Major Unions Leave AFL-CIO; Nearly Half of Membership Might Break Away
Abid Aslam, OneWorld US
Tue Jul 26,10:45 AM ET
WASHINGTON, D.C., Jul 26 (OneWorld) - Two major unions broke away from the AFL-CIO Monday, stripping the premier U.S. labor federation of nearly one-fourth of its membership in what appeared to be the largest shakeup of the nation's organized workforce since the Great Depression.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), together counting 3.2 million of the AFL-CIO's 13 million members, timed their withdrawal from the AFL-CIO to coincide with the federation's annual convention in Chicago.
The dissidents complained that the AFL-CIO was spending too much on political lobbying and not enough on organizing--charges that the federation's president, John Sweeney, sought to address with proposals that he said closely resembled changes demanded by the Teamsters, SEIU, and other members of ''Change to Win,'' a breakaway coalition formed on June 15.
Sweeney, in prepared remarks cited in news reports, described the defections as ''a tragedy for working people.''
''At a time when our corporate and conservative adversaries have created the most powerful anti-worker political machine in the history of our country, a divided movement hurts the hopes of working families for a better life,'' he said.
His critics, however, said their decision had been years in coming and was driven by dissatisfaction over dwindling union membership and political influence.
''This was not an easy or happy decision,'' Andrew Stern, the SEIU president, said in prepared remarks. ''Our world has changed. Our economy has changed. Employers have changed. But the AFL-CIO is not willing to make fundamental change.''
James Hoffa, the Teamsters president, said that by defecting from the AFL-CIO, his union had ''chosen a course of growth and strength for the American labor movement.''
''In our view, we must have more union members in order to change the political climate that is undermining workers rights in this country,'' Hoffa said. ''The AFL-CIO has chosen the opposite approach.''
Nevertheless, he pledged, ''the Teamsters will remain the bulwark of the labor movement. Striking workers, no matter what union they belong to, can always count on the Teamsters for support and assistance. That is our history and tradition.''
Invocations of solidarity notwithstanding, other Change to Win members were expected to pull out of the AFL-CIO, threatening the federation with the loss of around 46 percent of its membership base. They included the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, United Farm Workers, and Unite Here, itself the result of the merger of unions representing garment, hotel, and restaurant workers.
Terence O'Sullivan, president of coalition member the Laborers' International Union of North America, said his organization could decide to break away from the AFL-CIO in September.
''Despite months of discussion with the current AFL-CIO leadership, there has been no substantive change in their positions,'' O'Sullivan said in a statement. ''We must and will do what is best for Laborers and all working people.''
The Carpenters and Joiners International Union withdrew from the AFL-CIO in 2001.
In all, the coalition's seven member unions claim to represent six million workers in the growing retail, healthcare, hospitality, construction, and transportation industries.
Dissident labor leaders said they had hoped to persuade the AFL-CIO to increase budget allocations for organizing drives, merge smaller unions into larger ones, and stop affiliates from poaching each other's members.
Change to Win members have signed a non-compete clause designed to stop labor groups from venturing out of their core industries to recruit potential members away from other unions.
Sweeney and AFL-CIO leaders had sought to persuade the dissidents that their demands closely resembled reform proposals adopted by the federation Monday. Stern, Hoffa, and O'Sullivan each disagreed, however.
Under changes proposed by Sweeney, the AFL-CIO would set up committees to establish uniform contract standards and strategic organizing plans for entire industries. It would amend its constitution to allow unions to try to organize each others' members if this made strategic sense but threaten court action against violators of the new rules; establish an executive committee to share power among the leaders of the central federation and its largest unions; and look into ways to encourage union mergers.
Founded in 1955 and grouping 57 major unions until Monday, the AFL-CIO had seen its membership shrivel to around eight percent of the country's private sector workforce, according to the U.S. Labor Department. By contrast, 38 percent of non-government workers belonged to the federation's affiliates in the 1950s.
Some 12 percent of all full-time U.S. workers belonged to unions last year, down from more than 20 percent two decades ago, according to the government's Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Even so, polls in recent years have shown that public sympathy for workers' right to organize has been rising. Surveys, including some commissioned by the AFL-CIO since 2002, have found that upwards of 30 million Americans would form or join a union if given the chance.
Labor advocacy group American Rights at Work, in a June report, said that employers often thwart organizing drives with intimidation and discrimination and that voting procedures overseen by the government's National Labor Relations Board are weighted in favor of bosses.
Government figures show that 23,000 American workers are dismissed or discriminated against on the job each year ''for exercising their legal rights to form or join a union,'' the Washington, D.C.-based organization said.