Two of the nation's largest unions broke away from the AFL-CIO yesterday, creating the biggest rift organized labor has seen in decades.
It is a move that some say will bring chaos to the troubled labor movement; others say it might be unions' last hope to survive the changing economy.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union, which was the AFL-CIO's largest and fastest-growing union, have formed a competing alliance at a time when jobs are moving overseas, financially strapped employers are using union concessions to cut costs, and union membership is rapidly declining.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney called the split a "grievous insult" to workers.
But the dissenting unions, frustrated with the AFL-CIO's lack of organizing efforts, said it was a necessary move to gain members at a critical time for labor. The groups complained that the AFL-CIO spent too much money supporting political candidates and not enough on adding members in recent years.
"Our world has changed, our economy has changed, employers have changed," said SEIU leader Andrew Stern. "But the AFL-CIO is not willing to make fundamental changes as well."
The split could have implications for organized labor's longtime friend, the Democratic Party, experts said.
"One thing that Sweeney has done ... is he's really juiced up the political operation of the AFL-CIO, and this is really reliant on a lot of cooperation of a lot of unions," said John Jordan, president of Principor Communications and a former labor strategist and organizer. "In that sense, for both labor and the Democrats, there's some real potential problems there."
The Teamsters and SEIU, along with five other unions representing a total of 6 million workers, are forming the Change To Win Coalition. So far, the Teamsters and SEIU are the only unions to have left the AFL-CIO, an umbrella group that represents 13 million workers in 56 unions. But those two groups account for more than $20 million of the AFL-CIO's estimated $120 million budget.
The United Food and Commercial Workers and UNITE HERE, a hotel, restaurant and textile workers union, also are expected to break from the AFL-CIO. They joined Teamsters and SEIU in boycotting the AFL-CIO convention in Chicago yesterday. All four unions combined represent one-third of the AFL-CIO's members.
But Sweeney said in his speech at the convention yesterday that breaking up organized labor could fracture its strength.
"Because at a time when our corporate and conservative adversaries have created the most powerful anti-worker political machine in the history of our country, a divided movement hurts the hopes of working families for a better life," he said.
Union membership in the United States has been declining steadily for two decades, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year, about 12.5 percent of the country's work force were union members, compared with 20 percent in 1983.
Maryland, traditionally a relatively potent union state with its history in steel- and ship-making, is feeling the shrinkage as well. About 10.9 percent of workers were union members last year, down from 16 percent in 1989, the earliest year that state figures were kept.
Now, with a chasm in the labor movement, employers might feel emboldened to further weaken it, said Gary Chaison, an industrial relations professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.: "There may be attempts by employers to really see if we can turn this into a nonunion economy or society.
"In the broadest sense, it means that the house of labor will seem to be in disarray, that labor will seem to be greatly weakened."
Coalition supporters are hoping the split will be a throwback to the 1930s, when a break in organized labor reinvigorated the movement. And experts say competition among the union groups could do just that.
"The shakeout, the change, will challenge all of the current unions to do even a more intense job at speaking to the members, representing the members, putting resources into organizing," said Robert Bruno, an associate professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois. "I think it's really quite likely that the two sides will bring out the best in each other."
But unions still face an uphill battle in gaining members and promoting their interests.
"It's clear that organized labor hasn't been able to stop the slide of union density, and it has gotten harder and harder for the movement to move the political process toward a working-class agenda, and it has proven to be very difficult to stop raids on pensions, taking jobs overseas, outsourcing jobs," Bruno said.
Charles Craver, a labor law professor at George Washington University Law School and author of Can Unions Survive? The Rejuvenation of the American Labor Movement, believes unions must reinvent the labor movement to survive the changing workplace.
Many white-collar workers eschew the notion of joining unions, groups they associate with blue-collar manufacturing jobs, Craver said. Labor leaders, he said, are still trying to "fit the new-age worker into the old union." Unless they do something to change that, unions will become irrelevant, he said.
"Something has to be done to shake up both groups to start thinking outside the box," Craver said, "because if they don't, they're going to die."
The Associate Press contributed to this article.