Chicago The AFL-CIO splintered Monday, spooking some Democratic Party leaders and the ranks of organized workers, their futures in the hands of labor rebels who bolted the 50-year-old federation vowing to reverse the steep decline in union membership.
"Our goal is not to divide the labor movement but to rebuild it," said Andy Stern, president of the 1.8 million-member Service Employees International Union.
He and Teamsters President James P. Hoffa said their unions would leave the AFL-CIO, paving the way for other unions to follow.
Their action drew a bitter rebuke from AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who called it a "grievous insult" that could hurt workers already buffeted by the economy and anti-union forces in Congress.
"The labor movement belongs to all of us," Sweeney said, "and our future should not be dictated by the demands of any group or the ambitions of any individuals."
The future of the labor movement could be greatly affected by the success or failure of Stern's effort to build a coalition outside the AFL-CIO that dedicates more money and manpower to recruiting union members while adjusting to demands of the global economy.
His Change to Win Coalition consists of seven unions, four of which boycotted the AFL-CIO convention: the SEIU, Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers and UNITE HERE, a group of textile, hotel and restaurant employees.
Labor officials expect the UFCW and UNITE HERE to leave the AFL-CIO later.
Those four unions represent one-third of the AFL-CIO's 13 million members. The SEIU and Teamsters alone account for more than $20 million of an estimated $120 million AFL-CIO budget.
Much of that money goes to Democratic candidates and to political operations that benefit the Democratic Party. Stern, Hoffa and their colleagues in the Change to Win Coalition pushed the AFL-CIO to shift focus from such political activity to recruiting new union members, contending that a growing union movement naturally would increase its political and bargaining power.
"They said no," Hoffa said at a coalition news conference held a few blocks from the AFL-CIO convention site. "Their idea is to keep throwing money at politicians."
Democratic politicians catch most of the AFL-CIO donations, one reason why party leaders worry about a weakened federation. The AFL-CIO also spends millions of dollars on programs that help get Democratic voters to turn out on Election Day.
Some Democrats said Monday they hoped the warring factions would come back together. Others suggested the competition would jolt organized labor out of its decades-old slumber.
"We're in uncharted waters," said Democratic consultant David Axelrod of Chicago. "Obviously, you have to believe a unified and coordinated effort is better than a disparate one and, obviously, the labor movement is a vital part of the Democratic coalition."
Some Democrats cast the breakup in apocalyptic terms.
"It's the worst thing that could happen to us as a party," said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic strategist with long ties to labor.
Others welcomed the challenge to the status quo.
"The approach represented by progressive reform organizations like the SEIU represents the future - they grow in size, they have fresh ideas, they understand message in the media age, they connect with the middle class," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist. "These groups are on the right side of history."
As for the effect on union members, Rebecca Knorr, a member of the Communication Workers of America who works as a directory assistance operator for Qwest, said of the split: "We agree on the same principles, but our leadership refuses to work together. ... The rank and file are the ones that are going to be hurt by this."
While this is the biggest rift in organized labor since 1938, when the CIO split from the AFL, supporters of the breakup note that labor made big gains when the two groups competed.
One of every three private-sector workers belonged to a labor group when the AFL-CIO merged in the 1950s. Now, fewer than 8 percent of private-sector workers are unionized.
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.
A number of Democratic lawmakers made their traditional pilgrimage to the AFL-CIO convention, urging unity while being careful not to take sides in the fight.
"What divides us pales in comparison to what unites us," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., pointing to efforts to fight the Bush administration on behalf of union workers.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said business interests may think the divide will make organized labor vulnerable.
"We have news for them. It's not going to happen," he said to cheers. "Our unity is our strength. We will stand together and fight for working families."
After his speech, Durbin said it was too early to tell what impact the rift would have on the Democratic Party.
"I hope the separation in our union family is resolved very soon," Durbin said.
What are the chances of that happening?
"I don't know," he replied.
A few blocks away, Stern and Hoffa dismissed suggestions that they would ever rejoin the AFL-CIO, though they said they wanted to work with the federation to bolster union membership.
"We've extended our hand and they have to decide whether they want to be successful or vindictive," Stern said.
Sweeney didn't hide his feelings.
"This is a tragedy for working people," he said.