CHICAGO — Four unions yesterday stormed out of the AFL-CIO’s convention in Chicago, boycotting the annual event hours before it began, and likely will announce today that they plan to leave the federation entirely.
The Teamsters, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and Unite Here said a lack of will to put sweeping reforms in place at the labor federation persuaded them to boycott the convention.
“We’re not trying to divide the labor movement; we’re trying to rebuild it,” SEIU President Andrew Stern said.
Even though the unions did not cut ties yesterday with the AFL-CIO, UFCW President Joseph Hansen said differences between the dissidents and the federation leadership are so vast that they can’t be bridged.
“We believe in building power for workers. They believe in building power for institutions,” Mr. Hansen said.
Their decision to leave the convention was expected by many in the labor movement because the unions had indicated for days that they might walk out.
Their departure was met with a mixture of sadness and disdain.
“I think there are some unions that are very bitter. Others hold out hope that they will come back,” said Gerald McEntee, president of the 1.4-million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Others were openly hostile.
Robert Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, was among the most agitated by the walkout, calling their action “treasonous.”
“They abandon us. They abandon their mission,” Mr. Haynes said.
The last walkout at an AFL convention occurred in 1935 when United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis left, then formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
The four unions that staged yesterday’s walkout represent about 5 million of the 13 million workers in the AFL-CIO’s 58 labor unions. Although it is a large contingent, the unions do not have enough leverage to push their reform proposals through the convention.
The dissidents are upset over the labor movement’s decline. American union membership has fallen from 35 percent of the work force in 1955 to 12.5 percent today. Only about 8 percent of private-sector workers are in unions.
The linchpin of their proposals was a measure to boost funding for organizing activity. Teamsters President James P. Hoffa pressed hard to persuade other union presidents and AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney to support a plan to return half of the dues paid to the federation and use the money to fund organization efforts.
But Mr. Sweeney gained support for his own measure that would return $22.5 million in dues back to unions, if delegates approve the plan at this week’s convention.
Harold Schaitberger, president of the 270,000-member International Association of Fire Fighters and a supporter of Mr. Sweeney, said he thought that the differences between the two rebate proposals were minor and that a compromise could have been negotiated.
He said it is more likely that a failed power play by the dissident unions led to their departure.
“I think they want a change in union leadership. That is their bottom line,” Mr. Schaitberger said.
Mr. Hansen said the debate had nothing to do with unseating Mr. Sweeney, who is likely to be re-elected this week to the office he first won in October 1995.
“We don’t have any quarrel with who the AFL-CIO might or might not elect,” he said.
When the dissident unions announced that they would not participate in the convention, they walked into a hotel conference room to wild applause. Their speeches were repeatedly interrupted by clapping from enthusiastic supporters.
Anna Burger, chair of the Change to Win Coalition, the group formed by the disaffected unions, said yesterday was a historic day.
“These leaders refused to accept the status quo and had the courage to unite behind a simple burning goal — better lives for American workers. The debate is over. It is time to go to work. That’s what we’re going to do,” she said.
Assembled on a dais in front of their supporters, union presidents from the SEIU, Teamsters, Unite Here and UFCW, as well as the Laborers and the United Farm Workers, said they will place new emphasis on organizing workers.
There was little regret about the historic decision to leave the convention, and the presidents of the boycotting unions indicated that their next step — expected today — is leaving the AFL-CIO.
In an earlier speech to his own supporters — and a much bigger crowd — Mr. Sweeney said he hoped the dissidents would come to their senses and rejoin the federation.
“Common sense isn’t a blessing bestowed on us. It’s something we have to work at,” he said. “Even those who have lost their common sense might come to their senses some day.”
He added later that failure to participate in the convention was an “insult” to other unions.
But Ms. Burger said the Change to Win coalition and the AFL-CIO simply have different strategies.
A decision by SEIU, UFCW and Teamsters to leave would be costly for the federation. The three unions owe the AFL-CIO a combined $7 million in unpaid union dues.