LOS ANGELES — John J. Sweeney, the president of the A.F.L.- C.I.O.,
gave an unusual do-or-die warning at a meeting of labor leaders here,
telling them that unless unions did far more to increase their ranks,
organized labor could drift into irrelevance.
Union membership slipped last year, and Mr. Sweeney is so concerned
that unions are not doing more organizing that he has called a special
meeting of union presidents for next month to press them to redouble
their recruitment efforts.
During his five years at labor's helm, Mr. Sweeney has made increasing
union membership his No. 1 goal. But he voiced frustration that
unions were organizing only about one-third of the one million workers
he said should be organized each year to restore labor's might.
One A.F.L.-C.I.O. official quoted Mr. Sweeney as telling the nation's
union leaders at a closed-door meeting here, "Not only are the numbers
totally unsatisfactory, but if we don't begin to turn this around
quickly and almost immediately, the drift in the other direction
is going to make it virtually impossible to continue to exist as
a viable institution and to have any impact on the issues we care
The percentage of American workers belonging to unions fell to
13.5 percent from 13.9 percent last year. That is the lowest level
since the number of unionized workers peaked at 35 percent in the
1950's. Even though more than 16 million jobs have been created
since 1992, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the number
of union members nationwide has slipped by 200,000 since then, to
An ever-larger part of union organizing is in government and in
the service sector, including hotels and nursing homes. In contrast,
organizing has been sluggish in the manufacturing sector, partly
because of the fear that companies might close operations if they
Labor leaders expressed concern that just 10 of the federation's
66 member unions were doing about 80 percent of the organizing,
while many unions continued to do little to attract more members.
"We have a very uneven situation in terms of unions that are committing
serious resources to organizing, and therefore the numbers end up
being completely unsatisfactory," said Mark Splain, the federation's
Several union leaders at the meeting disclosed the closely kept
statistics detailing how many workers various unions told the A.F.L.-C.I.O.
they had organized last year.
The Service Employees International Union ranked first, reporting
that it had organized 70,000 workers last year. In a virtual tie
for second, the United Food and Commercial Workers and the International
Brotherhood of Electrical Workers said they had each organized about
50,000. Far smaller unions, including those representing painters,
roofers and hotel employees, won praise for doing a lot of organizing
in proportion to their size.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, like the service employees
union, has about 1.4 million members, but the Teamsters organized
only 22,000 workers last year, less than one-third of what the service
employees reported. Union leaders said the Paper, Allied-Industrial,
Chemical and Energy Workers Union, with 275,000 members, reported
hardly any organizing.
And three powerful manufacturing unions, which led the way in
organizing decades ago, are now doing only a modest amount. The
United Auto Workers reported organizing 22,000 workers last year,
the United Steelworkers of America about 15,000 and the International
Association of Machinists nearly 10,000.
Kate Bronfenbrenner, research director at Cornell University's
school of labor relations, said some industrial unions appeared
to have grown discouraged about organizing because so many manufacturers
move operations overseas, or threaten to move them, if they become
unionized. She conducted a survey that found that managers at 70
percent of factories involved in organizing drives threaten to close
if workers decide to unionize. Workers often say such threats discourage
them from voting to join a union.
Leo Gerard, the steelworkers' newly named president, said he saw
a simple explanation for why it was easier to organize workers in
government offices, hospitals and hotels than in factories.
"You can't threaten to move the public sector out of Ohio," Mr.
Gerard said. "You can't threaten to move a hospital or nursing home
to Mexico or China."
Mr. Gerard said the main reason unions were not organizing hundreds
of thousands more workers each year was the intense anti-union campaigns
run by employers. But business executives say more people are not
joining unions because many workers see unions as irrelevant and
unnecessary and union dues as too expensive.
When Mr. Sweeney became the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s president in 1995,
unions were organizing fewer than 100,000 workers a year. Thanks
in part to his prodding, they reported organizing 350,000 workers
last year, an increase that Mr. Sweeney said was good but not nearly
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that on a net basis unions
lost 200,000 members last year, partly because of layoffs, retirements
and factory closings.
Several officials of the labor federation said they were convinced
that some labor leaders, eager to impress, give artificially high
numbers when they report how many workers their unions organize
Many labor experts say Mr. Sweeney has not been more successful
in persuading unions to increase their organizing efforts largely
because the A.F.L.-C.I.O. is a loose federation and its president
has little sway over member unions. The individual unions, and not
the federation, do the organizing, although the federation is seeking
to serve as a catalyst.
In contrast to the organizing situation, Mr. Sweeney has had major
success in persuading unions to do more on the political front.
"The American labor movement in terms of political operations
and political juice has showed its stuff," said Mr. Splain, the
organizing director. "The issue is, is there a way for the labor
movement to duplicate that type of success in organizing?"
Andrew Stern, the service employees' president, said his union
was growing at the fastest rate partly because it spent so much
on organizing — about $100 million a year, or nearly half the union's
annual budget. He said it cost on average about $1,000 to organize
The hope among many union leaders is that if other unions with
more than a million members could match the service employees in
organizing 70,000 a year, the labor movement could begin to approach
Mr. Sweeney's goal of organizing 700,000 to a million new members
"I see that some unions are organizing more aggressively," Mr.
Sweeney said. "We have to really try to build on that momentum."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company