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This section of Discover The Networks examines the history, agendas, and activities of America's leading left-wing labor unions. Among the most influential of these is the American Federation of Labor - Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) -- the largest labor federation in the United States, consisting of 57 autonomous and international unions. It was formed in 1955 when the American Federation of Labor combined with the Congress of Industrial Organizations. 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.

The history of the AFL-CIO's ideological permutations parallels that of the labor movement generally. The quarter-century tenure of George Meany, who served as president of the federation from 1955 to 1979, underscores the centrist liberalism of the labor movement during that time. Meany was a strong voice for human and civil rights, a supporter of Israel, a supporter of freedom for Central Europe's states, an advocate for Soviet Jews, an opponent of South African apartheid, and a staunch anti-communist during the Vietnam War era. Lane Kirkland succeeded Meany as president of the AFL-CIO from 1979 to 1995, continuing to work for labor unity and also establishing himself as a staunch anti-totalitarian. He was instrumental in the AFL-CIO's refusal to endorse the anti-war candidacy of Democratic Senator George McGovern in 1972, and he used his power to provide crucial aid to the Solidarity movement's successful effort to end 50 years of Communist Party rule in Poland.

After Kirkland’s retirement in 1995, however, Democratic Socialists of America member John Sweeney became president of the AFL-CIO and successfully repealed a federation rule prohibiting Communists from serving as leaders of its member unions. Abandoning the blue-collar industrial unionism of the past, Sweeney was instrumental in remaking labor into a progressive movement. Under his leadership, the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions donated large sums of money to Democratic candidates. In the 2008 campaign cycle alone, the federation gave $53 million to Democrats.

Another powerful entity in organized labor is the 1.6 million-member American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which was founded in 1936 and has become one of the largest unions in the AFL-CIO. AFSCME mostly represents workers in local and state government and in the health-care industry. Under the leadership of Gerald McEntee, who has served as its president since 1981, AFSCME has been instrumental in transforming labor into a progressive outfit. Between 1990 and 2010, AFSCME alone donated $42 million to political campaigns -- 98 percent to Democrats -- and it remains the leading union contributor to the Democratic Party.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) was founded in Chicago in 1916. Like the labor movement in general, the AFT was infiltrated by members of the Communist Party during the latter years of the Great Depression. Soon after World War II, however, the AFT began a process of purging its ranks of Communist influence, a process that was given particular urgency in 1947 by President Truman's Executive Order 9835 (which called for federal employees to be investigated for subversive activities) and the Taft-Hartley Labor Act (which required unions to affirm that none of their officers were Communists). The AFT revoked the charters of numerous locals for submitting to Communist control, most prominently the New York City and Philadelphia locals. Whereas during the 1920s teacher unions, including the AFT, had fought to protect radicals in the system, AFT members in 1952 voted not to defend any teacher proven to be a Communist.

The so-called father of the modern teachers’ union, Albert Shanker, became the most influential leader within the AFT in the 1960s, eventually serving as its president from 1974 to 1997. During the late Sixties, Shanker fought radical activists and black racists who sought to splinter the teachers’ union movement along racial lines. Like George Meany and Lane Kirkland of the AFL-CIO, Shanker maintained a centrist political vision for his union.  He was staunchly anti-communist, defended America’s war efforts in Vietnam, criticized liberals for their lack of support for democratic forces in Poland and in Nicaragua, and cautioned against the Democratic Party's transition from a working-class party to one that centered on identity politics. 

But after Shanker’s death in 1997, he was succeeded by Sandra Feldman, who slowly “re-branded” the union, allying it with some of the most powerful left-wing elements of the New Labor Movement.
 When Feldman died in 2004, Edward McElroy was elected President, followed by Randi Weingarten in 2008. All of them kept the union on the leftward course it had adopted in its post-Shanker period.

The 3.1 million-member National Education Association (NEA) is the largest labor union in the United States, representing public-school teachers and support personnel; faculty and staffers in colleges and universities; retired educators; and college students preparing to become teachers. In 1938 the NEA implemented the educational principles promoted by the Comintern-founded Institute for Social Research, which had taken over the Columbia University Teachers College, the country’s most influential school of education. Better known as the Frankfurt School, this Institute advanced a neo-Marxist program calling for the destruction of religion, the family, education and all moral values, along with the capture of the intellectuals and the instruments of mass communication such as the press, radio and films.

