It is hard to know whether the breakup of the AFL-CIO is a good move or not. Making a reasonable guess would require a lot of detailed information (which I lack) about the differences among the breakaway unions and the ones that remain. However, from a theoretical perspective, I think it’s useful to distinguish four types of unions. These are “ideal types” in Max Weber’s sense; in the real world, they overlap and merge.
1. A classic craft union. Members share a similar expertise or training. They do not work for the same firm or even in the same industry; they may be freelancers. They have an interest in limiting the number of workers (or machines) that compete with them. Therefore, they form an association that provides training and licensing as well as other services, from insurance to social activities. In addition, the union tells employers that its members will only work in shops or on projects that are reserved for members alone. A craft union raises its members’ wages, but sometimes at the expense of those outside; and it may discriminate in invidious ways.
2. A public employee union. Teachers, police officers, firefighters, and welfare careworkers, among many others, hold difficult jobs in public service for which they often receive lousy wages and poor treatment. Therefore, it seems appropriate for them to organize and use both lobbying and strikes (or the threat of strikes) to protect their own interests. However, given any level of funding for public services, there is always a tradeoff between the interests of public employees and those of their “clients” (problematic as that term may be). Therefore, while I support the right to unionize in the public sector, I do not automatically take the unions’ side in actual disputes. In the case of education, which I know best, it seems to me that unions are right to demand higher wages and to oppose arbitrary authority, but wrong to protect seniority systems that send the newest teachers into the “worst” schools.
3. A political lobby. This kind of union organizes as many workers as possible, collects dues in return for representing its members in collective-beargaining, but puts most of its energy and discretionary resources into politics. It sees legislation, rather than employment contracts, as the best means to advance labor’s interests. It uses campaign contributions and volunteer labor either to support one party or to bolster pro-labor candidates in both parties. I believe that unions have a right to represent themselves politically (a form of “petition” protected in the First Amendment), and I think that their power can be a useful counterbalance to corporate power. However, there are many problems with this political strategy. Organized labor has limited power in an economy like ours, where many people work in jobs that don’t easily unionize. Also, there may be a very loose fit between the opinions of the rank-and-file and the negotiating position of their lobbyists and leaders. Finally, unions enter politics with a fiduciary responsibility to maximize the welfare of their members; therefore, they cannot participate very easily in open-ended deliberations about public policy that might take into account other issues.
4. An industrial union. This kind of union tries to raise its members’ salaries, benefits, and security by organizing as many workers as possible within a single industry. Whereas a craft union seeks to limit access to union jobs, an industrial union tries to grow as big as possible. It then uses the threat to withhold labor to strengthen its hand in direct bargaining with employers. An industrial union can make a mistake by demanding more that an industry can genuinely afford. However, I suspect that those mistakes are relatively rare. And barring a strategic error on the part of union leadership, I think the more they win at the bargaining table, the better.
It’s probably clear that I prefer “ideal type #4” to the others, although I believe that they too have rights. It appears that SEIU, the main breakaway union, is trying the hardest to be like #4, an industrial union in the old CIO mold. Therefore, my only question is whether SEIU’s departure from the AFL-CIO will enhance industrial unionism in America or only hasten its decline.