Organized labor is in a difficult position in the wake of the 2016 elections, to put it mildly. After eight years in which their allies in government tilted the playing field in their favor, labor leaders actually saw membership drop from its levels of 2009. With the favors dispensed by the Obama administration now at an end, leading unions are implementing difficult budget cuts and evaluating what might be the best path forward.
As this blog has noted in the past, unions—in particular, the Service Employee International Union (SEIU)—spent tens of millions of dollars to develop so-called worker centers like the Fight for $15 as part of their effort to reverse a six-decade decline in membership. The Fight for $15 indeed had an impact on a broader public debate about the minimum wage, and a few state and local governments have adopted a $15 per hour minimum wage over the last few years. However, that fact has not helped the SEIU recruit significant numbers of new members as it had hoped for.
Following the elections last November, labor leaders seem to have realized that these sorts of investments might not be sustainable, at least not at nearly the same level. Indeed, the SEIU announced at the end of December that it would implement a massive 30 percent budget cut in 2017, which amounts to somewhere around $90 million. More recently, the largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO, last month revealed that it would be forced to lay off “several dozens” of employees from its Washington, DC, headquarters.
The Washington Post observed that “there have been conflicting views about what is the best use of the labor movement’s limited resources, with a struggle over how much to devote to organizing workers and how much to devote to organizing voters.” For her part, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry stated that the union’s budget cuts would allow it to “focus our resources and energy on the fights that position us to retake power in 2018, 2020 and beyond.”
One wonders if labor leaders like Henry have considered that prospective members might not be interested in their efforts to “retake power.” In addition to such political objectives, unions like the SEIU have latched on to controversial social movements such as environmental activism, which it claimed to be a top priority last year—hardly something related to worker representation.
Former SEIU president Andy Stern reportedly weighed in on the ongoing debate about the direction of the labor movement last year. According to Bloomberg Politics, he noted that the SEIU’s model of transferring revenue to pay for so-called social justice work was not sustainable in the long run “because collective bargaining is shrinking.”
It will be interesting to see what direction union leadership decides to take. But whatever choice is taken, it seems that there will be fewer resources available to pursue it.