To this day, the NEA has remained an outspoken voice of the left, vis a vis such matters as abortion, sex education, school prayer, socialized medicine, affordable housing, prisoner rights, bilingual education, multiculturalism, the expansion of government, taxpayer funding of education, racial quotas, illegal-immigrant rights, global warming, economic justice, and global government. The union maintains a permanent, paid, full-time staff of at least 1,800 United Service (UniServ) employees who function as political operatives -- more than the Republican and Democratic Parties combined.

Another immensely powerful union is the 1.8 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which ranks among the largest and fastest-growing unions in North America. Led by the former New Leftist Andrew Stern from 1996-2010, SEIU is a major component of the so-called “Shadow Democratic Party,” a nationwide network -- conceived and funded by George Soros and his political allies -- of unions, nonprofit activist groups, and think tanks whose agendas are ideologically to the left, and which are engaged in campaigning for the Democrats.

SEIU’s membership growth is heavily dependent on the public (i.e., government) sector, where 37.2 percent of employees are currently unionized (as compared to only 8.2 percent of private sector workers). Since the middle of the twentieth century, union membership in the private sector has declined by more than 80 percent; only in the public sector have unions grown. Because this is precisely the niche in which SEIU dwells, the Union has a vested interest in helping to elect Democratic leftists who will press to make government ever-larger, so that it can produce an ever-increasing number of union-dues-paying jobs for welfare workers, socialized medicine healthcare workers, Medicare nursing home workers, and the like.

One of the most important figures in the recent history of American labor is John Sweeney, who served as president of the powerful American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) from 1995 to 2009. A member of Democratic Socialists of America (the principal American affiliate of the Socialist International), Sweeney was instrumental in remaking labor into a progressive movement. Departing from the centrist liberalism and anti-communism of his predecessors George Meany and Lane Kirkland, Sweeney opened the AFL-CIO to participation by delegates linked to the Communist Party, which enthusiastically backed his ascent. NewZeal Blog investigative reporter Trevor Loudon has identified Sweeney's rise to prominence in the AFL-CIO in 1995, as a watershed moment in the imposition of "near complete Marxist control" over "the once anti-communist U.S. labor movement." Moreover, Sweeney turned his union federation into a major source of funding for the Democratic Party and its candidates. 

Sweeney reired as AFL-CIO president in September 2009 and was succeeded by Richard Trumka, who had served as the union federation's secretary-treasurer (second in command to Sweeney) for the previous 14 years. By then, the AFL-CIO had turned away from blue-collar industrial unionism and the AFL-CIO's traditional emphasis on raising wages and improving working conditions. That old path had boosted union member wages so high, that up to 40 percent of members began voting Republican and complaining about high taxes and big government. The new unionisml, by contrast, focused on public-sector workers who could benefit from higher taxes and bigger government, and who therefore implicitly supported socialism and America's pro-big government Democratic Party.

As an AFL-CIO leader, Trumka has developed and promoted radical strategies and tactics -- like those of the 1960s New Left -- for recruiting additional members. These tactics include the formation of labor alliances with media, government, and radical activists to intimidate companies by threatening to inflict a "death of a thousand cuts" -- i.e., targeting a company's investors, its public image, its relations with government regulators, and more.

Unlike their more moderate predecessors, Trumka and his fellow AFL-CIO bosses see free-market capitalism not as essential to worker prosperity but as something to be despised and destroyed. Toward that end, he has implemented strategies to foment antipathy toward capitalism and an acceptance of "progressive" government throughout the union movement. The ultimate aim is not to boost members' wages, but to radically transform society. A key AFL-CIO initiative is its "Union Summer" program, a 10-week educational internship where participants "develop skills useful for union organizing drives and other campaigns for workers' rights and social justice."

Former New Leftist Andrew Stern is yet another radical who has assumed a major role in the U.S. labor movement. Stern served as president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the second-largest labor union in North America, from 1996 until April 2010. The economic model championed by Stern and SEIU includes universal health care, increased taxation, an expansion of social-welfare programs, and further opportunities for workers to unionize. According to Ryan Lizza, associate editor of The New Republic, SEIU leaders such as Stern "tend to be radical, even socialist."

Stern was trained in the tactics of radical activism at the Midwest Academy, which was formed by former Students for a Democratic Society members Paul and Heather Booth. This Academy was created to teach leftist community organizers how to promote social change and infiltrate the labor movement.

