Is the AFL-CIO Biting off More than it Can Chew?

Organized labor has long been a major force within the broader progressive coalition at the Democratic Party’s left wing. Unions regularly work with environmental and other non-labor advocacy groups to advance each other’s agendas. They may not share interests across the board, but in policies where they agree — or at least don’t clash — they bolster each other’s positions. Now the AFL-CIO is considering making the relationship a more formal one. As The Wall Street Journal reports:

The centerpiece of the strategy, which was hashed out with union presidents in Washington this week and is expected to be unveiled to union members at a convention in September, involves bringing large grass-roots groups, such as the NAACP, the Hispanic civil-rights group National Council of La Raza and the Sierra Club, under the federation’s umbrella and giving them decision-making power.

This is far from an odd coupling. In fact, it could be considered the logical conclusion of the union organizing strategy known as a “corporate campaign,” which relies on unions enlisting non-labor allies to pressure an employer by attacking its reputation. The aim is to get the employer to accede to the union’s demands in exchange for ending the attacks. Union demands usually include for the employer to sign a “neutrality” agreement, which isn’t neutral at all. Under such an agreement, unions can communicate with workers, making the case for unionization, while the employer must stay silent.

Joining together to work for specific goals — pressuring companies and backing candidates — has proven effective for unions, environmental groups, and other members of the broader left. But forming a permanent formal alliance is bound to prove much more difficult. Not only would groups’ goals not always coincide, in some cases they would be in conflict, as the controversy over the Keystone XL pipeline shows.

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