Teamsters and SEIU drop out of AFL-CIO

Loss of 3.2 million members plunges coalition into crisis

By Finlay Lewis

July 26, 2005

CHICAGO – Leaders of the Teamsters and the service employees union announced yesterday they would bolt the AFL-CIO in a move that dramatizes organized labor's long struggle to remain a significant force in the nation's economic and political life.

John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, denounced the defections as a "grievous insult" to other unions. The labor movement now faces its most serious organizational crisis since the late 1930s, when it was rent by rivalries between industrial unions representing assembly-line workers and the skilled-craft unions.

The announcement came on the opening day of a four-day AFL-CIO convention and culminated a long-festering internal dispute over the direction and priorities of the labor movement. Lending urgency to the debate has been a decades-long slide in union membership, a string of setbacks at the ballot box and growing threats to American jobs from globalization.

At a midday press conference, James P. Hoffa, head of the Teamsters, and Andrew Stern, leader of the Service Employees International Union, the nation's largest union, severed their connection with the AFL-CIO. The coalition was formed in 1955 and until yesterday comprised 56 unions.

"We are walking down a road, and the mileposts are clear," said Stern, whose union has 1.8 million workers. "A country that once had 35 percent union membership is now down to 8 percent in the private sector."

"Our world has changed," he said. "Our economy has changed. Employers have changed, but the AFL-CIO is not willing to make fundamental change as well."

At the core of the dispute is the rejected demand by the two breakaway unions and several allies that the federation shift resources from political action and devote them instead to organizing nonunion sectors of the economy.

Speaking for 1.4 million Teamsters, Hoffa declared, "We must have more union members in order to change the political climate that is undermining workers' rights in this country. The AFL-CIO has chosen the opposite approach. . . . Their idea is to keep throwing money at politicians."

The development yesterday was foreshadowed the day before when the defecting unions and two others announced that they would boycott the convention. UNITE HERE, representing apparel, restaurant and hotel employees, and the United Food and Commercial Workers also decided not to send delegations to the convention, but they chose to keep their ties to the federation for the time being.

The four unions have come together in a new grouping, the Change to Win Coalition. It was formed to pressure the AFL-CIO to downsize its Washington bureaucracy and shift millions of dollars from political activities to rank-and-file worker organizing.

The Laborers International Union and the United Farm Workers are also in the coalition, but both unions have signaled their intent to remain within the AFL-CIO.

The moves cast a long shadow over Sweeney's expected re-election Thursday morning. Sweeney, 71, rose to power a decade ago through the ranks of the Service Employees with Stern as a loyal protege.

Sweeney was elected on a pledge to reverse the decline in labor's membership, but the downward trend has continued, leaving him vulnerable to the challenge to his leadership of the labor movement.

Opening the convention hours before the widely expected announcement by the defectors, Sweeney accused the boycotting unions of playing into the hands of labor's corporate and right-wing enemies.

"It is a tragedy for working people," Sweeney said. "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."

As a result of yesterday's action, and the possibility that other unions might join the Teamsters and Service Employees in leaving the AFL-CIO, the labor movement appears in danger of fracturing into two rival blocs.

Already riven by clashes among competing unions over organizing rights in different sectors of the economy, the situation could lead to even deeper divisions and compromise labor's effectiveness in confrontations with management.

Addressing the convention yesterday were Democratic Sens. Richard Durbin and Barack Obama of Illinois and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. Also speaking were Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, and John Edwards, last year's Democratic vice-presidential candidate.

Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania spoke via video hookup.

The speakers did not commit themselves to one side or the other in the rift, although several offered veiled warnings about the risks of division.

Citing the threats to American jobs from growing international trade and the outsourcing of American jobs, Obama said, "There has never been a greater need for a strong labor movement to stand up for American workers."

Durbin warned that corporate interests would likely try to weaken labor's hand by playing one side against the other, but added, "We have news for them. It's not going to happen. Our unity is our strength. We will stand together and fight for working families."

But underlying their comments is deep concern among Democrats that the schism will damage the political cohesion of organized labor, a powerful ally, and drain its treasury.

The four boycotting unions represent about a third of the AFL-CIO's 13 million membership. The Service Employees and the Teamsters together contribute about $20 million to the federation's budget, about a sixth of the total.

While the dispute has been building for several years, the moves by the Service Employees and Teamsters seemed to leave many unionists in a state of shock.

Louie Wright, a 54-year-old firefighter from Kansas City, said he was reluctant to assess the impact of the defections, but added, "Obviously, I think it's a step in the wrong direction."

Indicating sympathy with at least some of the demands of the Change to Win Coalition, Wright said, "The good that could have come out of open debate among ourselves has been set back. The focus now will be on disunity."

But John Werkheiser, a member of the boycotting Food and Commercial Workers, saw merit in the coalition's tactics. Despite his union's boycott, Werkheiser is serving as a delegate because of his position as president of the Lehigh Valley Labor Council, near Bethlehem, Pa.

"Certainly a split won't be helpful," said Werkheiser. "But if a debate on ideas and programs can lead to better ideas and better programs for communicating with members, then it might be the best thing we ever did – to spark this debate."

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