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The Destruction of American Unions

Posted By on July 14, 2011

The effect of the 1947 Taft Hartley Act on union membership was almost immediate. In 1946 the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) had 6.3 million members. By 1954, when it merged with the AFL, this number was 4.6 million. This steady drop continued. In 1954 34.7% of American workers belonged to a union. By 2010, this had dropped to 11.9% (

There are obviously multiple factors leading to the decline of unions in the US: the wholesale export of union manufacturing jobs, the expulsion of militant unionists (thanks to Taft Hartley’s red baiting clause), enabling union bureaucrats to identify more strongly with management than the rank and file; CIA infiltration of the AFL-CIO; Mafia involvement in the Teamsters and other unions with large pension funds; and the systematic Wall Street public relations campaign to demonize unions and the working class.

1. The export of American manufacturing jobs – the wholesale shutdown of US factories to relocate overseas was clearly a disaster for both the US economy and the trade union movement. Yet many on the Left argue, as I do, that a strong union movement would have stopped Ronald Reagan from repealing the tariff, quota and tax laws that, prior to 1980, would have prevented this massive dislocation. To make matters worse, as hundreds of thousands of workers left their good paying union jobs to take minimum wage jobs at MacDonald’s and Wal-Mart, the restrictions imposed by the Taft Hartley Act made it extremely difficult for unions to organize them in this new sector.

2. The expulsion of militant trade unionists – generous wages and benefits gave US workers a false sense of security during the economic boom of the fifties and sixties. Especially after the expulsion of more militant unionists, this allowed the conservative union leaders to identify more with corporate executives than with rank and file workers. Instead of lobbying to repeal Taft Hartley and relying on a well-organized rank and file and industrial action, union bosses became more focused on “sweetheart deals,”  in which they got special perks from management for guaranteeing labor discipline among the workers they were supposed to represent. Rank and file unionists fought back in the 1970s with the formation of Teamsters for a Democratic Union and similar reform groups who fought hard for the right to elect their union leadership. In 2005 the union reform movement led the Teamsters and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to form the Change to Win Federation.

3. CIA infiltration of the AFL-CIO leadership – during the fifties and sixties, CIA infiltration clearly played a role in the AFL-CIO’s abandonment of rank and file workers. Former CIA officer Tom Braden bragged in a 1967 Saturday Evening Post article about the number of AFL-CIO officers he placed on the CIA payroll. See, and

4. Mafia and organized crime involvement – participation by Mafia figures such as Jimmy Hoffa in the Teamsters and other major unions (the millions of dollars the unions held in their pension funds were irresistible to organized crime) was a major factor in turning public opinion against unionism and organized labor. The refusal of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to recognize or fight organized crime clearly enabled the takeover of the Teamsters by the Mafia. Both the FBI and CIA have a history of collaborating with organized crime in drug trafficking, strike breaking and in “anti-Communist” campaigns targeting trade unions and leftist groups in the US and Europe (see, and – an excerpt from Opium: Uncovering the Politics of the Poppy by Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy). The FBI and military intelligence also collaborated with senior organized crime figures in the JFK assassination (see the 1970 Torbitt Document, based on New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison’s grand jury investigation of the JFK Assassination

Jimmy Hoffa

Jimmy Hoffa

5. Wall Street’s public relations campaign to demonize unions – I have written at length (see “Thinking Like Egyptians” about a systematic, seven decade corporate campaign to bombard the American public with anti-union, anti-worker and anti-working class messages. The late Australian psychologist Alex Carey was the first to document the extent of this campaign in his 1995 Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty.


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