Will Organized Labor Defect? Will Anyone Notice?

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is threatening to refocus union funds to promote unionization rather than the election of Democrats. Having been disappointed on card check and dismayed by the administration’s post-2010 shift to deficits over job creation, Trumka is questioning whether the AFL-CIO will participate in the Democratic National Convention (to be held in North Carolina, a right-to-work state). Much, it seems, will depend on Obama’s job package. As the WSJ reports:

“This is going to be a moment in history when our members are going to judge him,” said Mr. Trumka. The consequence of a weak effort, he said, will be poor voter turnout among union members in 2012.

After defining the political agenda for a generation, the New Deal coalition has frayed. Is the defection of labor the last gasp for the party FDR built? I have my doubts, for at least two reasons:

First, while the AFL-CIO has had a rather elevated role in the Democratic Party (as the WSJ piece reports, at the 2008 convention “a quarter of the more than 4,000 convention delegates were active or retired union members”), unionization rates have fallen dramatically over the course of the past several decades. In 2010, the unionization rate was 11.9 percent (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), compared with 20.1 percent for 1983. More importantly, this number is inflated by the high level of unionization among public sector workers (36.2  percent) relative to private sector workers (6.9 percent). To state things plainly, the unions simply do not carry the political weight they once did.

Second, while Trumpka’s should be dissatisfied with the Obama administration’s failure to carry through on its pro-labor promises—and even more significant union defeats in several of the states–he has also announced that the AFL-CIO is going to create a Super PAC with “funds that will be collected from various unions along with outside donors. The money will be used…to deliver votes for union-backed candidates next year.”  If past union giving is any guide, the vast majority of this money will go to Democratic candidates.

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