AFL-CIO's Largest Union Breaking Away

By Randy Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:22 PM EDT

( - The largest union in the AFL-CIO has begun the process of leaving the federation and creating its own coalition, a move that could cause a dramatic split in the membership -- and political clout -- of organized labor.

During a three-day meeting concluding Saturday in San Francisco, the executive board of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) approved a resolution giving its leaders the authority to "disaffiliate" from the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.

In addition, the "Resolution on Action to Build New Labor Strength" authorizes the SEIU executive officers to "participate in the creation of a new organization ... to promote coordination, cooperation and collective action on organizing, bargaining and political action on a local, national and global scale."

The "Change to Win Coalition" will conduct its founding convention on Wednesday and the SEIU's 1.3 million members are expected to be joined by the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, UNITE HERE -- which represents hotel, restaurant and apparel workers -- and the Laborers, taking 5 million away from the AFL-CIO's 13 million members.

The resolution also states that the new coalition "would also be open to other unions ... who share our goals" and specifically mentions the International Brotherhood of Carpenters, which quit the federation in 2001.

Nevertheless, the SEIU board endorsed a "policy of cooperation, rather than confrontation," with the AFL-CIO and its affiliates. "For example, SEIU shall offer to cooperate with the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions on political issues important to working families," the resolution stated, "and shall be prepared to contribute financially to the AFL-CIO political program."

However, "as a matter of precaution," the board established a "special defense fund for use by our locals to counteract any raiding activity which may develop" as a result of its departure from the federation.

"Whether inside or outside the AFL-CIO," the resolution concluded, the SEIU "should actively pursue and execute strategic unity agreements with other international unions and national unions to cooperate on ways to help workers form unions and negotiate better living standards."

"The union movement must focus on uniting with us the 9 out of 10 workers who have no union," the board said in a separate statement. "Without doing so, we not only cannot build a broad movement for social and economic justice, but we can't even win consistently at the bargaining table or in the legislative arena for the small minority of workers who still have a union."

The executive board of the United Food and Commercial Workers plans to discuss the possibility of disaffiliation with the AFL-CIO during a meeting on Tuesday.

As Cybercast News Service previously reported, several "dissident" unions have been dissatisfied with the leadership of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who is still expected to win re-election at the federation convention to be held in Chicago in late July.

Responding to the SEIU board's actions, Sweeney told the New York Times: "We all have the same goals, and we need to commit to work together to resolve the differences, because if ever there was a time for the union movement to be united, this is it -- with working people under the biggest assault in 80 years.

"Disunity just plays into the hands of the worst enemies of workers," he added.

Sweeney did receive some good news over the weekend when the executive council of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers endorsed him for re-election.

In its statement, the leadership of the 750,000-member union called Sweeney "a consensus-builder" and "a man of quiet conviction who listens to the diverse views within labor, then acts decisively.

"Let us not celebrate the 50th anniversary of the merger of the AFL-CIO with actions that imperil our strongest asset -- our solidarity," the statement said. "Keep the debate going, but keep the federation intact."

See Earlier Stories:
AFL-CIO Urged to Halt Support of 'Proud Union Queers'(June 13, 2005)
AFL-CIO Losing Political Grip to Largest Member Union (June 9, 2005)
AFL-CIO Boss's Politicking Now Threatens His Job (May 6, 2005)

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