- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

Tumultuous infighting is erupting within the long-suffering U.S. labor movement just when it appeared on the brink of a renaissance, with Democrats at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue advancing its agenda.

Rivalries are pulling apart Change to Win, the second-largest federation of unions, as labor leaders wrestle to reunite the movement under the larger AFL-CIO umbrella. They say the move is key to exploiting the pro-union political landscape created by President Obama and a Democrat-led Congress.

The effort to rebuild a single federation - which turf wars fractured four years ago - is complicated by a looming succession fight at the 11 million-strong AFL-CIO, where President John J. Sweeney has announced he will not run for re-election in September.

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Mr. Sweeney has endorsed the AFL-CIO's No. 3 leader, Richard Trumka, as his successor, but a challenge is brewing from several contenders. One of those mentioned is Terence M. O'Sullivan, president of the Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA), a Change to Win member which has signaled it may rejoin the AFL-CIO.

At the same time, recession-related job losses have undercut union ranks.

The unemployment rate, which soared to a 15-year high of 8.5 percent in March, has demoralized the work force and sapped unions of dues-paying members. Job cuts at Detroit automakers, for instance, helped fuel the loss of more than 30,000 members from the United Autoworkers Union - a 7 percent drop during the past year, according to the Labor Department.

“Just because we've got President Obama, it doesn't solve all our problems in our economy, our country and our movement,” said Mr. O'Sullivan of LIUNA, a construction workers union with about 500,000 members. “But we have an administration that is working with us.”

The unions already have benefited from executive orders signed by Mr. Obama, most notably one requiring that federal construction projects favor “project labor agreements,” which set aside jobs for union workers.

Mr. Obama also signed union-backed legislation that makes it easier to sue for wage discrimination and that halted a pilot program opposed by the truckers union that allowed Mexican trucks into the U.S. for cross-border commerce.

“It's kind of bittersweet,” said Charles Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey AFL-CIO. “We're feeling good about the job we did in this last election cycle. Unfortunately, due to the economy, what's going on is there's a lot of people who are hurting, losing jobs, losing health care, their unemployment insurance is running out.”

For many union members, the disquiet in the labor movement is a positive sign. They see the tension on the heels of early victories as the precursor to labor's growing significance.

“The divisions at the national leadership level are very much a distraction,” said Bill Samuel, AFL-CIO government affairs director. “[But] unions continue to work closely together in legislation and politics. There's also a lot of labor solidarity at the local level.”

Despite the ruckus, unions have joined forces in a massive campaign in support of the Employee Free Choice Act, also known as the “card check” bill, which would make it easier to unionize workplaces and perhaps reverse the trend of dwindling union membership.

The AFL-CIO, Change to Win and the National Education Association this week announced a collaboration with a dozen other unions to pursue a national agenda through a new National Labor Coordinating Committee.

Along with the “card check” bill, they will push Mr. Obama's universal health care and budget plans.

“Recognizing the historic moment we face, the American labor movement must unify to restore the American dream for working families,” said David Bonior, a leader of the union negotiations to reunite Change to Win and the AFL-CIO.

Mr. Bonior, a former Democratic congressman from Michigan and a longtime labor supporter, became an adviser to Mr. Obama's presidential campaign after serving as John Edwards' campaign manager.

As Mr. Bonior and leaders from a dozen unions gathered for talks Monday at the National Labor College in a Washington suburb, they continued to wrestle with who would take the lead of the massive reunited organization and how the funding would be allotted.

One sticking point is over how much to emphasize organizing and recruiting new members - the same dispute that drove seven unions to break with the AFL-CIO and form Change to Win in 2005.

“We recognize that we are going to continue to grapple through some of the differences that remain,” Change to Win Executive Director Chris Chafe said. “There is a strong incentive to find every way we can to work together.”

Change to Win, which has about 6 million members, also is beset by a threatened defection within its own ranks by garment and hospitality industry union UNITE HERE.

UNITE HERE's board voted last month to split from the federation. It accused the giant Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a driving force in Change to Win, of meddling in its internal affairs.

Soon afterward, a bloc of garment workers left UNITE HERE to form a new union called Workers United, which promptly announced an affiliation with SEIU.

SEIU is the fastest-growing union with 1.1 million members including health care workers, property service workers and state government employees.

“Through this affiliation, we make a big, strong union even bigger and stronger,” said Edgar Romney, president of Workers United, which consists of about 40,000 hotel and restaurant employees and 110,000 garment, textile and laundry workers formerly with UNITE HERE.

The rift at UNITE HERE - which formed in a 2004 merger of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees International Union - grew from a power struggle between the leaders of the two groups and UNITE's resistance to the push by HERE leaders to rejoin the AFL-CIO.

The breakup landed both sides in a New York court Tuesday, where UNITE HERE unsuccessfully tried to seize assets of its former compatriots in the garment industry, including buildings in New York, Chicago and Knoxville, Tenn.

On the West Coast, a turf dispute prompted SEIU to oust leaders of its 150,000-member Oakland, Calif.-based United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW). The ousted bosses retaliated by forming the National Union of Healthcare Workers and began poaching UHW members.

The dust-up follows a long-running feud between SEIU and the California Nurses Association (CNA) over who should represent the country's nurses, a huge reservoir of potential new members because the group is mostly nonunion.

The row ended recently with an agreement to jointly organize the nurses.

“One could argue that labor has never been more unified,” SEIU spokeswoman Michelle Ringuette said, citing the end of the clash with CNA and the promise of a pro-union Washington.

“Are there some disputes going on? Absolutely,” she said. “But there is also more unity than people have seen in a long time. Amidst whatever is happening at the macro level, each of the unions is getting up every day to see what we can do for working men and women. We are really standing poised to have enormous gains on their behalf.”

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