The Numbers Game

For years the Massachusetts AFL-CIO has boasted 400,000 union members in its ranks. Today there are 404,000, to be exact, according to AFL-CIO officials.

But thousands of those workers–including the 55,000 police officers and other public employees who belong to the National Association of Government Employees (NAGE)–claim not to belong to the state AFL-CIO.

Confused? It’s something of a numbers game, which even AFL-CIO officials have a hard time explaining.

It turns out that local unions in Massachusetts pay “per capita” fees required by the state federation for only slightly more than half of the people the “Fed” counts as members–about 220,000 workers.

AFL-CIO officials explain that the 404,000 figure covers all Massachusetts workers who belong to unions affiliated with the national AFL-CIO. So why does the dues-paying figure for the state organization drop so dramatically? That’s because a lot of unions can’t afford to make their full per capita payments, officials say. And in some cases, lower-than-usual per capita fees were negotiated in order to secure the affiliation of unions in the first place.

“We’d love for all of the unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO to pay per capita for every single member but it simply isn’t an option, financially, for some unions, and other unions have chosen not to pay,” said Kathleen Casavant, secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO.

Which brings us back to Quincy-based NAGE.

Its 55,000 Massachusetts members are counted in the state Fed’s total tally because NAGE belongs to the national AFL-CIO. But NAGE pulled out of the state AFL-CIO in 1990–not because of financial hardship, but to protest the organization’s Democratic gubernatorial endorsement that year. (NAGE backed then- Boston University President John Silber; the Fed was with former Attorney General Frank Bellotti).

“Until 1990, we were paying our full per capita plus some extra money to the state Fed,” said NAGE spokesman Ed Gilooly. “We don’t pay anything to it now. As far as we’re concerned, we do not belong to the state AFL-CIO.”

At a per capita rate of 55 cents per member per month, that defection cost the state AFL-CIO about $360,000 per year.

Other local unions affiliated with the national AFL-CIO have withdrawn from the state Fed from time to time, usually over political disagreements. But the state body still fully counts their members–regardless of whether per capita fees are paid for them.

A particularly glaring example was the case of Boston Hotel Workers Local 26. Back in the early 1990s, Local 26 President Domenic Bozzotto was officially “shunned” by state labor leaders for his endorsement of Republicans and ballot questions opposed by the AFL-CIO. Bozzotto responded by making per capita payments to the Fed for just a handful of members.

Other statistical facts also cloud the AFL-CIO’s claim of 404,000 members.

Some of the state’s biggest unions are not affiliated with either the state or the national AFL-CIO. So, for example, the state Fed cannot claim the Massachusetts Teachers Association’s 84,000 members or the Massachusetts Nurses Association’s 17,000 as its own. Those two non-AFL-CIO unions alone have 101,000 members. Add that figure to the AFL-CIO’s claimed membership of 404,000 and the total number of union members in Massachusetts would be 505,000.

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But according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are only 453,000 unionized workers in the state.

So which number really represents who is a union member? Apparently, that depends on what the definition of “is” is.