This article is reprinted with permission from the October 2005 issue of Smart Business Pittsburgh, copyright © 2005.

The AFL-CIO took a broadside hit at its historic 50th anniversary convention last July when the Service Employees (SEIU), Teamsters, and Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) unions pulled out of the AFL-CIO altogether, and three other AFL-CIO members, UNITE-HERE, the Laborers and the Farm Workers unions, refused to participate in the convention.

These rebel unions have formed the core of a new group called the Change To Win Coalition, which includes the Carpenters Union that left the AFL-CIO a few years earlier. The coalition’s stated goal is to spend significant amounts of its members’ dues on organizing at the grassroots level, rather than using the money to fill the coffers of Democratic politicians who have time and again failed to deliver the goods to their loyal union constituency.

Big changes

The house of labor has never been more divided, with union membership in the private sector totaling only about 8 percent of the total work force, down from 35 percent in 1955. At the same time, the AFL-CIO’s political influence on the national level is waning after it wasted significant dollars and time on Democratic campaigns, only to watch its candidates lose at virtually every turn.

Recent evidence of the eroding union movement can be found at Northwest Airlines, where 4,400 mechanics were replaced recently without much more than a whimper from their union brothers.

Local effects

This dissension among union brethren most likely presents a mixed bag for Pennsylvania employers. On the one hand, local AFL-CIO federations such as the Allegheny County Labor Council will have less money available to move their political labor agendas forward, and it will take time to regroup in terms of organizing efforts.

On the other hand, organizers for the Teamsters, SEIU and UFCW, which utilize the most aggressive organizing tactics in Pennsylvania, will have significant new money to take their message out to the street to nonunion employers, as well as to raid AFL-CIO-represented companies ofunion members who have been dissatisfied with the way that their AFL-CIO affiliated unions have been doing business.

The SEIU, in particular, has proven itself to be formidable in Pennsylvania, and managed to organize a significant portion of the state’s health care workers, as well as janitorial workers across the state. Now that the shackles are off, the SEIU and other coalition unions are free to wade into organizing other industries, including businesses with white-collar workers that were previously off limits given the constraints placed upon them by the AFL-CIO.

Nevertheless, don’t count out AFL-CIO member unions. The AFL-CIO still controls two-thirds of the union membership across the United States and still has the ear of powerful national and local politicians. Should the AFL-CIO decide to take on the fight for union members, employers could very well see a resurgence in union activity, turning a once-complacent union movement into a roaring tiger.

All things considered, employers in Pennsylvania should be aware that the changes in the labor movement increase the probability that they will encounter unionization efforts.

Employers would be well-served to perform a comprehensive review of their labor and employment policies and practices to make sure that they are up-to-date and conform to sound employee relations standards, analyze their wages and benefits to ensure they are competitive in the marketplace, have senior level managers meet directly with employees to gain a better understanding of what their problems and concerns are in the workplace, and become knowledgeable about the law that regulates labor relations.