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AFL-CIO faces rebellion within ranks at convention

July 20, 2005

By Michael Conlon

CHICAGO (Reuters) – U.S. labor leaders fighting declining
membership and influence are facing a rebellion from within the
ranks that could weaken or even splinter the 50-year-old
AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. union coalition.

The AFL-CIO, representing nearly 13 million workers, meets
in Chicago on Monday in a convention dominated by demands for
change from five member unions representing more than a third
of the membership.

The dissident group is seeking to emphasize recruiting new
members and to make structural changes, and it has decried what
it calls a misplaced emphasis on electoral politics.

The talk has fueled speculation over a split in the
AFL-CIO. Dissident leaders have stopped short of saying they
would leave if the coalition rejects their proposals, but they
have vowed to respond with what one leader called “appropriate
action.”

The group already plans to hold its own “founding
convention” in the autumn regardless of what happens at the
Chicago meeting.

In the decade that AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has
controlled the coalition, union membership fell from 15.5
percent of the work force to 12.5 percent. In 1983, before a
nationwide decline in heavy manufacturing and the exporting of
work to other countries, that figure was slightly over 20
percent.

Sweeney, 71, faces re-election at the upcoming convention
and is unopposed so far in his bid for a third term, despite
the dissatisfaction of dissident members.

The AFL-CIO leadership said before the meeting that unions
need to escalate organizing efforts across the board and it is
proposing a $25 million grant fund for that purpose. It also
said there are more similarities than differences in the
counterproposals being made by the five member unions.

Those unions, the Teamsters, Laborers International of
North America, Service Employees International Union, UNITE
HERE (the textile, garment, hotel and related employees) and
the United Food and Commercial Workers, have formed the Change
to Win Coalition. A sixth union also in the group, the
300,000-member Carpenters and Joiners International, broke away
from the AFL-CIO four years ago.

The group wants more money spent to recruit nonunion
workers and new rules that would hold unions to certain
performance standards. Unions that fall short of expanding
could be encouraged to merge with others in similar industries.
Critics of that idea claim it could force involuntary mergers.

Edna Berger, a service-employees union officer who heads
the Change coalition, said, “We are deadly serious about the
need to overhaul the labor movement.” The dissidents will
insist first on a change in the AFL-CIO constitution they say
would make voting at the convention more representative and
democratic.

They also want unions which spend more on organizing to get
rebates from their payments to the AFL-CIO.

Teamsters Union President James Hoffa said last month that
the AFL-CIO simply wants to “throw more money at politics”
instead of organizing. Sweeney led the AFL-CIO in backing
Democrat John Kerry’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency last
year.

The potential impact a split in the AFL-CIO is open to
debate.

John MacDonald, a professor of economics and strategy at
Washington University in St. Louis, said the coalition “is a
relic … at this point its main activity is really politics,
which is why its membership is so disaffected.”

But Michael LeRoy of the Institute of Labor and Industrial
Relations at the University of Illinois, said the AFL-CIO
“still makes a difference in terms of having a unified
political response to employment policies.” He cited successful
efforts to block some Republican-backed changes, including
recent efforts to weaken the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Adds John Budd, an industrial relations specialist at the
University of Minnesota: “The real power in the U.S. labor
movement has always been the individual unions, not the
AFL-CIO. As individual unions have become weaker in the past 30
years, so has the AFL-CIO.”

The AFL-CIO has tried to make changes over the past 10
years, but they have done little to stem a decline in U.S.
union influence, Budd said. A split, he said would have little
effect on union workers and employers.

He added that the key to labor vitality is energizing and
supporting workers day-to-day, not forming mega-unions that
further remove leaders from the rank-and file.