The American Federation of Labor - Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) is the largest labor federation in America, consisting of 57 autonomous and international unions. It was formed in 1955 when the American Federation of Labor (AFL) combined with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). At the time of the merger, membership totaled 15,913,077. By 2010, the AFL-CIO represented 11.5 million members, a decline of some 4.4 million since 1955.
From 1955 to 1995, the AFL-CIO struggled for labor unity not only domestically, but globally. When George Meany (1894-1980) became president of the American Federation of Labor in 1952, he inherited a profoundly divided labor movement. He worked immediately for labor unification and, when the AFL and the CIO merged in 1955, he was unanimously nominated president, a position he held until 1979.
Meany’s 25-year tenure underscores the centrist liberalism of the labor movement during that time. Meany was a strong voice for human and civil rights, in America and around the world, speaking out against colonial exploitation of the developing world, supporting the state of Israel, fighting for the freedom of the states of Central Europe, advocating for Soviet Jews and supporting the fights against South African apartheid and against the military dictatorships in Spain and Chile. The federation was also a bastion of anti-communism during the Vietnam era. Meany invited Alexandr Solzhenitsyn to speak at AFL-CIO meetings and brought awareness of Soviet human-rights abuses to U.S. audiences.
Lane Kirkland succeeded Meany as president of the AFL-CIO from 1979 to 1995, continuing his predecessor's work for labor unity as well as his anti-totalitarianism. Kirkland supported America’s involvement in Vietnam and was instrumental in the AFL-CIO's refusal to endorse the anti-war candidacy of Democratic Senator George McGovern in 1972. During his tenure as president, Kirkland also used his power to funnel more than $6 million in aid to Polish workers. This aid, which consisted chiefly of cash and communications equipment, was considered instrumental in Solidarity's successful effort to end 50 years of Communist Party rule in Poland. President Bill Clinton awarded Kirkland the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994.
After Lane Kirkland’s retirement in 1995, John Sweeney became president of the AFL-CIO and was able to repeal an AFL-CIO rule prohibiting Communists from being leaders of its member unions. Abandoning the blue-collar industrial unionism of the past, Sweeney, a member of Democratic Socialists of America, was instrumental in remaking labor into a progressive movement led by people such as the following:
Linda Chavez-Thompson was executive vice president of the AFL-CIO from 1995 to 2007. She is also vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, which controls the Democratic Party.
In February 2000, the AFL-CIO reversed what had been its longstanding opposition to illegal immigration. Now the union federation advocated amnesty for millions of illegals already residing in the United States. The chief lobbyist most responsible for persuading the AFL-CIO to change its policy was Eliseo Medina, the international executive vice president of the SEIU.
Under John Sweeney’s leadership, the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions donated large sums of money to Democratic candidates. Overall, it is estimated that $800 million in union dues was spent on political campaigns during the 2000 election cycle alone; of that total, 90 to 95 percent was given to left-wing candidates.
During the Bush administration, the AFL-CIO charged that the right of American workers to form unions was under attack. Thus in the 2004 election cycle, the federation allocated $44 million to its (unsuccessful) effort to defeat President Bush's re-election bid.
With the power of unions greatly in decline and an American public warier of unions than ever before, the AFL-CIO has sought in recent times to renew the influence of unions by expanding their membership numbers. In the 2008 campaign cycle, for example, the federation donated $53 million to Democratic candidates, particularly seeking support for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which (despite the name) sought to ban secret ballots for any workers considering joining a union. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka called the EFCA an “important part of the economic recovery program,” and he used his clout in the Obama administration to drum up support for this cause.
In March 2009, President Obama promised a group of union leaders that the controversial EFCA would become law. To gain further political momentum and support for EFCA, the AFL-CIO pledged to spend even more money in the 2010 midterm elections than the $53 million it had spent in 2008, focusing particularly on “six states, California, New York, Illinois, Nevada, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, […] especially around Senate candidates like Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).”
The AFL-CIO’s campaign for EFCA also targeted Democrats who “do not support labor.” As Gerald McEntee, then AFL-CIO chair of the Executive Council’s Political Education Committee, told the press: “If you are not with us, then you are against us.” One of the first Democratic politicians to come under attack was Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. When she spoke against the EFCA's “card check provision,” the AFL-CIO threatened to fight her and pledged $3 million to the opposing candidate for the May 2010 Democratic primary.
The AFL-CIO has also taken a firm stand in favor of comprehensive universal health care, which it views as a "basic human right." "[W]hile the market has an important role to play," says the union federation, "our government—as the voice of all of us—must play the central role in regulating, financing and providing health care." To promote such a policy, in 2009-2010 the AFL-CIO affiliated itself with a number of progressive heath-care groups, the most prominent being the George Soros-funded Health Care for America Now! (HCAN) and its ally, the Universal Health Care Action Network (UHCAN). Nick Unger, the health-care campaign training director of the AFL-CIO, was a prominent member of UHCAN’s board as well as a spokesman for its mission.