Stern openly condemns America's “market-worshiping, privatizing, deregulating, trickle-down, union-busting” economy; he calls for a “new American economic plan, led by the government, not necessarily led by the private sector”; and he urges the government to “distribute wealth through … tax policies, through minimum wages, through living wages. [and through programs] like Medicare, Medicaid, [and] children’s health insurance."


The History of Labor Unions from Colonial Times to 2009
By the Ludwig von Mises Institute
July 17, 2009

Labor Unions in the United States
By Gerald Friedman
February 1, 2010

A Brief, Illustrated History of the Public Sector Unions That Are Bleeding America Dry With the Full Support of the Democrat Party
By DirectorBlue
February 2010


The Union Difference: A Primer On What Unions Do To The Economy
By James Sherk
January 3, 2012

What Price, Solidarity: Would Greater Unionization Hurt the Economy?
By Robert VerBruggen
April 2009


Government Unions: How They Rob the Taxpayer, Terrorize Workers, and Threaten Our Democracy
By Matthew Vadum
August 30, 2012

Public-Sector Unions
By Chris Edwards
March 2010

The Trouble with Public-Sector Unions
By Daniel DiSalvo
Fall 2010

What Public Employee Unions are Doing to Our Country 
By William McGurn
March 2012

The Conspiracy Against the Taxpayers
By Steven Malanga
Autumn 2005

Why Public Sector Unionism Is a Bad Deal for Taxpayers and Representative Government
By Don Bellante, David Denholm, and Ivan Osorio
September 28, 2009

The New Face of the Union Movement: Government Employees
By James Sherk
September 1, 2010

What Public-Sector Unions Have Wrought
By Jeff Jacoby
October 2010

The Beholden State: How Public-Sector Unions Broke California
By Steven Malanga
Spring 2010

Do Big Unions Buy Politicians? (Video)
By Prager University
June 2015

The Mob That Whacked Jersey: How Rapacious Government Withered the Garden State
By Steven Malanga
Spring 2006

The Case Against Public-Sector Unions
By John O. McGinnis and Max Schanzenbach
August 1, 2010

Public-Sector Unions and the Rising Costs of Employee Compensation
By Chris Edwards

Labor Daze
By Lowell Ponte
August 30, 2000 

The New Tammany Hall
By Dan DeSalvo and Fred Siegel
October 12, 2009

Why Public-Sector Union Compensation Matters
By Economics21.org
January 12, 2011

Public Sector Unions and their Political Donations
By Ed Lasky
March 1, 2010

Majority of Union Members Now Work for the Government
By James Sherk
January 22, 2010

Will Congress Mandate State and Local Unions?
By Stan Greer
August 2008

When Unions Negotiate with Government
By Michael Reitz
June 2008

Government Unions vs. Taxpayers
By Tim Pawlenty
December 13, 2010

Public vs. Private Retirements: Government Workers Get Better Deals -- Paid for by Taxpayers
By Josh Barro and E.J. McMahon
December 19, 2010

Government Unions Have Not Benefited the Public
By Jonah Goldberg
February 23, 2011

Confessions of an Ex-Union Man
By Anonymous
July 28, 2004


Why Unions Promote Mass Immigration
By Carl Horowitz
May 24, 2006

Member-Hungry Unions Place Hope in Mass Immigration
By Carl Horowitz
April 2006

Illegal Immigrants, Unite!
By Byron York
May 8, 2006


The Real Engine of Blue America
By Steven Malanga
Winter 2005

The Demo-cashic Party
By Lowell Ponte
August 10, 2004

How Socialist Unions Rule the Democratic Party
By Lowell Ponte
July 14, 2004

The Radical Power Behind the Democrats
By William R. Hawkins
August 5, 2004

Who’s the Biggest ‘Outside Group’ in the 2012 Elections? Big Labor?
By Jonathan Collegio
March 5, 2012

A Piece of the Action
By W. James Antle III
December 2008

A Union Revival?
By Bryan O'Keefe
February 2008

Labor Unions and the Democratic Party: Growing Rifts in the Coalition
By Ivan Osorio and Trey Kovacs
July 2011


Myths of the Teachers' Unions
By Jay Greene
January 9, 2007


Union Pension Funds Go Green
By Ivan Osorio
September 2008


Union U.
By Steven Malanga
Summer 2003

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