Unions’ Top-Heavy Salaries a Drag on Organizing

The 2000s were a lost decade for worker wages, but labor’s top brass didn’t feel the pinch.

According to data filed under the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA), the number of union officials and staff earning high salaries has exploded in recent years.

Those earning more than $100,000 a year tripled between 2000 and 2008, the latest year with complete data, and the number earning more than $150,000 also tripled.


Union salaries are out of step with most members’ pay—and they siphon scarce resources away from new organizing. With private sector union density below 8 percent, its lowest point since World War I, some members are asking what bloated salaries are costing the labor movement.

Source: OLMS. Click to enlarge.

“For 15 years our leaders did nothing to organize non-union companies and now they’re dragging down our standards,” said Walter Taylor, a commercial mover in New York City and member of Teamsters Local 814. “But that didn’t stop our old president from doubling his salary.”

The LMRDA data make clear that Taylor’s situation is not unique. Labor is paying out enough in top-shelf salaries to fund large-scale organizing, if it chose. In 2008, nearly 10,000 union officials or staff brought home salaries greater than $100,000, costing a total of $1.2 billion. A subset, 1,612 individuals, pulled down salaries over $150,000, adding up to $316 million.

Looking at total compensation, which includes meal and housing allowances and other expense reimbursements, the numbers are even larger. Officers and staff collecting more than $100,000 in union funds numbered 13,688; their tab climbed to a combined total of more than $1.9 billion.

Of course, these numbers pale in comparison to the $18 billion in bonuses Wall Street bankers gave themselves in 2008 after they burned the country’s economy to the ground.


But the labor movement could save sizable sums by imposing a salary cap and eliminating multiple salaries. How much?

Based on the 2008 data, a $100,000 salary cap coupled with a ban on multiple salaries would free up $294 million a year, while a cap of $150,000 would save $74 million. Capping total compensation at $100,000 would free up more than $500 million, while a $150,000 cap would save $143 million.

Source: OLMS. Click to enlarge.



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Any of these scenarios would free up enough resources to triple the $29 million that the AFL-CIO spent on organizing and member mobilization in 2008. The more aggressive approaches could even generate enough resources to triple the AFL-CIO’s entire budget of $153 million that year.

Several individual unions could also find substantial new funds by lowering official salaries. The table above lists the 15 unions that stand to gain the most by limiting total compensation, with savings totaling as much as $361 million.

Capping pay at $100,000 could generate $34 million for the Teamsters. But some recently elected local reformers aren’t waiting for instructions from headquarters. “Our new president just cut his salary by $55,000 and we’re going to use that money for member education, contract enforcement, and organizing,” Taylor said.

Scott Schroeder, a grocery clerk in Northern California, has ideas for what to do with the nearly $30 million the Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) would save if they put a $100,000 ceiling on compensation.

“I’d put the money into education, teaching members how to be better union activists,” Schroeder said. “We have to learn to do stuff for ourselves.”

Schroeder also sees a connection to organizing: “Non-union grocery stores are popping up all over our area. We could be targeting them with those extra resources—getting members involved in the organizing.”


Beyond the missed opportunities for strategic campaigns or new organizing, excessive salaries do lasting damage to union solidarity. Labor’s top earners have climbed into the upper reaches of U.S. income distribution, far removed from most rank-and-file members.

Officials earning more than $150,000 found themselves among the richest 5 percent of American households. Meanwhile, the typical union member earned $48,000 in 2008; the overall average U.S. income was $40,000.

The table at the above right gives a sense of just how wide this gap can get, with a list of the 15 highest-paid officials in the labor movement in 2008. Harold Daggett from the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) was at the top of the heap.

Four other officials received more than half a million dollars just in salary, and everyone in the top 15 earned more than $400,000. When looking at total compensation, 10 officials received over half a million. A third of the highest paid officials in the labor movement also received more than one salary.

“These guys are completely out of touch,” Taylor said. “They have no clue what our lives are like and they relate more to the bosses than to the members. In fact, one of our bosses used to keep a picture on his desk of him playing golf with our old union president.

“That’s why we had to get new leadership. Now we’ve got a chance to do things differently.”

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #372, March 2010. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.


dolores (not verified) | 03/22/10

The last commenter makes some good points regarding certain hard-working staff, expenses, etc. but you need to take another look at the chart. Yes, there are well-paid teachers, longshore workers, carpenters, etc. But none of them make half a million dollars a year! For god's sake, I think there is a big difference between 100k and 400k. AS a rank and file teacher who makes less than 50k and pays many thousands in dues, I find it disgusting that someone at NEA makes 483,000 a year. All they do is send me damn credit card offers and vacation packages. Yes, all they have done is try to sell me shit since I joined. Considering what the national teachers unions have accomplished with regard to influencing Obama and national educational policy, I dont think anyone on staff deserves a dime right now. The unions are not going to survive another generation if they dont stop this mad waste of resources.

micro202 (not verified) | 03/19/10

I'm no fan of some of the more flagrant offenses, but a lot of this article seems to greatly over-simplify the situation.

Several of the unions in your charts have many rank and file members that make close to or more than $100,000 a year such as teachers, nurses, airline pilots and some of the skilled building trades depending on the region.

We have some locals in my union who have experimented with capping leadership salary at no more than what the highest paid rank and file members make and truthfully I don't see it having much of an effect other than helping bring on burn out that much quicker. After a while of the constant stress, headaches and always being on call, a lot throw in the towel and go back to working in the field. If you are truly representing your members, it's a heck of a job. I don't have a problem with those folks being paid well.

I am also not sure why this article would bring up work related expenses. How are legitimate expenses incurred in the course of representing your members relevant at all to this discussion? In my union it's actually the organizers that incur the largest work expenses because of the massive amounts of traveling they do. So we are supposed to cut organizer's expenses to fund organizing?

As far international union leader salaries, many of them get a good jump in pay because their personal expenses often skyrocket when taking these positions. If you and your family are in Nebraska and have to go work in DC you may be faced juggling paying for living and travel expenses in two locations. My union definitely does not cover those costs.

An interesting side note is that in my state many conservative and business groups have recently been calling for a reduction/cap in the salary and benefits of government workers because they make more than the taxpayers who pay their salary. Many of the talking points these groups bring up are similar to those that the author of this article proposes.

This is all good for drumming up populist outrage, but I'm not sure of the positive end result.

11messiah (not verified) | 03/18/10

As soon as CEO's of companies agree to salary caps, then unions should.