Teamsters, Service Workers Depart AFL-CIO

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Two big unions leave the AFL-CIO. The Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) say they want to focus on organizing new workers at a time when union membership is in steep decline. Leaders of the AFL-CIO say the split will only further weaken the union movement.


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


And I'm Renee Montagne.

The AFL-CIO has lost two of its biggest unions. The Teamsters and the Service Employees say they're leaving because the AFL-CIO won't adopt their strategy to save organized labor. The split is the worst in the American labor movement since the 1930s, and the timing has angered many in the AFL-CIO. It came on the opening day of the federation's convention. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Chicago.


There's bad blood in American labor. What was supposed to be a celebration of the AFL-CIO's 50th birthday has turned into a divorce. Andy Stern heads the Service Employees. He says he thought carefully before deciding to quit the labor federation, but he says he feels compelled to chart a new course to reverse labor's long decline.

(Soundbite of speech)

Mr. ANDREW STERN (Service Employees International Union): I want to stress this was not a happy or easy decision. We are in the midst of the most significant and profound transformative economic revolution in history, and workers are suffering. We are walking down a road, and the mileposts are clear. A country that once had one out of every three workers in unions, 35 percent, is now down to about 8 percent in the private sector.

LANGFITT: But at the AFL-CIO's convention, the anger was palpable. Some officials appeared to take the decision and its timing personally. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and Andy Stern go way back. Sweeney was Stern's mentor when Sweeney was president of the Service Employees. Sweeney is usually soft-spoken and relaxed, but in his keynote speech, he lashed out at the union he once led.

(Soundbite of speech)

Mr. JOHN SWEENEY (AFL-CIO): It's a grievous insult to all the unions that helped us, and to the unions in this hall who came here to discuss and debate the difficult issues and make historic changes.

LANGFITT: This year marks the golden anniversary of a reunified labor movement. Fifty years ago, the Congress of Industrial Organizations reunited with the American Federation of Labor after many years apart. Sweeney says this new split comes at a desperate moment for workers.

(Soundbite of speech)

Mr. SWEENEY: Because at a time when our corporate and conservative adversaries have created the most powerful anti-worker political machine in the history of our country, a divided movement hurts the hopes of working families for a better life and that makes me very angry.

LANGFITT: The Service Employees and the Teamsters are part of a coalition of dissident unions called Change to Win. They say they want to focus most of their energy on organizing. The AFL-CIO vows to spend more on organizing as well, but it also wants to work on political mobilization, to elect more labor-friendly candidates. Jim Hoffa heads the Teamsters. He says the new coalition plans to focus joint efforts on specific industries and target big employers, like Wal-Mart. He says coordinated organizing doesn't happen enough in the labor movement, and that has to change.

Mr. JAMES HOFFA (Teamsters): We have basically gotten together because we believe that we have the energy to go out and form new ways of organizing, and that's really an exciting thing. There are unions if the AF of L-CIO that are bound to the past and are not out there organizing. They're happy with what they have.

LANGFITT: People in both camps say they're concerned the split could encourage unions to try to organize, or raid, each other's members. And Democrats are worried that a divided labor movement might not provide as strong support in elections. But Stern tried to strike a hopeful note as he looked ahead.

(Soundbite of speech)

Mr. STERN: Our goal is not to divide the labor movement, but to rebuild it so that working people once again can achieve the American Dream. Today, we make the first step down that new road.

LANGFITT: Two other dissident unions are threatening to leave the AFL-CIO. They're the United Food and Commercial Workers and UNITE HERE, which represents garment workers and hotel and restaurant employees.

The AFL-CIO convention runs until Thursday. Sweeney's expected to win another four-year term with overwhelming support.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Chicago.

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