Split Appears to Loom for Teamsters, AFL-CIO

Four dissident labor groups are boycotting the AFL-CIO convention in Chicago. And several leaders are hinting that they may quit the labor federation all together. The division comes as the AFL-CIO prepares to celebrate its 50th birthday.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Four unions are boycotting the AFL-CIO convention in Chicago, and two of the labor federation's biggest members are expected to announce today that they are pulling out of that organization altogether: one is the Service Employees International Union; the other is the Teamsters. Their moves come as the AFL-CIO prepares to celebrate its 50th birthday. This is also a time when labor union participation is at its lowest level in decades. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Chicago.

FRANK LANGFITT reporting:

It was a poignant scene. After word spread that the unions were walking out, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney held a planned rally. It was supposed to boost Sweeney's campaign for re-election, but it also seemed designed to lift spirits. The 71-year-old labor leader clasped hands with supporters. Swaying to the music, he joined the crowd belting out the anthem "Solidarity Forever."

(Soundbite of people singing)

Group of People: (Singing) Solidarity forever. Solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong.

LANGFITT: At a press conference, the dissident unions said they were leaving because they'd exhausted discussions with the AFL-CIO over how to re-invent the labor movement. The group calls itself Change to Win. Its head, Anna Burger, says there's no point in the unions staying when they have no chance to implement their ideas.

Ms. ANNA BURGER (Change to Win): We wish the AFL-CIO well. We want them to achieve their goals. We disagree with them about how to achieve our goals. It is clear, at this convention, we'll not adopt a strategy that we believe are what we need to win for working families. Therefore, four of the Change to Win unions will not participate in the AFL-CIO convention.

(Soundbite of cheers, applause)

LANGFITT: Among the differences? The dissident unions want the AFL-CIO to spend half its budget organizing new members. The AFL-CIO wants to spend more on political campaigns. It hopes to elect more pro-labor officials who will strengthen labor laws and make it easier to organize. The four dissident unions are the Service Workers, the Teamsters, the Food and Commercial Workers and UNITE HERE, which represents garment workers and hotel employees. Together they make up about one-third of the AFL-CIO's 13 million members. At the press conference, Andy Stern suggested his union, the Service Workers, might quit the AFL-CIO today.

Mr. ANDY STERN (Service Workers Union): We've had an ongoing discussion and one last time tonight we'll consult and make an announcement.

LANGFITT: The dissident unions say they're acting on principle, but some of their critics say they're leaving because they failed in a power struggle. The dissidents had called for Sweeney's retirement. When it became clear he had the votes to win, they pressed him to name a successor from their camp. Gerald McEntee heads the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He says the walkout has angered people.

Mr. GERALD McENTEE (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees): I think there is bitterness. We worked so hard, I mean, to reach agreement on any number of items that they had on the table, and all of those things will be discussed this week. And I think it would have been much better for their unions and other unions that they would participate in the discussion.

LANGFITT: At his rally, Sweeney tried to sound a hopeful note as a split loomed.

Mr. JOHN SWEENEY (AFL-CIO): Keep faith with our solidarity. You just never know. Even those who've lost their common sense might come to their senses some day.

LANGFITT: If Stern and his fellow dissidents make good on their threats, organized labor will face its biggest division in decades.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Chicago.

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