CHICAGO – Jolting organized labor, the Teamsters and a massive service employees union decided Sunday to bolt from the AFL-CIO, paving the way for two other labor groups to sever ties in the movement’s biggest schism since the 1930s.
The four dissident unions, representing nearly one-third of the AFL-CIO’s 13 million members, announced they are boycotting the federation’s convention that begins today, a step that widely is considered to be a precursor to leaving the federation.
They are part of the Change to Win Coalition, a group of seven unions vowing to accomplish what the AFL-CIO has failed to do: Reverse the decades-long decline in union membership.
But many union presidents, labor experts and Democratic Party leaders fear the split will weaken the movement politically and hurt unionized workers who need a united and powerful ally against business interests and global competition.
The Service Employees International Union, the largest AFL-CIO affiliate with 1.8 million members, has spearheaded the exodus and will announce today that it is leaving the AFL-CIO, said several labor officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Teamsters plan to declare their departure at the same Change to Win news conference, officials said.
Two other boycotting unions signaled similar intentions: United Food and Commercial Workers and UNITE HERE, a group of textile and hotel workers. But they are not scheduled to take part in today’s news conference, officials said.
“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. The dissident presidents vowed Sunday to abstain from AFL-CIO leadership votes, even after the convention.
Without directly saying so, coalition leaders seemed to be establishing the group as a newly minted rival of the AFL-CIO. “Today will be remembered as a rebirth of union strength in America,” coalition chairwoman Anna Burger said.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, expected to easily win re-election over the objections of the dissidents, suggested the dissidents were spoilsports, leaving after their demands were not met.
“It’s a shame for working people that before the first vote has been cast, four unions have decided that if they can’t win, they won’t show up for the game,” Sweeney said. The rhetoric was unusually personal, in part because dissident leader Andy Stern of the SEIU is a former protege of Sweeney.
Leaders of the dissident unions say the AFL-CIO leadership has failed to stop the steep decline in union membership. In addition to seeking the ouster of Sweeney, they have demanded more money for organizing, power to force mergers of smaller unions and other changes they say are key to adapting to changes in society and the economy.
Gerald McEntee, president of a government employees union with more than 1 million members, accused his boycotting colleagues of aiding labor’s political foes. “The only people who are happy about this are President Bush and his crowd,” he said.
Rank-and-file members of the 52 non-boycotting AFL-CIO affiliates expressed confusion and anger over the action. “If there was ever a time we workers need to stick together, it’s today,” said Olegario Bustamante, a steelworker from Cicero, Ill.
It’s the biggest rift in organized labor since 1938, when the CIO split from the AFL. The organizations merged in the mid-1950s.
The boycott means the unions will not pay $7 million in back dues to the AFL-CIO today. If all four boycotting unions quit the federation, they would take about $35 million a year from the estimated $120 million annual budget of the AFL-CIO, which has already been forced to lay off a quarter of its 400-person staff.
Two other unions that are part of the Change to Win Coalition do not plan to leave the Chicago convention: the Laborers International Union of North America and the United Farm Workers. They are the least likely of the coalition members to leave the AFL-CIO, though the Laborers show signs of edging that way, officials said.
The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, the seventh member of the coalition, left the AFL-CIO in 2001.
Globalization, automation and the transition from an industrial-based economy have forced hundreds of thousands of unionized workers out of jobs, weakening labor’s role in the workplace.