Unions Set to Defect from AFL-CIO

Four labor groups are boycotting the current AFL-CIO convention in Chicago, and there's a chance they may quit the group completely. NPR's Alex Chadwick talks with NPR labor and workplace correspondent Frank Langfitt about the recent divisions in the storied labor union.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, on the road for career advice.

First, this career tip: Manufacturing doesn't look so good, and neither do the unions that have organized around that sector. The whole idea of big organized labor is splintering. Four large unions are boycotting this year's convention of the AFL-CIO labor federation which is under way now in Chicago. Two of those unions, the service workers and the Teamsters, say they are quitting the organization. I spoke earlier with NPR's Frank Langfitt, who's at the convention. We talked about the significance of these developments.

FRANK LANGFITT reporting:

This is a big blow because these are really big unions. You know, the service workers has about 1.7 million members, and it's the fastest-growing and really one of the most successful in the AFL-CIO. It's made great gains in organizing particularly janitors in places like Newark, New Jersey. The Teamsters, of course, they have 1.4 million members. Together, the two of these unions account for about a quarter of the AFL-CIO's membership, which is about 13 million. So it's a lot of people leaving at once.

CHADWICK: Why are they leaving all at once? Is this about the direction of the labor movement, or is this about power somehow?

LANGFITT: Well, that really depends on who you talk to. The leaders of the service workers and the Teamsters say labor's in big crisis and it needs to go in a completely new direction. But what they're talking about is focusing a lot more on organizing workers and mobilizing across entire industries. They also want to put together a group effort to target big companies like FedEx and Wal-Mart that have deep pockets and can be, you know, very, very strong in terms of slowing unions down.

But some of the AFL-CIO loyalists say that this is really a failed grab for power. Dissidents had demanded that AFL-CIO President John Sweeney step down, but Sweeney's going to win easily this week when he runs for re-election for another four-year term. And some of the dissidents' ideas for change weren't going to pass this convention anyway. One of Sweeney's supporters, Leo Girard--he's head of the Steelworkers--compared the dissidents to children who get frustrated when they lose a game, so they take their marbles and go home.

CHADWICK: You know, I mentioned manufacturing earlier. Is this a kind of split between the older manufacturing-associated kinds of unions, the Steelworkers, the Auto Workers, vs. the kind of service-oriented groups of today?

LANGFITT: Well, there definitely is a difference in the makeup of the leadership when you look at both sides. The leaders of these unions--first of all, many of them are very service-oriented. You have a couple of the boycotting unions--one of them is UNITE HERE; they're garment workers and hotel employees, people like that. And the leadership is a younger leadership. You know, Andy Stern of the service workers, he's about 54 years old, and Jim Hoffa of the Teamsters, he's also in his 50s. And what you're seeing is that they've sort of pitted themselves against much older leaders, people like John Sweeney, who's in his early 70s, and Gerry McEntee of AFSCME, who's also in his early 70s. So there's definitely kind of a generational split and a little bit of a split in terms of the service workers. But there is definitely that element.

CHADWICK: Well, what is the breakup going to mean in practical terms?

LANGFITT: Well, first, practically, it's going to hurt the AFL-CIO's budget. Service workers and the Teamsters provide millions of dollars in dues to the organization. It accounts for a decent chunk of the budget they spend every year. Earlier this year, the AFL-CIO had to lay off more than a hundred workers, which really stung.

CHADWICK: Wow.

LANGFITT: And as to rank and file in terms of how it might affect them, that's a little less clear. The AFL-CIO says, you know, any divide in the labor movement at a difficult time when we're losing so many manufacturing jobs and things like that is just going to make it harder for them to fight for better wages and better working conditions. But the dissident unions--and they call themselves Change to Win--they say over time, they really think that they can reinvigorate the movement.

CHADWICK: Well, what is it they're going to do?

LANGFITT: Well, what they're talking about really is--it's not entirely clear exactly what plan is. You know, yesterday a reporter asked Andy Stern, the head of the service workers, you know, how he was going to measure the success of the Change to Win Coalition, and he didn't give any specifics yet; he said, you know, today that they're going to meet and they're going to put together what he described as an enormously ambitious plan, and I think it'll be very interesting to see how these five unions, some of which are quite different in the coalition, will plot out a strategy. And that's, I think, one of the things we hope to hear today.

CHADWICK: NPR's Frank Langfitt. He's in Chicago for the AFL-CIO convention.

Frank, thank you.

LANGFITT: Thank you, Alex.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. There's more just ahead on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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