CHICAGO—Already in a downward spiral, the American union movement emerged last week from a pivotal confrontation with its future even more in doubt.
A bitter clash of personalities and agendas split labor into rival camps, as two big unions broke from the AFL-CIO on Monday to start their own federation, the Change to Win Coalition. On Friday, the United Food and Commercial Workers announced its split from the AFL-CIO. At least one more union—Unite Here, a union of hospitality and textile workers—could break away as well.
That would cost the AFL-CIO about a third of its 13 million members and strain its budget. The coalition already has had to lay off a quarter of its Washington staff.
The dissidents who left and some analysts said the split would spark competition, a new devotion to unionizing and eventually more clout to help working people at the workplace and in politics.
"Our goal is not to divide the labor movement, but to rebuild it," said Andy Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union, the country's largest union and the first to bolt the AFL-CIO. The other was the Teamsters.
But other union presidents called the move a power grab by Stern, 54, whom they cast as a onetime protege eager to oust his former mentor, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, 71. That weakens labor, hurts friendly Democrats and helps President Bush and anti-labor politics, they said.
"A tragic day," said Gerald McEntee, the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the largest union remaining in the AFL-CIO. "The federation is weaker."
All this comes at a time of major shifts in the economy, with global competition, the loss of manufacturing jobs and the rise of a service economy symbolized by the rapid growth of the nation's largest company, Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is non-union and buys most of its inexpensive goods overseas.
After peaking at about a third of the work force in the 1950s, unions now represent just 12 percent, and less than 8 percent of the private-sector work force.
Why the split? Dissidents said the AFL-CIO was too stuck in its ways for a new age.
"We must revitalize the labor movement and reverse the continuing decline in union membership," Teamsters President James Hoffa said. "We must reallocate every possible resource to increased organizing. ... The federation has refused to embrace the progressive measures that we believe are necessary."
The Teamsters specifically wanted unions to get back 50 percent of the dues they pay to the AFL-CIO, money they would use for more union organizing. Sweeney offered to rebate 25 percent of the union payments.
The dissidents also wanted to replace Sweeney. Aware that he had enough support to win re-election to a second term, the dissident unions pressed for him to agree to leave within a year or two. Sweeney was re-elected Wednesday.
Though the new coalition didn't mention Stern as a possible replacement for Sweeney, the names floated as possible successors included Stern allies Terry O'Sullivan, the president of the Laborers International Union, and John Wilhelm, the president of Unite Here.
"It was a power play," said Michael Sullivan, the president of the Sheet Metal Workers Union. "The last offer on the table was that President Sweeney leave in six months and that they put their person in. That's been the issue from the beginning."
Stern and allies insisted it was about organizing.
Sweeney called the move a "grievous insult" to the 50-year-old federation. He also saw it as a personal betrayal from Stern, who's president of the same union that Sweeney once headed.
"He's hurt that this test came from his own old union. He's disappointed. He's angry," McEntee said. "He literally gave Andy Stern all the jobs he ever had."
The two sides do disagree over how much to devote to organizing and how much to devote to helping elect Democrats and union-friendly Republicans. Dissidents said cultivating politicians didn't matter as long as unions were losing members. AFL-CIO loyalists said they couldn't afford to forsake politics because anti-labor policies set in Washington made it harder to unionize.
The AFL-CIO responded by beefing up efforts to unionize more workplaces while maintaining a commitment to politics. It created a $22.5 million fund to help finance union efforts, changed rules to allow unions to work together in targeting an entire industry and announced plans to train 100,000 work-site stewards to better fight for the right to unionize.
The effect of the split on the Democratic Party, which relies on unions for cash and volunteers to turn out votes, wasn't clear.
"It's bad for the party," said Erik Smith, a Democratic strategist. "It may be good for labor in the long term, but it's bad for Democrats in the short term. ... It's less energy, time and resources they'll have for politics."
But individual unions will remain free to spend time and money helping campaigns. Stern's Service Employees International Union and McEntee's American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, for example, endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean.
As a perhaps illustrative comparison, the fact that there are numerous conservative Christian organizations hasn't splintered their support for Republicans.
Still, one effect of the unions' debate could be to cool labor's ties with the Democratic Party—or make the party work harder for labor support.
"They should be worried. Maybe they've taken us for granted," said James Williams, the president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades.
The Service Employees International Union gave $575,000 last year to the Republican Governors Association, that group's largest single contributor. The painters union boasted that it gave 44 percent of its contributions to Republicans. The International Association of Fire Fighters, despite its high-profile endorsement of Democratic Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in his 2004 presidential campaign, gave 34 percent of its political action committee contributions to Republicans.
At the firefighters' urging, the AFL-CIO adopted a resolution at its convention last week in Chicago mandating "a nonpartisan political and legislative strategy that bases labor's support on union issues and worker issues, not political parties."
Said firefighters' union President Harold Schaitberger: "We must build relationships with any candidate who is willing to stand with us on our issues, regardless of party."
For more on the two labor coalitions, go to www.afl-cio.org or www.changetowin.org
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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