Organized labor split into two camps Sunday as four major unions said they will boycott this year's convention of the AFL-CIO and signaled that they will bolt the labor coalition altogether to form their own rival group.
"We have reached the point where our differences have become unresolvable," said Anna Burger, chairwoman of the group, which calls itself Change to Win Coalition.
Leaders of the four unions announced their intentions at a news conference in Chicago on the eve of the convention that marks the 50th anniversary of the merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
The leaders didn't provide specifics about their future plans. But Andy Stern, the leader of the move to break away and president of the Service Employees International Union, said more information about his union's actions would come Monday.
Other union presidents said they would make formal announcements of their plans Monday or soon afterward.
"Our differences are so fundamental and so principled that at this point I don't think this is a chance there will be a change of course," said Joe Hansen, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers.
At issue is how much effort the 56-union AFL-CIO spends on organizing workers. The dissident unions want to spend more time and money on organizing and less on partisan politics. The AFL-CIO offered to increase spending on organizing but the two sides remain about $5 million apart annually on their proposals.
Union membership has slid precipitously over the decades in the face of a changing economy and global competition. Less than 8 percent of the private sector work force is unionized, down from a 1955 peak of about a third.
The four unions represent about a third of the 13 million workers now under the AFL-CIO umbrella. They are the Service Employees International Union, which represents janitors and other service workers; the Teamsters; United Food and Commercial Workers; and UNITE HERE, a union of hotel and textile workers.
Two others have signaled they would join the new coalition, but planned to attend the AFL-CIO meeting anyway. They are the Laborers International Union of North America and the United Farm Workers.
A seventh, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, is part of the new coalition but left the AFL-CIO in 2002.
"This is not going to be an easy job," said Edgar Romney, secretary-treasurer of the Change to Win Coalition. "We still have difficulty organizing workers." But he said the new coalition would pool more resources for union organizing.
In a statement, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said the break would hurt rather than help working people.
"It's far easier to tear down a union movement than to build one. America's working people cannot afford for unions to declare `It's my way or the highway' when workers are under the biggest assault in 80 years," he said.
Sweeney, who is seeking re-election this week as president of the federation, said the differences between the two sides were very small and suggested the renegade unions were driven more by a clash of personality than substantive disagreements.
"The fact is that the real issue for these unions is not one of policy or direction, but rather who controls and leads the Federation, and it's fundamentally wrong to use working people's issues as a fig leaf for a power struggle," Sweeney said.
One of those clashes has been between Sweeney and Stern, his former protege. Another was between Stern, president of the country's largest union, and Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, the second largest, which has remained loyal to the AFL-CIO.
McEntee said Sunday that Stern's move would weaken labor's voice and its political clout while helping anti-labor Republicans. Unions and the AFL-CIO are a major source of money and get-out-the-vote muscle, overwhelmingly for Democrats.
The breakup could affect Democrats, who rely on the unions and the AFL-CIO money and get-out-the-vote volunteers.
The loss of dues to the AFL-CIO could strain its finances and thus its ability to spend on election campaigns. The SEIU, for example, owes $7 million in back dues, which it might not pay this week as expected. But the individual unions will remain free to participate in elections.
Said McEntee: "The only people who would applaud this perilous adventure is George Bush and Karl Rove."
For more on the two labor groups: www.aflcio.org and www.changetowin.org.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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