Labor Pains: AFL-CIO Loses Largest Union, Teamsters

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

( - In what may be the most significant union split in nearly 70 years, the Service Employees International Union and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters announced Monday that they are divorcing themselves from the giant AFL-CIO.

The American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations separated themselves in 1938 before reuniting in 1955. But the organization, about to mark its 50th anniversary, must now deal with the defection of its largest -- the SEIU -- and third largest -- the Teamsters -- member unions.

In his disaffiliation letter, Andrew Stern, president of the SEIU, noted that his organization has grown to 1.8 million members by developing "new strategies and new priorities to ensure that workers in our sectors of the economy have their hard work valued and rewarded."

While acknowledging that leaders of the AFL-CIO have a similar aim, Stern noted that "our members and leaders have concluded that there are sincere, fundamental and irreconcilable disagreements about how to accomplish that goal."

Stern added that the SEIU intends to coordinate with the AFL-CIO and its member unions to focus efforts on the nearly 90 percent of U.S. workers who have no union, not the few who are already organized.

"We believe that the next decade can be a time of innovation, new strategies, new energy, new growth and new ideas that will bring to life a new, 21st century American Dream," Stern concluded.

Also announcing his organization's separation from the AFL-CIO was Teamsters President James Hoffa, who said Monday signaled "the beginning of a new era for American workers.

"In our view, we must have more union members in order to change the political climate that is undermining workers' rights in this country," Hoffa said. "The AFL-CIO has chosen the opposite approach."

While stating that "the Teamsters will remain the bulwark of the labor movement," Hoffa said that workers "will not allow corporate America to pit one union against another to the detriment of our members and their families."

The disaffiliations came one day after the SEIU, the Teamsters and two other unions announced they would not attend the AFL-CIO's 50th anniversary convention being held this week in Chicago and stated that none of the unions' leaders would serve in any elected capacity in the federation.

Joining in its boycott were the United Food and Commercial Workers and UNITE HERE, which represents hotel, restaurant and apparel workers. Those two unions have not disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO.

The four unions contain nearly one-third of the AFL-CIO's 13 million members and are part of the Change to Win Coalition, which was formed on June 15 to create "a large-scale, coordinated campaign to rebuild the American labor movement," according to the project's website.

"It is clear that this convention will not adopt the strategy that we believe will win for working people," said coalition Chair Anna Burger. Instead, "leaders and organizing directors will begin implementing the Change to Win vision -- industry-wide organizing, coordinated bargaining and political action aligned with aggressive organizing campaigns."

Two other unions in the coalition said they did not plan to leave the Chicago convention: the Laborers International Union of North America and the United Farm Workers of America. The seventh member of the coalition, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, has not been a member of the AFL-CIO since 2001.

As Cybercast News Service previously reported, much of the controversy affecting the labor movement centers around AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who is expected to be re-elected during this week's gathering.

"The delegates to the AFL-CIO convention will make major decisions about changing workers' lives this week, no matter what happens" with the dissenting unions, said Sweeney, who has been criticized by the coalition for his preference for political activism over organizing workers.

"It's far easier to tear down a union movement than to build one," he noted, adding that the unions' decision to boycott the convention "is an insult to their union brothers and sisters, and to all working people" because "workers are under the biggest assault in 80 years."

"Over the past nine months, every corner of the labor movement has debated reform," Burger responded. "The AFL-CIO, to its credit, has listened to us. But in the end, they have not really heard us."

As a result, "our differences have become unresolvable," she noted.

"We wish the AFL-CIO well. We want them to achieve their goals," Burger said. "We agree with them on what we all want for working families. We disagree with them on how to achieve that goal.

"Folks, the debate is over," Burger concluded. "It is time to go to work."

However, Stefan Gleason, vice president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, was unimpressed by the conflict.

"This political posturing within ultra-elite union hierarchies amounts to nothing more than a shell game by power-hungry union officials bent on control over more than $10 billion in compulsory union dues," Gleason said.

"In the end, it doesn't matter who is steering Big Labor's ship as long as individual workers continue to be strapped to the mast," he added.

See Earlier Stories:
United Farm Workers Join Coalition for Labor Reform (July 22, 2005)
New Coalition for Labor Reform Elects First Officers (July 07, 2005)
Former AFL-CIO Union Joins Coalition for Labor Reform (June 27, 2005)
Unions Create Coalition to 'Rebuild American Labor Movement' (June 15, 2005)
AFL-CIO's Largest Union Breaking Away (June 13, 2005)
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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