The Alabama AFL-CIO promotes the political interests of local union branches that belong to larger national unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations). It lobbies state government on their behalf, assists union members who have problems with state agencies, endorses candidates for statewide office, and mobilizes and educates voters. Since its inception in 1956, legislative and electoral success has often eluded the Alabama AFL-CIO, largely because only a small proportion of the workforce in Alabama is unionized, and not all of the local unions that exist statewide choose to join and support the Alabama labor council. Compounding the problem is the fact that even those local unions that are Alabama AFL-CIO members do not always cooperate and follow its direction.
The challenges faced by the Alabama AFL-CIO go beyond the state's low union membership, the failure of many statewide local unions to join, and its inability to require even those that do affiliate to follow its leadership. It also has to contend with an often-hostile political environment. The Alabama AFL-CIO's liberal political program is at odds with the state's pervasive anti-union sentiment and generally conservative political values. This has been true regardless of which party rules the state house. The Alabama AFL-CIO's political program was once stymied by anti-labor conservatives who controlled state government through the Alabama Democratic Party. Today it is thwarted by those same forces that dominate state politics but do so now through the Republican Party.
The Alabama AFL-CIO was formed in 1956 as the Alabama Labor Council, AFL-CIO, and changed its name to its current title in 1962. The Alabama AFL-CIO was created from the merger of the Alabama State Federation of Labor (ASFL), which represented about 50,000 members statewide, and the Alabama State Industrial Union Council, which was affiliated with the rival CIO and also claimed to represent 50,000 workers. The Alabama merger was significant because it marked the first marriage of AFL and CIO organizations in any state following the national merger of AFL and CIO in 1955. Delegates to the 1956 Alabama AFL-CIO unity convention in Mobile elected Carl Griffin, from the Painters Union and former president of the ASFL, as their first president. Griffin resigned within a year and was replaced in 1957 by Barney Weeks, a typesetter and president of an International Typographical Union local in Montgomery. Weeks went on to serve as president for 26 years, until his retirement in 1983.
The state council grew under Weeks's tenure but only after suffering severe political and financial losses as a result of its support for the emerging civil rights movement in the 1960s. Weeks believed that to be politically effective, the unions needed to ally with black civil rights activists who shared the members' political interests, including better public services and more progressive taxes, and shared the same political enemies: segregationist anti-labor legislators from Alabama's Black Belt. Many unions in Alabama, especially steel worker locals around Birmingham, were opposed to civil rights for blacks and felt betrayed by the national Democratic Party, which supported such policies. These locals were more sympathetic to Governor George Wallace's defense of segregation and his defiance of the national Democratic Party than they were with the state council's policies and its loyalty to the Democrats.
Although the Alabama AFL-CIO stood by its principles under Weeks's leadership, its courage and conviction came at a steep price. Local unions renounced their affiliation in protest of the state council's support for black civil rights. Membership dwindled from a peak of 107,000 in 1958 to half that number by 1965, and as local unions left, they took their dues money with them. Political influence within the state government withered. The Wallace administration no longer solicited the Alabama AFL-CIO's advice on appointments or invited its leaders to participate in negotiations on labor policy. In addition, its political credibility suffered. Local unions in Alabama openly repudiated its endorsements. In the 1966 state elections, every candidate endorsed by the Alabama AFL-CIO lost.
By the 1970s, with the struggle over civil rights receding, membership in the Alabama AFL-CIO began to rise. In addition,
the biracial coalition of blacks and blue-collar whites within the Democratic Party that Weeks had envisioned began to emerge.
Ironically enough, this coalition first appeared under the auspices of a repentant and chastened George Wallace, whom the
state council endorsed in his successful 1974 gubernatorial campaign. Just as Wallace apologized to blacks for his previous
race-based politics, he also made amends to the Alabama AFL-CIO and invited it to participate with his administration. In
1974, for example, the Alabama AFL-CIO worked closely with Wallace officials to create the Center for Labor Education and
Research (CLEAR), a workers' education program at Jefferson State Community College in Birmingham.
