Two of the nation's largest and most powerful unions resigned from the AFL-CIO on Monday, fracturing the 50-year-old federation as the labor movement struggles to stem decades of decline and lost influence in both the workplace and the political arena.
The withdrawal of the 1.7 million-member Service Employees International Union, the biggest union in the AFL-CIO, and the 1.3 million-strong International Brotherhood of Teamsters is a blow to the political clout and finances of the AFL-CIO, according to an array of labor leaders gathered here. Together, the two unions pay $20 million in annual dues toward the AFL-CIO's $120 million budget.
Labor leaders here widely expect two other unions, also in league with the dissidents, to join the breakup. Together, the four unions represent nearly one-third of the AFL-CIO's 13 million members.
The leaders of the breakaway faction said they are taking flight because of distress over what they described as the AFL-CIO's ineffectiveness in stopping the long-term decline in union membership and making labor more relevant to the challenges of the modern workplace.
"Our world has changed, our economy has changed, employers have changed. But the AFL-CIO is not willing to make fundamental change," said Andrew L. Stern, president of the fast-growing SEIU. Stern has been the leader of the movement to break up the central labor federation, and his defection Monday is the culmination of more than three years' work in building an insurgency.
In a speech to delegates at the AFL-CIO convention, President John J. Sweeney attacked Stern and Teamsters President James P. Hoffa. Many Sweeney loyalists think the breakup will hobble labor's political influence, with damaging consequences for Democrats, who rely heavily on union support.
As hundreds of delegates rose in standing ovation, the normally temperate Sweeney described the SEIU-Teamsters withdrawal as "a grievous insult to all the unions" and a "tragedy for working people, because at a time when our corporate and conservative adversaries have created the most powerful anti-worker political machine in the history of our country, a divided movement hurts the hopes of working families for a better life."
Hoffa, who was much more critical of the AFL-CIO than Stern, said: "We have been disappointed that over the last 10 years [the period of Sweeney's tenure] we have seen a decline in membership, a decline in density." He was referring to the term for the percentage of unionized workers within an industry. Hoffa, like other critics, said Sweeney is too focused on trying to influence political campaigns and not focused enough on long-term development of the labor movement. He said he pressed Sweeney and other leaders for dues rebates to fund membership drives and said: "They said no. Their idea is to keep throwing money at politicians."
Leaders of the United Food and Commercial Workers and Unite Here, a union of hotel, restaurant and garment workers, are deliberating over whether to join the walkout in coming days. In addition, the Laborers' International Union and the United Farm Workers of America are considering following suit.
These six unions, along with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, which left the AFL-CIO in 2001, have formed the Change to Win Coalition. Hoffa said he plans to put $5 million into the coalition annually, which, if matched by the other unions, would turn it into a formidable presence in the labor movement.
Stern has pressed to convert the AFL-CIO from a federation into an institution with authority to order union mergers and grant individual or groups of unions exclusive organizing rights to such industry sectors as health, transportation or public employees. He said that unions must be much bigger to be able to bargain with global companies and nationwide chains, and that allowing multiple smaller unions lets employers pit one against another and use profits from one region of the country to crush a union in another region.
Edward J. McElroy Jr., president of the American Federation of Teachers and a leading Sweeney ally, disputed claims by Stern and other members of the Change to Win Coalition that the split is based on fundamental differences over changes and new strategies. McElroy, who was a principal negotiator in the failed dealing with coalition members, said that in private, coalition leaders said they would settle if Sweeney agreed to retire in a year or two, and established succession rules favoring one of the Change to Win union presidents.
There is general agreement that splintering the national labor federation has large implications for employer-employee relations and the strength of the Democratic Party, which depends heavily on unions for money and organizing power. There is, however, no consensus on the specific impact of labor's dissolution.
"A divided movement at war with itself only makes Democratic electoral gains more complicated and increasingly unlikely," said Erik Smith, who coordinated much of the independent, pro-Democratic campaign in 2004. "A divided labor movement creates a favorable environment for those who seek to reverse pro-worker gains."
One immediate political consequence is that the AFL-CIO will no longer be able to coordinate get-out-the-vote drives that include Teamsters and SEIU members and their families. Under the law, the AFL-CIO can only mobilize voters who are in member unions.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), one of labor's strongest supporters in Congress, sought in an interview to play down the negative consequences. "It's important, clearly, but I also believe underlying the division, what united all the unions is stronger than what divides them," he said, citing their common interest in pension changes and in defeating partial privatization of Social Security.
Putting the best face on what they acknowledge was an unwelcome development, a number of union leaders allied with Sweeney privately noted that the conflict has forced the Sweeney administration to take much stronger steps to promote organizing campaigns by member unions. In a futile effort to make peace with Stern and Hoffa, Sweeney agreed to substantial constitutional and structural changes in the AFL-CIO that are designed to strengthen organizing and provide more money to such efforts.
Another big unknown is whether organizing disputes, which are now mediated by the AFL-CIO, will become open and unregulated warfare between those unions that remain within the AFL-CIO and those that leave. The SEIU and the pro-Sweeney American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) are already engaged in bitter fights over home health care workers in Iowa and California.
"We've extended our hand and they have to decide whether they want to be successful or vindictive," Stern said. Gerald W. McEntee, president of AFSCME, countered that his union has tried to negotiate a "no raid" agreement with the SEIU but has been unsuccessful so far.