LAS VEGAS – The AFL-CIO's 66 member unions are being asked to increase their membership by 10 percent and to devote at least 30 percent of their budgets to organizing to help boost organized labor's numbers.
The resolutions that will be voted on this week by nearly 1,000 delegates at the AFL-CIO's biennial convention here come as union membership has declined or stagnated while the overall work force grows.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has failed to reverse membership declines despite the promises of increases that he made when first elected six years ago. He is to be re-elected to a four-year term Wednesday.
"Certainly there's much more to be done, but profound change is happening at every level," Sweeney said at the convention's opening Monday. "And over the last six years we have set the course for the long-term resurgence of the union movement."
The AFL-CIO claims a slight membership increase of about 100,000 this year to 13.2 million. That's about the same number when two labor federations merged in 1955 to form the AFL-CIO.
Since, the U.S. work force has almost doubled and union membership nationally declined from a historic 35 percent to 13.5 percent last year.
Resolutions will be voted on this week that set a goal of a 10 percent membership increase for all unions and to devote at least 30 percent of their budgets to organizing.
"When all unions get to this level of financial commitment, we will have laid the foundation to transform the American workplace," the resolution said.
But the terrorist attacks and the first recession in a decade have made those goals more difficult.
"It's certainly not easy," Sweeney acknowledged. "It's such a unique situation."
Labor experts say a lackluster economy presents opportunity and challenge for unions. Workers facing job losses and stagnant pay often find unions more relevant and turn to them for bargaining power and support. That's the case for John Gibbons, a Kentucky state corrections officer who is trying to organize a union at a facility in LaGrange, Ky.
"I think it's pretty obvious to see why I became an activist," said Gibbons, who is working with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Officers' salaries were frozen because of the recession, said Gibbons, who takes home $535 every two weeks after taxes. The prisoners have better health care than corrections officers, he said.
But the ugly economic outlook also has weakened unions' leverage with employers. It's hard to demand raises and better benefits when workers are getting laid off almost daily.
To avoid layoffs, AirTran Airways mechanics and other workers represented by the Teamsters agreed to a shorter work week and other reduced compensation.
But many employers are "wringing concessions that they really don't need" from unions, using the attacks as an excuse, said Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer.
"When there's a legitimate problem, unions will respond. When there isn't, we'll resist," he said.
And many unions are being forced to get creative to help their members in the downturn.
The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers is working with the federal government to find jobs for the 20,000 engineers and technicians laid off from Boeing.
The Army Corps of Engineers and federal naval ship yards were looking for workers with the same skills. The union is acting as the go-between, even if it means those workers will leave the union when they take a new job.
"We're getting them real jobs. There's no soft landing about it," said Gregory J. Junemann, union president. "And maybe someday they'll remember, 'The union helped me find a job.'"