Even as its political vision began to materialize, larger political and economic forces were conspiring against the Alabama AFL-CIO. Whereas 20 percent of all nonagricultural workers in Alabama were unionized in 1964, the proportion of the organized workforce had fallen to 8 percent by 2000, with only 130,000 union members statewide. The decrease was particularly severe within the industrial wing of the Alabama labor movement, especially in the Birmingham steel mills and Gadsden rubber plants, along the Mobile docks, and in textile mills and apparel firms throughout the state. Some plants closed when jobs moved overseas, and others downsized and replaced workers with labor-saving technology. In addition, organizing was greatly hampered by the shift to service-sector jobs and the influx of anti-union firms such as Mercedes-Benz and Honda.
Along with the decline in the percentage of the Alabama workforce organized into unions, the state council continued to be thwarted by locals who refused to affiliate with it. Only 60 percent of AFL-CIO local unions in Alabama, representing about 60,000 workers, were dues-paying members of the state labor council in 2000. The steelworkers union has been and remains the largest union represented within the Alabama AFL-CIO, followed by the various unions that make up the building trades.
The political environment in which the Alabama AFL-CIO operated has changed as well. Too weak to claim credit by itself, the Alabama AFL-CIO contributed to political realignment in Alabama in the 1990s. A competitive two-party system finally emerged in which differences between the Democratic and Republican parties became meaningful. The Democratic Party was now composed of a multiracial coalition and had adopted much of labor's liberal program of union security, public services, and progressive tax policy. The resurgent Republican Party, on the other hand, inherited much of the base among whites and conservatives from the old Democratic Party. Ironically, the success of the Alabama AFL-CIO's political strategy to realign state politics and encourage two-party competition did not bring the political dividends that labor anticipated. Realignment did not dethrone anti-labor conservatives in Alabama, but simply shifted their base from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.
Whereas the economic and political environment in which the Alabama AFL-CIO operates has changed, its administrative structure has not. Policy for the Alabama AFL-CIO is still set by its executive board, which is comprised of two elected full-time officers—the president and secretary-treasurer—and 18 other elected board members from various affiliated unions in Alabama. The organization holds biennial conventions to set policy and elect board members, who serve four-year terms. The Alabama AFL-CIO charters nine central labor councils, located throughout the state, that help carry out its work at the local level, and it is a member of AFL-CIO Region 5, which covers the Southeast.
Currently, the Alabama AFL-CIO, like the rest of the labor movement nationwide, is slowly losing ground. Its membership has
held steady, but as the labor force has grown in Alabama, its overall percentage of the workforce statewide has declined.
The state council was fortunate to avoid a further blow when some affiliated unions left the national AFL-CIO and formed a
rival labor federation, called Change To Win, in 2005. The Alabama AFL-CIO did not suffer many defections because few of the
affiliated unions that left the AFL-CIO had large locals that were members of the state council. Politically, the state council
continues to be identified with and supports the Democratic Party. But with Republicans dominant in Alabama, as they are through
much of the South, it will take another political realignment before the Alabama AFL-CIO profits from its identification with
the Democratic Party. The future success of the Alabama AFL-CIO depends upon a revival of unions and the Democratic Party
in the South. Currently, however, both show more evidence of retreat than revitalization. When and if this trend reverses,
the Alabama AFL-CIO will surely play a major role.
Draper, Alan. Conflict of Interests: Organized Labor and the Civil Rights Movement in the South. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994.
George G. Kundahl, Jr. "Organized Labor in Alabama State Politics." Ph.D. diss. University of Alabama, 1967.
Norrell, Robert J. "Labor Trouble: George Wallace and Union Politics in Alabama," in Robert H. Zieger, ed. Organized Labor in the Twentieth Century South. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991.
Taft, Philip. Organizing Dixie: Alabama Workers in the Industrial Era. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981.
St. Lawrence University
Published June 3, 2008
Last updated February 25, 2011