Four Big Unions Boycott AFL-CIO Convention and May Split Away

By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 25, 2005

CHICAGO, July 24 -- Four major unions announced Sunday that they will boycott this week's AFL-CIO convention, and union officials said all four are likely to leave the AFL-CIO altogether, fracturing the federation that for 50 years has represented the U.S. labor movement.

The four unions say the AFL-CIO leadership has failed to stem a steady decline in the percentage of workers represented by unions and believe that AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney should have retired to let new leaders take charge. The dissidents say they want to restore the labor movement to a position of power in the political system and the economy.

"Today we have reached a point where our differences have become irresolvable," Anna Burger, a top official of the Service Employees International Union and chair of the insurgent Change to Win Coalition, said at a combination rally and news conference.

On Monday, the SEIU plans to announce its formal withdrawal from the AFL-CIO. "I don't see any change in course," said Andrew L. Stern, the SEIU president.

The presidents of the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers signaled they are prepared to resign from the AFL-CIO. "Our differences are so fundamental and so principled that at this point I don't think there is a chance there will be a change of course," said UFCW President Joe Hansen. "We may have an announcement tomorrow."

Unite Here, which represents hotel, restaurant and garment workers, is also on the verge of leaving the federation. SEIU is the largest of the 56 unions in the AFL-CIO, and the four unions threatening to leave represent about a third of the 13 million union workers who are in the AFL-CIO and pay about a third of the dues to finance the federation's $120 million annual budget.

Stern has led an insurrection calling for major reorganization and strengthening of the powers of the AFL-CIO. Sweeney was Stern's mentor in the labor movement and his predecessor as SEIU president.

Stern contends that to survive, unions must be merged into much larger, but fewer, organizations equipped to take on global companies and large chains, especially Wal-Mart. In addition, Stern contends that union organizing efforts must be carefully segmented by industry sector to prevent wasteful inter-union competition and to ensure that specific unions are given the responsibility to build strength and density in specific areas, such as health care, retail services or transportation.

The labor schism threatens to leave this critical wing of the Democratic Party split for the election of 2006 and probably 2008. Organized labor contributes tens of millions of dollars and workers for Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts.

Sweeney, 71, has rejected calls to retire and attacked the convention boycott as "an insult [to] union brothers and sisters, and to all working people. . . . It's fundamentally wrong to use working people's issues as a fig leaf for a power struggle."

For the past nine months, Sweeney and his allies have been meeting with leaders of the unions in the Change to Win Coalition in an effort to broker a compromise.

Coalition leader Burger on Sunday described those negotiations as fruitless. "The language of our reforms has been adopted, but not the substance. Our principles have been watered down and papered over. . . . Workers cannot afford half measures."

At an earlier rally in support of his reelection, Sweeney told more than 900 cheering and chanting supporters: "We are here for each other. We're here for our sisters and brothers all over America who are struggling to win their right to organize . . . with the most powerful weapon we have -- our solidarity."

To applause and shouts, Sweeney declared: "Common sense tells us that a union movement divided against itself risks losing the fight for workers' rights."

The decision to boycott the convention angered leaders and ranking officials of the unions that plan to remain in the federation. Edward J. McElroy, president of the American Federation of Teachers, accused Stern and his allies of bargaining in bad faith. "Their stance was that unless you agree with their position, they won't make an agreement," he said.

R. Thomas Buffenbarger, president of the Machinists, said Stern and other dissidents "showed total disrespect for their colleagues who sat through the negotiations."

In addition to the four unions likely to leave the AFL-CIO, two others, the United Farm Workers and the Laborers International Union, have joined the Change to Win Coalition. These two unions are not boycotting the convention, but their presidents pointedly did not rule out leaving the AFL-CIO in the near future.

Terence M. O'Sullivan, president of the Laborers, told reporters that they "should not take" the decision against boycotting the convention as a sure sign his union will stay in the AFL-CIO. Instead, he said, "we stand shoulder to shoulder in unity and solidarity" with the other members of the coalition.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company