WASHINGTON—It was supposed to be a celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations into one powerful voice for working people.
Instead, when it meets July 25-28 in Chicago, the AFL-CIO is in danger of splitting apart.
Five of the biggest unions in the coalition are threatening to break off and form their own group unless the AFL-CIO dramatically shifts its emphasis from electoral politics to finding new union members. For a movement that's been losing its organizing muscle and political clout for decades, the showdown in Chicago could amount to a life-or-death struggle.
A split could reinvigorate a labor movement that peaked in the `50s era of industrial jobs and an economy largely inside U.S. borders—or it could accelerate the steady decline that started a half-century ago and has accelerated in the information age with its global economy.
At stake are the financial and job security of 13 million people who belong to the unions that compose the AFL-CIO as well as the direction and health of the Democratic Party, which relies heavily on unions for financial support and an army of volunteers to work campaigns.
"A split labor movement would be devastating to workers, especially at this time when workers are under such huge pressures," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said. "Conservatives ... would be gloating about it" and "there are employers who we know cannot wait for that to happen."
The most vocal inside critic of the AFL-CIO said it had become dysfunctional all by itself. "It's like an orchestra where everybody is playing a different song and there's no conductor," said Andy Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union, the country's largest and fastest-growing union.
"The stakes could not be higher. If the labor movement doesn't adopt dramatic changes today to cope with the new economy, it will find itself marginalized into oblivion," Stern said.
Stern's union is one of the five that are threatening to leave the AFL-CIO. Combined, they have about 5 million members, nearly 40 percent of the AFL-CIO's members. The other potential breakaways are the Laborers' International Union, the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers Union, and UNITE HERE, which represents workers in textiles, hotels and restaurants.
A sixth union, the 520,000-member United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, quit the AFL-CIO in 2001 and has said it would join the new group.
Sweeney wants to negotiate a truce that would keep the AFL-CIO coalition of 56 unions together.
"I'm very hopeful that we're going to be able to avoid a split," he said during a recent breakfast. "I have done my damnedest to try to bridge the gap of the differences between the different affiliates on major issues."
But leaders of the breakaway group, which named itself the Change to Win Coalition, called his proposals window dressing.
"There is a wide gap between current AFL-CIO leadership proposals and true reform," said Anna Burger, the chairwoman of the group. "There has been virtually no progress on the major issues under debate."
Labor's situation today caps a long story of decline. Union membership peaked at about 35 percent of the work force in 1955, the same year the AFL-CIO merged. Since then, union jobs have disappeared as manufacturing has moved overseas, and unions have been largely unable to get information or service workers to unionize. The country's largest employer, Wal-Mart, isn't unionized.
At the same time, Republicans from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush have enacted policies that make it harder to unionize new industries.
The result: Union membership has shrunk to 12.5 percent of the American work force, less than 8 percent in the private sector.
"We've been organizing hundreds of thousands of workers. But we've been losing millions of good-paying manufacturing jobs," Sweeney said.
That's where the dispute starts.
Sweeney has split his resources between organizing and helping to elect Democrats. He says labor needs allies in government to change policies and make it easier to unionize workplaces.
His success has been limited, however.
In the 2004 presidential election, union members made up 14 percent of the vote, about equal to their share of the work force. But people from union households made up 24 percent of the vote. They voted for Democrat John Kerry over Republican President Bush by a margin of 3-2.
But even as Sweeney has helped maximize union turnout at the polls, it hasn't been enough for Democrats to take control of the federal government.
Critics say that's because the emphasis is wrong, that the AFL-CIO spends too much on helping to elect Democrats and not enough on organizing. "Electing Democrats and taking back the House" isn't enough, Stern said. "It certainly would help, but we don't think it's the answer."
Moreover, the union alignment with the Democratic Party no longer guarantees reciprocal support, let alone Election Day victories. The party is often torn between pro-labor traditionalists and pro-business centrists.
When it had a Democrat in the White House, for example, labor couldn't stop President Clinton from pushing and winning approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which they feared would shift union jobs out of the country. Yet when one of its most loyal allies ran for president last year, the AFL-CIO refused to give a pre-primary endorsement to Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, helping to kill his campaign.
"There are just so many fewer union members, their ability to influence the Democratic Party is at an all-time low," said Robert Bruno, a labor relations professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
He added that the breakup of the AFL-CIO might be good for workers and increase their clout by stimulating competition between unions.
"When there have been competing federations, like at the turn of the last century and the 1930s ... that led to increases in union organizing," he said. "There is a better than 50-50 chance this will stimulate a new dynamism in the movement."
For more on the AFL-CIO online, go to www.aflcio.org
For more on the Change to Win Coalition, go to www.changetowin.org
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): AFL-CIO President John Sweeney
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