 50,000 workers, was unionized, but today barely a third of the industry’s workers are covered by the national agreement with the Pipe Line Contractors Association.

PUMP’s first target is Sunland Construction, the nation’s largest non-union pipeline contractor with a work force of more than 500. Sunland is headquartered in Louisiana and does work throughout the South, building pipelines for El Paso Gas, Duke Energy and Enron.

The organizing campaign will complement the federation’s Labor 2002 election activity, where it hopes to elect a “worker-friendly” majority in Congress.

As part of that effort, the AFL-CIO has prepared a candidate questionnaire with questions about his/her position on the right of workers to organize and join unions.

The questionnaire says, “[Workers] deserve the right to pursue equality, opportunity, a voice on the job and a better life by forming a union.,” and that “elected officials have a special role to play in helping their constituents protect their rights to freedom of association.” It then asks the candidate whether or not they will “publicly support” efforts of workers to form or join unions.

Candidates are also asked if they would oppose legislative attempts to weaken the National Labor Relations Act or to “diminish enforcement of federal labor laws” by withholding funds from government agencies charged with enforcing these laws. Candidates are also asked if they would oppose “right-to-work (for less)” laws.


Fred Gaboury
Fred Gaboury

Fred Gaboury was a member of the Editorial Board of the print edition of  People’s Weekly World/Nuestro Mundo and wrote frequently on economic, labor and political issues. Gaboury died in 2004. Here is a small selection of Fred’s significant writings: Eight days in May Birmingham and the struggle for civil rights; Remembering the Rev. James Orange; Memphis 1968: We remember; June 19, 1953: The murder of the Rosenbergs; World Bank and International Monetary Fund strangle economies of Third World countries