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Teamsters, workers break from AFL-CIO

July 25, 2005

By Alonso Soto

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Two major unions representing 3.2
million workers broke away from the AFL-CIO labor group on
Monday in a dispute over declining U.S. union membership and
the future direction of organized labor.

The defection by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters
and the Service Employees International Union was a huge blow
to the 13 million-member AFL-CIO, which stands to lose more
than one-third of its membership and may see an erosion in its
influence over Democratic Party politics.

The two unions belong to a dissident group made up of seven
unions that want a greater focus on organizing workers and
merging smaller unions into larger ones. They charge the
AFL-CIO devotes too much of its resources to political lobbying
and the central office.

“We have been disappointed over the last 10 years with the
decline in membership. The AFL-CIO idea is to keep throwing
money at politicians. We say no,” Teamsters president James
Hoffa said. “We are going to do something new.”

“I want to stress that this was not a happy or easy
decision,” said SEIU President Andy Stern, recognized as the
dissidents’ leader.

Several other members of the dissident group, which calls
itself the Change to Win Coalition, may secede from the AFL-CIO
in the coming days. They are the Laborers International of
North America, UNITE HERE (the textile, garment, hotel
employees), the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the
United Farm Workers.

A seventh union, the 300,000-member Carpenters and Joiners
International, broke away from the AFL-CIO four years ago.

In months of infighting the dissident unions rejected the
parent AFL-CIO’s proposals to pour more resources into
organizing. The federation also cut its staff, apparently to
try to bridge the rift.

BOYCOTT OF CONVENTION

The dispute culminated in a boycott by dissident unions of
the AFL-CIO’s convention, which opened in Chicago on Monday. It
was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the organization’s
founding and reelect president John Sweeney, 71, to a third
term.

“A divided movement hurts the hopes of working families for
a better life, and that makes me angry,” Sweeney said in his
keynote address to the cheering convention on Monday.

The boycott, he added, “is a grievous insult to all the
unions.”

Hoffa and Stern announced the split at an SEIU local’s
offices a few blocks from the convention site.

Since Sweeney assumed leadership of the federation in 1995
as a reformer, union membership fell from 15.5 percent of the
U.S. work force to 12.5 percent. In 1983, before a U.S.
manufacturing decline and the loss of jobs to other countries,
one of five workers belonged to a union.

The dissident group that calls itself the Change to Win
Coalition has already scheduled a “founding convention”
scheduled for later this year. The unions collectively owe
about $10 million in back dues to the AFL-CIO that Hoffa said
would be the subject of negotiations.

The Teamsters and SEIU each contributed $10 million
annually to the AFL-CIO’s $125 million budget.

Asked whether the rift would dilute labor’s political
clout, Stern said his union’s efforts would continue.

“A divided labor movement can only be bad news for the
Democrats,” said political analyst Don Rose. “I don’t think
that more labor union members are going to vote Republican, but
disunity within labor can hurt their organizing; their
coordinating and financing of campaigns.”

The defecting unions mostly represent lower-wage workers,
many in service industries where organizing is expanding, while
dominant unions in the auto, steel and communications
industries remained in the AFL-CIO fold, Vanderbilt University
sociologist Dan Cornfield said.

The move reflects unions’ notable failure to organize
workers at such huge companies as retailer Wal-Mart and package
deliverer FedEx.

Robert Bruno, a labor expert at the University of Illinois
at Chicago, said having two union coalitions may boost
organizing and political activity.

“When nonunion workers have options, when they have
competing unions vying for their membership, they’d be more
likely to join,” Bruno said.




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