Teamsters, SEIU to abandon AFL-CIO; part of four-union rift

Monday, July 25, 2005

Coalition leaders seemed to be establishing the group as a newly minted rival of the AFL-CIO.

CHICAGO -- Jolting organized labor, the Teamsters and a massive service employees' union decided Sunday to bolt the AFL-CIO, paving way for two other labor groups to sever ties in the movement's biggest schism since the 1930s.

The four dissident unions, representing nearly one-third of the AFL-CIO's 13 million members, announced they were boycotting the federation's convention that begins today, a step that was widely considered to be a precursor to leaving the federation.

They are part of the Change to Win Coalition, a group of seven unions vowing to accomplish what the AFL-CIO has failed to do: Reverse the decades-long decline in union membership. But many union presidents, labor experts and Democratic Party leaders fear the split will weaken the movement politically and hurt unionized workers who need a united and powerful ally against business interests and global competition.

The Service Employees International Union, the largest AFL-CIO affiliate with 1.8 million members, has spearheaded the exodus and will announce today that it is leaving the AFL-CIO, said several labor officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Teamsters plan to declare their departure at the same "Change to Win" news conference, officials said.

Two other boycotting unions signaled similar intentions: United Food and Commercial Workers and UNITE HERE, a group of textile and hotel workers.

"Our differences are so fundamental and so principled that at this point I don't think there is a chance there will be a change of course," said UFCW President Joe Hansen. The dissident presidents vowed Sunday to abstain from AFL-CIO leadership votes, even after the convention.

Without directly saying so, coalition leaders seemed to be establishing the group as a newly minted rival of the AFL-CIO. "Today will be remembered as a rebirth of union strength in America," coalition chairwoman Anna Burger said.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, expected to easily win re-election over the objections of the dissidents, suggested the dissidents were spoiled sports, leaving after their demands were not met.

"It's a shame for working people that before the first vote has been cast, four unions have decided that if they can't win, they won't show up for the game," Sweeney said.

Leaders of the dissident unions say the AFL-CIO leadership has failed to stop the steep decline in union membership. In addition to seeking the ouster of Sweeney, they have demanded more money for organizing, power to force mergers of smaller unions and other changes they say are key to adapting to vast changes in society and the economy.

Gerald McEntee, president of a government employees' union with more than 1 million members, accused his boycotting colleagues of aiding labor's political foes. "The only people who are happy about this are President Bush and his crowd," he said.

Rank-and-file members of the 52 non-boycotting AFL-CIO affiliates expressed confusion and anger over the action. "If there was ever a time we workers need to stick together, it's today," said Olegario Bustamante, a steelworker from Cicero, Ill.

It's the biggest rift in organized labor since 1938, when the CIO split from the AFL. The organizations merged in the mid-1950s.

The boycott means the unions will not pay $7 million in back dues to the AFL-CIO today. If all four boycotting unions quit the federation, they would take about $35 million a year from the estimated $120 million annual budget of the AFL-CIO, which has already been forced to layoff a quarter of its 400-person staff.

Two other unions that are part of the Change to Win Coalition did not plan to leave the Chicago convention: the Laborers International Union of North America and the United Farm Workers. They are the least likely of the coalition members to leave the AFL-CIO, though the Laborers show signs of edging that way, officials said.

The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, the seventh member of the coalition, left the AFL-CIO in 2001.

Globalization, automation and the transition from an industrial-based economy have forced hundreds of thousands of unionized workers out of jobs, weakening labor's role in the workplace.

When the AFL-CIO formed 50 years ago, union membership was at its zenith with one of every three private-sector workers belonging to a labor group. Now, less than 8 percent of private-sector workers are unionized.

The dissidents largely represent workers in retail and service sectors, the heart of the emerging new U.S. economy. Sweeney's allies are primarily industrial unions whose workers are facing the brunt of global economic shifts.

A divided labor movement worries Democratic leaders who rely on the AFL-CIO's money and manpower on Election Day.

"Anything that sidetracks us from our goals ... is not healthy," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., chairman of the House campaign committee.

Experts said the split might deepen labor's woes.

"Employer opposition to organizing might increase and I think that political opponents might feel emboldened, because they would see it as a sign of weakness," said Gary Chaison, industrial relations professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

Others said competition might be good for the labor movement.


On the Net: AFL-CIO: http://www.aflcio.org/

Change to Win Coalition: http://www.changetowin.org

Labor coalition makes demandsSeven of the AFL-CIO's 56 affiliate unions have formed the Change to Win Coalition, promising to modernize the labor movement with a focus on organizing more workers. Four of the seven have made plans to bolt the federation if their demands are not met.

Coalition members

Service Employees International Union.

International Brotherhood of Teamsters

United Food and Commercial Workers International

UNITE HERE (formerly Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees)

Laborers International Union of North America

United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America

United Farm Workers

Threatening to leave

SEIU

Teamsters

UFCW

UNITE HERE

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