3 unions may quit AFL-CIO

Teamsters, others at odds with labor organization

4 groups to boycott convention

July 25, 2005|By Stephen Franklin and Barbara Rose | Stephen Franklin and Barbara Rose,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

In a mark of organized labor's badly broken solidarity, four major unions said yesterday they would boycott the AFL-CIO's Chicago convention, and three appear poised to bolt the federation that has loosely bound the nation's unions together.

Officials from the 1.3-million member Teamsters and the 1.8-million member Service Employees International Union, the AFL-CIO's largest union and the spark behind the rebellion, said they would meet today and announce their plans.

Joe Hansen, president of the 1.3-million member United Food and Commercial Workers Union, one of six dissident unions that have formed their own coalition, said he was inclined to pull his union out of the AFL-CIO, but he needed time to talk with UFCW leaders.

"If nothing changes, there is no sense staying," said Hansen on a day of emotion-filled rallies and last-minute strategizing by leaders gathered for the labor federation's four-day conference, its first in Chicago, which starts today.

The boycotting unions make up about one-third of the federation's 13 million members.

Rather than a celebration of the federation's 50th anniversary and its 56 unions, the AFL-CIO gathering now seems more likely to be remembered for the first steps of the rival group set up by the dissidents and an unprecedented outpouring of acrimony and blame.

"Not to attend the convention - especially when the differences that remain between our proposals are so narrow - is an insult to their union brothers and sisters and to all working people," said AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney, who is up for re-election this week.

The schism puts organized labor in an uncharted area that experts say could either revive it or unleash fratricidal warfare, further weakening it.

Unions represent less than 8 percent of the nation's private work force today, a number not seen since the dawn of the last century.

The rift in labor's ranks "creates a greater likelihood there will be animosity and competition between unions in organizing, bargaining and politics," Cornell University labor expert Rick Hurd said.

But Robert Bruno, a labor expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said it could stir "a new beginning" with "increased dynamism in both political activity and organizing."

Downplaying the discord, Anna Burger, secretary-treasurer of the SEIU and head of the dissidents' coalition, predicted their actions would be "remembered as the rebirth of union strength in America" and that the union leaders had no choice but to "walk our talk."

Besides the Teamsters, SEIU and food workers union, Unite Here, the merged union of the hotel workers and garment workers unions, will also boycott the conference.

Laborers International Union President Terry O'Sullivan said his union, which also belongs to the dissident coalition, decided some time ago to take part in the meeting and not to bolt the federation. But, he added, that is not a sign of division among the dissidents.

As for the United Farm Workers union, which joined the dissident coalition Friday, Arturo Rodriguez, its president, said it's too early to decide whether his union should withdraw from the AFL-CIO.

In addition to the boycott, all of the heads of the dissident unions and top officials in them will not hold any elected AFL-CIO positions, Burger said.

Triggered by SEIU President Andy Stern's threat last year to pull his union out of the AFL-CIO, the debate over how to save labor soon became a personality-driven civil war.

Sweeney, 71, who got his job a decade ago on a drive to reform the AFL-CIO, became the target of the dissidents' discontent with labor's woes.

The dissidents say they want unions to put more money into organizing, more controls over union squabbles and organizing efforts, and more mergers to concentrate unions' strengths. They also call for up to half of unions' dues to be returned to unions for their own organizing drives.

While Sweeney has agreed to increase funds for organizing and national campaigns to target foes like Wal-Mart, he has also called for more money to be spent annually on politics, a high priority for some unions. His supporters say the dissidents' proposals would bankrupt the AFL-CIO.

"We are not trying to divide the labor movement," Stern said yesterday. "But when you are going down the road and it is headed in the wrong direction, you have to get off of it."

In reply, Rick Sloan, a Machinist union spokesman, seemed to sum up the mood of Sweeney's supporters. "My old water polo coach told me, `Quitters never win, and winners never quit,'" he said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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