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The Nation

5 Major Activist Unions Unite

Seeking to revive the clout of organized labor, the group may break with the AFL-CIO, which the dissidents call stodgy and defeatist.

June 16, 2005|Nancy Cleeland | Times Staff Writer

Frustrated with the AFL-CIO's direction, the presidents of five major national unions representing about a third of U.S. union members on Wednesday formed a coalition aimed at restoring power to the waning labor movement through a series of aggressive, coordinated organizing campaigns.

The move was widely viewed as the first step toward a split in the 50-year-old AFL-CIO, a federation of 57 national unions that has been losing membership and power for decades. Four of the five union leaders have openly discussed leaving the larger body, complaining that its leadership is stodgy and defeatist.

But they said Wednesday that they had no immediate plans to bolt and wanted to keep the focus on their new group, called the Change to Win Coalition.

"This is a historic occasion for working people," said Bruce Raynor, president of Unite Here, a garment and hotel workers union that won a key strategic victory this week in its contract settlement with major Los Angeles hotels. "I hope and believe it will spark a change in the labor movement that will change the face of America."

Other members of Change to Win are the Service Employees International Union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers and the Laborers' International Union of North America. The group includes some of labor's most innovative and successful unions and represents 5 million workers, about 35% of the AFL-CIO. The 1.8-million member SEIU is the largest union in the giant federation.

If a split indeed goes forward, the implications for local labor are huge. The dissident unions represent more than half the members of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, including thousands of militant, recently organized immigrant workers. The county federation, a local body of the AFL-CIO, would be financially crushed if it lost dues from those unions.

AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney, who has been trying to hold the national federation together through months of acrimonious debate, urged members of the new group not to leave.

"Workers are under the biggest assault in 80 years," he said in a statement issued after the announcement of Change to Win's formation. "Now is the time to use our unity to build real worker power, not create a real divide that serves the corporations and the anti-worker politicians."

Sweeney's strongest ally in the federation, Gerald McEntee, president of the 1.7-million member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, was more blunt in criticizing the new group.

"Forming this coalition is a step in the wrong direction," he said, "because it's the first step toward a truly divided labor movement."

Members of the new group said they would stay in the AFL-CIO at least until late July, when delegates from all affiliated unions will meet in Chicago to vote for leaders and bylaws. Sweeney is expected to win a third term, despite pressure from the dissident unions for new leadership.

The five unions in Change to Win will ask convention delegates to approve their principles and revise the AFL-CIO constitution in ways that would force all affiliated unions to meet certain standards on organizing.

"We need to ensure that every link in our movement is strong," said Laborers' president, Terence O'Sullivan.

But the odds of passing such reforms are slim, the union leaders acknowledged. Several hinted that they might leave the federation at that point.

"Every union has to then make its own decision about what it has to do," said SEIU President Andrew L. Stern, who set the ball in motion in November by threatening to pull his union out of the AFL-CIO if radical changes weren't made.

Stern has since been joined by Unite Here, the UFCW and the Teamsters in contemplating a split. O'Sullivan of the Laborers said Wednesday that he hadn't discussed the option with his union's board.

Some compared the announcement of the new alliance to the first steps by John L. Lewis in the mid-1930s to break away from the American Federation of Labor. Lewis, president of the mineworkers union and an advocate for a new approach to organizing, built support while in the AFL before leaving in 1935 to create the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

The break sparked a frenzy of organizing from unions in both groups, and the labor movement flourished, said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at UC Santa Barbara. The groups reconciled in 1950.

But a comparison could also be made to 1968, when United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther pulled the union out of the AFL-CIO, Lichtenstein said. Hoping to create a more dynamic labor movement, Reuther formed an alliance with the Teamsters and several smaller unions. But there were internal problems, and Reuther died in a plane crash in 1970. The separate movement fizzled two years later, Lichtenstein said.

In the current battle, auto worker leaders have sided with Sweeney's team.

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