AFL-CIO Budget Is a Stark Illustration of the Decline of Organizing

Richard Trumka in 2011.
Photo: Getty

A leaked copy of the AFL-CIO’s internal budget for 2018–2019 shows that America’s largest organized labor federation now dedicates less than a tenth of its budget to organizing—down from nearly 30 percent a decade ago—illustrating a broad philosophical shift in the union world’s priorities.

In 1995, the AFL-CIO—a coalition of more than 50 major unions, making up the bulk of organized labor in America—found itself in much the same position as it is today: subjected to years of hostile political forces, facing steadily declining union membership, and with a core of activists demanding change in the form of more resources dedicated to organizing new union members. That year, John Sweeney, the head of one of the most successful organizing unions in America, took over as president of the federation on a “New Voice” platform, vowing to re-energize the labor movement. (Also elected that year as secretary-treasurer was Richard Trumka, the current AFL-CIO president.) Sweeney’s administration created a dedicated Organizing Department, set up an Organizing Institute to train new organizers, and made it known far and wide that new organizing would be a top priority. A centerpiece of this platform was a goal to have member unions and the AFL-CIO itself dedicate 30 percent of their overall budgets to organizing. At its 2002 national convention, the federation passed a resolution to this effect. At the same time, the federation ran a strong lobbying campaign to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it much easier for unions to organize workers. Though the push to pour money into organizing was controversial among some member unions, the long-term commitment had at least a momentary quantifiable effect: after declining for much of the 2000s, a small rise in union membership in 2007 was followed by a sharper rise in union density in 2008, accompanied by the largest annual membership gain in a quarter of a century—more than 420,000 new members.

In 2009, the Sweeney era ended and Richard Trumka took over as head of the AFL-CIO. A decade later, the budget priorities of America’s largest union coalition have shifted drastically. Splinter obtained a copy of the 18-page AFL-CIO 2018–2019 budget report, covering the year that will end on June 30, 2019. A source says that this budget was circulated to the federation’s top leadership in August of last year. (The government requires all labor unions to file detailed annual financial reports, which are public. But those reports do not break out spending priorities in the same way as this internal document, and thus do not shed as much light on the AFL-CIO’s spending priorities as this version.)

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The document projects $113 million in total revenue for the fiscal year, and about $123 million in spending. The distribution of that spending, though, is a bold depiction of the federation’s move away from its Sweeney-era prioritization of organizing. Now, total organizing spending—listed under “Economic Power & Growth”—accounts for less than a tenth of the budget:

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The percentage of the budget dedicated to all organizing activities is about the same as the portion dedicated to funding the offices of the President, Secretary-Treasurer, Executive Vice President, and Executive Councils and associated committees.

The largest portion of the budget—more than 35 percent—is dedicated to funding political activities:

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The budget report says that revenue from member unions is expected to continue to drop due to a historic “1% overall annual membership decline.” This rate of ongoing membership decline is built into the AFL-CIO’s long term revenue projections. The Supreme Court’s Janus decision, which allows public union workers to stop paying dues, is also expected to hurt membership and revenue. “The bottom line is that these projections show a loss of a total of 698,771 union members by the end of the fiscal year,” the report says. “The resulting total per capita revenue reduction for the federation is $3.5M.”

In aggregate, the budget shows just how far the AFL-CIO has moved away from the “Organizing Model” philosophy that placed the growth of unions atop the list of labor’s priorities. Richard Trumka’s decade of politics-focused leadership drew criticism from several former AFL-CIO officials last week. One of those officials, Stewart Acuff, the AFL-CIO’s national organizing director from 2001–2010, says that the federation’s current budgeting strategy is a strategic mistake—because if the membership decline of unions is not turned around, organized labor’s power will continue to decrease no matter how much the AFL-CIO spends to mobilize its remaining members for political action. “If you’re spending money on a shrinking base, you’re going to get diminishing returns,” he says.

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An AFL-CIO spokesman, provided with images of the budget report, noted that “Both the FY18-19 and FY19-20 budgets were unanimously approved” by the federation’s Executive Council, which is made up of 55 representatives from the group’s member unions.

It can often feel like labor unions are under assault on every front, and reasonable people can disagree about the best place to put the limited resources that the AFL-CIO has. But it is hard to argue with the numbers. In 2008, when organizing spending was high and there was a burst in new membership just before Trumka assumed power, 12.4 percent of American workers were union members. A decade later—with organizing spending much reduced—union density in this country stands at 10.5 percent.

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About the author

Hamilton Nolan

Senior Writer. Hamilton@SplinterNews.com