- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 17, 2006

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney can look ahead tomorrow with a measure of relief when he gives a speech outlining the labor federation’s agenda.

Labor’s internecine war and the subsequent defection last year of four unions from the AFL-CIO threatened to cripple the federation by decimating its budget and putting it in direct competition with a rival labor group.

But so far the AFL-CIO seemingly has avoided any pitfalls caused by the departure of the Teamsters, Unite Here, United Food and Commercial Workers, and Service Employees International Union.

“I believe we all would be better under one house of labor, but I also never thought the split would be the end of the world for labor,” International Association of Firefighters President Harold Schaitberger said.

The defection of the four unions to form the Change to Win Federation began when the Teamsters and SEIU made their dramatic announcement in July during the AFL-CIO’s convention, where union members re-elected Mr. Sweeney.

While the group feasted on its momentum coming out of the convention, doomsday scenarios pointed to an erosion of the AFL-CIO’s political clout as important races for governor in Virginia and New Jersey and ballot initiatives in California loomed.

When voters elected Gov. Timothy M. Kaine in Virginia and Gov. Jon Corzine in New Jersey, both Democrats, and defeated two anti-union propositions in California that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger supported, the AFL-CIO breathed a sigh of relief.

“That’s when I knew” the AFL-CIO’s political clout hadn’t disappeared, said Paul Booth, executive assistant to American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees President Gerald McEntee. “It meant we had success at the moment the first political failure could have occurred.”

There was also concern the AFL-CIO and Change to Win Federation would oppose each other’s political efforts once they parted ways, Mr. Booth said.

SEIU President Andrew Stern didn’t ease concerns when he said at Change to Win’s inaugural convention in September that he would not automatically back Democratic candidates.

But no strains have emerged so far, and the two labor federations have worked together on some issues. Today, Mr. McEntee and SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger, who also serves as chairwoman of the Change to Win Federation, will outline a joint program by their unions to fight proposed cuts in Medicaid.

“The split was about strategy not goals, and we have the same goals. There’s so much more common ground than there are differences,” SEIU spokeswoman Avril Smith said.

The two labor federations have largely avoided raiding each others’ members, though there have been battles to represent workers.

“I think mostly people have agreed that’s not where we want to go,” labor consultant Ray Abernathy said.

In perhaps the biggest battle, AFSCME and SEIU fought over who would represent 49,000 child care workers in Illinois. The SEIU won the fight and negotiated a contract on behalf of workers.

Even if the AFL-CIO seemingly has emerged unscathed from the defection of five unions — the United Farm Workers of America left the AFL-CIO Jan. 1 — the changes still raise potential problems for Mr. Sweeney’s federation.

The AFL-CIO lost about $25 million in annual dues when the dissidents left to form a rival federation, and the venerable labor group has had to cut staff and eliminate programs.

When the SEIU left, the AFL-CIO lost one of its most aggressive and fastest-growing unions. Ms. Burger called organizing the Change to Win Federation’s “north star,” and leaders of the nascent federation have the ambitious goal of organizing the 50 million American workers whose jobs cannot be sent overseas or replaced by machines.

Mr. Sweeney has said the AFL-CIO must organize 1 million workers this year, an increase of 100 percent from the federation’s typical annual goal of 500,000 workers.

Unions in the Change to Win Federation represent 5.8 million workers. The AFL-CIO represents 9 million members.

Labor also faces several political battles with 36 gubernatorial races to be decided. House seats in all states and 33 Senate seats also are up for grabs.

“It’s an important year for the political program,” Mr. Schaitberger said.

And for the AFL-CIO.

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