AFL-CIO’s Blueprint to Add Millions of Non-Union Members

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO believes that if unions are having a hard time increasing their ranks, they can at least restore their clout by building a broad coalition to advance a worker-friendly political and economic agenda. He will invite millions of non-union workers into the labor movement even if their own workplaces are not unionized. Not stopping there, Trumka has proposed making progressive groups – like NAACP; the Sierra Club; the national Hispanic civil rights group La Raza; and MomRising, an advocacy group for women’s and family issues – either formal partners or affiliates of the AFL-CIO.

Several setbacks, including steady loss of union membership, frequent defeats in union organizing drives, and unions being forced to accept multi-year wage freezes has lead Trumka to conclude, “We really have to experiment.”

In the mid-1990s Trumka’s predecessor, John Sweeney, sought to rescue labor by pressing unions to organize far more workers. But that effort failed because only a few unions threw serious resources into the effort. Unions did not think labor was in crisis, workers did not see an advantage to joining a union, and employers started winning unionization drives.

Trumka’s vision relies heavily on Workers Centers. They might help unions press employers to fix safety hazards, lobby state legislatures for a higher minimum wage, and push Congress to increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Trumka’s strategists have not decided whether these non-union workers would or would not pay dues. If they are asked to pay dues, that would of course fatten struggling union treasuries.

AFL-CIO officials do not want to turn their backs on the employees who voted in favor of a unionization despite losing a union election. They say that those voters should be invited into the labor movement to, for example, lobby on pro-worker legislation or to get out the vote. They also say those workers should be able to avail themselves of some union benefits, like low-interest-rate credit cards, or low-cost life insurance.

I am asking, doesn’t opening up labor unions to non-union members, and requiring those members pay dues to enjoy some of the benefits of a union cheapen unions? To me, the AFL-CIO’s plan amounts to unions being “clubs” open for anyone to join for a nominal fee. A far cry from organized labor’s heyday.

Matt Austin is a Columbus, Ohio lawyer who owns Austin Legal, LLC, a boutique law firm with offices in central and northeast Ohio that limits its representation to employers dealing with labor, employment, and OSHA matters. Austin Legal’s Concierge Legal Services program is relied upon by companies to remain compliant and competitive. If you have employees, you need Concierge Legal Services. You can call Matt at (614) 285-5342 or email him at