Big Labor: Closer to a Breakup

Dissident unions edged toward a split with the AFL-CIO by forming a new coalition. All eyes are now on the federation's gathering next month

By Aaron Bernstein

Five dissident unions took a major step toward a possible breakup of the AFL-CIO on June 15 when they announced the formation of a new labor alliance called the Change to Win Coalition. The move comes after the governing bodies of three of the unions -- the Service Employees; Food & Commercial Workers; and UNITE HERE, the needletrades union -- have formally authorized their leaders to disaffiliate with the AFL-CIO if they deem it necessary. The executive board of a fourth union, the Teamsters, will vote on a similar resolution in July, says James Hoffa, its president.

The dissidents created the new coalition as part of their campaign to force dramatic change on a declining labor movement, in the hope of reversing decades of slumping membership (see BW Online, 5/19/05, "Is Labor Headed for Splitsville?"). Although the alliance members initially supported AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney when he took office in 1995, they now think labor needs new leadership and direction. They plan to oppose his platform when Sweeney runs for reelection at the AFL-CIO's quadrennial convention in Chicago next month.


  If Sweeney wins, as now seems likely, the four unions could quit the AFL-CIO and transform Change to Win into an alternative labor federation. "If there's no significant change in Chicago and it looks like the status quo isn't going to be changed, we're ready to look at other alternatives," says Joe Hansen, president of the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union.

Since the four unions represent some 5 million of the AFL-CIO's 13 million members, a breakup would dramatically alter the face of organized labor. (Terence O'Sullivan, president of the Laborers International Union of North America, the fifth member of the dissident coalition, says he has no plans for his union to leave the AFL-CIO and is likely to be part of both groups if his colleagues quit the AFL-CIO.)

While a breakup is by no means certain at this point, every escalation of the battle makes it more likely. Last year, the dissidents, led by Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern, had hoped that threats of a breakup would convince Sweeney to step aside -- or convince other unions not to support him. But Sweeney has fought back hard, adopting many of the dissidents' suggestions for change and making personal pleas for loyalty to other unions' presidents. After heated confrontations at an AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in March, Sweeney began to prevail.


  When union presidents met again in Washington, D.C., on June 13, they voted 17-7 in favor of new policies Sweeney recently proposed. Ssupporters express confidence that Sweeney will prevail in his July reelection campaign. On June 15, Sweeney put out a statement in response to the new coalition's formation, saying, "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."

The problem for the dissidents: They now may have less choice about making good on their withdrawal threats. The three unions that authorized a possible withdrawal have engaged in a months-long internal process of debate about labor's future. Their presidents have lobbied their local officers to oppose Sweeney as they seek a broader shakeup of labor. After expending so much political capital, it could prove difficult to remain in the AFL-CIO should Sweeney win reelection.

Moreover, Service Employees President Stern took pains on June 15 to leave open the possibility that his union may withdraw from the AFL-CIO even before the July convention. "If we know we won't be successful at the convention, we have to decide what to do," he said. "Everyone's keeping all options open."

Bernstein is a senior writer in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau

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