Chicago The AFL-CIO succumbed to division Sunday, with its largest union deciding to bolt the 50-year-old federation and three others poised to do so in a dispute over how to reverse organized labor's long slide.
The four unions, representing nearly one-third of the AFL-CIO's 13 million members, announced Sunday they would boycott the federation's convention that begins today. They are part of the Coalition to Win, a group of seven unions vowing to reform the labor movement - outside the AFL-CIO if necessary.
The Service Employees International Union, with 1.8 million members, plans to announce today that it is leaving the AFL-CIO, said several labor officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the developments.
The Teamsters union also was on the verge of disaffiliating, and would likely be the first to follow SEIU's lead, the officials said. Two other boycotting unions were likely to leave the federation: United Food and Commercial Workers and UNITE HERE, a group of textile and hotel workers.
"Our differences are so fundamental and so principled that at this point I don't think there is a chance there will be a change of course," said UFCW President Joe Hansen.
"Our differences have become unresolvable," said Anna Burger, chairman of the Change to Win Coalition which is setting itself up to be a rival of the AFL-CIO. "Today will be remembered as a rebirth of union strength in America."
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, expected to easily win re-election over the objections of the dissidents, said his team "bent over backward" to appease the dissidents "until it's given us a pain in the you-know-where." SEIU president Andy Stern, leading the breakaway effort, is a former protege of Sweeney's.
"It's a shame for working people that before the first vote has been cast, four unions have decided that if they can't win, they won't show up for the game," Sweeney said.
Gerald McEntee, president of a government employees' union with more than 1 million members, accused his boycotting colleagues of aiding labor's political foes. "The only people who happy about this are President Bush and his crowd," the Sweeney ally said.
Rank-and-file members of the 52 non-boycotting AFL-CIO affiliates expressed confusion and anger over the action. "If there was ever a time we workers need to stick together, it's today," said Olegario Bustamante, a steelworker from Cicero, Ill.
The boycott means the unions will not pay $7 million in back dues to the AFL-CIO today, an act that some labor officials consider tantamount to quitting the federation. If all four boycotting unions quit the federation, they would take about $35 million from the AFL-CIO, which has already been forced to layoff a quarter of its 400-person staff.
Two other unions that are part of the Change to Win Coalition did not plan to leave the Chicago convention: the Laborers International Union of North America and the United Farm Workers. They are the least likely of the coalition members to leave the AFL-CIO, though the Laborers show signs of edging that way, officials said.
The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, the seventh member of the coalition, left the AFL-CIO in 2002.
Leaders of the dissident unions say the AFL-CIO leadership has failed to stop the steep decline in union membership. In addition to seeking the ouster of Sweeney, they have demanded more money for organizing, power to force mergers of smaller unions and other changes they say are key to adapting to vast changes in society and the economy.
Globalization, automation and the transition from an industrial-based economy have forced hundreds of thousands of unionized workers out of jobs, weakening labor's role in the workplace.