- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 26, 2005

CHICAGO — Two labor unions yesterday followed through on a threat to break ranks with the AFL-CIO, marking the first defection within the labor movement in 37 years.

The departure of the Teamsters and Service Employees International Union, with a combined 3.2 million members, is a major blow for an embattled movement struggling to increase its membership and cope with a rapidly changing work environment.

Many union presidents, labor analysts and Democratic Party leaders fear the split will weaken the movement politically and hurt unionized workers.

The announcement came one day after the unions, with the hotel workers union and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), boycotted the convention yesterday over what they characterize as the AFL-CIO’s failure to put in place sweeping reforms to reinvigorate a stalled labor movement.

“What was being done at the AFL-CIO was not working. We are going to do something different,” Teamsters President James P. Hoffa said.

It is the first defection from the AFL-CIO since the United Auto Workers left briefly beginning in 1968.

AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney sharply criticized the unions in a speech before more than 1,000 supporters.

“The labor movement belongs to all of us. Our future should not be dictated by the demands of any group or the ambitions of any individual,” Mr. Sweeney said.

But Mr. Sweeney, who will be re-elected Thursday, said he will try to persuade the renegade unions to return to the federation, which has 52 member unions at the convention.

“It is also my responsibility to hold our movement together because our power is vested in solidarity. So I want you to know I will overcome my own anger and disappointment and do everything in my power to bring us back where we belong — and that is together,” he said.

The Teamsters and SEIU were not joined by any of the unions that stand with them in the Change to Win Coalition, the group of dissidents opposing Mr. Sweeney’s policies.

Unite Here, UFCW, Laborers and United Farm Workers remain in the AFL-CIO, which had 13 million members before yesterday’s announcement.

John Wilhelm, president of Unite Here’s restaurant and hotel division, said his 420,000-member union still may decide to leave the federation.

“We continue to consider our options,” he said.

Mr. Sweeney’s angst over the SEIU’s departure is magnified by his background. He rose through the ranks of the SEIU, then became its international president before taking over the AFL-CIO in 1995.

Although Mr. Sweeney sounded willing to repair the gapping divide that separates the SEIU and Teamsters from the AFL-CIO, the union leaders did not sound willing to return.

“We made our choice,” SEIU President Andrew Stern said.

The decision by Mr. Stern and Mr. Hoffa could have wide-ranging implications, and union leaders yesterday said they feared the defection of the SEIU and Teamsters will set off an organizing war. AFL-CIO rules prohibit unions from taking one another’s members. But the rule wouldn’t apply to SEIU and Teamsters now that they have left the federation.

“All bets will be off,” said Jim Schmitz, organizing director for the 1.4-million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

AFSCME already has competed with the SEIU to determine who has jurisdiction to organize home health care workers in Riverside County, Calif., and in Iowa.

Now Mr. Schmitz fears the competition will spread, and the SEIU will attempt to lure workers who already have decided to affiliate with AFSCME.

“They have shown by their actions already that they intend to prey upon existing groups of organized workers,” he said.

Mr. Hoffa responded that Teamsters and the SEIU will not try to poach workers that already are organized and said he would reach out to unions in the AFL-CIO and propose signing voluntary agreements prohibiting raiding.

Mr. Hoffa and Mr. Stern each said their executive boards made unanimous decisions yesterday to leave the federation, and they notified Mr. Sweeney that they were leaving immediately.

The move is expected to have political implications.

“This split is a deep concern to Democrats everywhere,” said Democratic consultant David Axelrod of Chicago. The Democratic Party relies on labor for money and manpower on Election Day.

The Teamsters and SEIU are two of the AFL-CIO’s biggest and fastest-growing unions. SEIU represents 1.8 million janitors, health care workers, social workers and other service sector employees. Teamsters represents 1.4 million drivers, warehouse employees, hotel workers and public-sector employees.

The two unions pay huge sums to the federation. Each union paid $10 million in dues to the AFL-CIO last year. They also owe a combined $5 million to the federation in unpaid dues.

Mr. Stern said the dues are one of “a number of outstanding issues with the AFL-CIO that we are going to have to resolve.”

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