WASHINGTON - Five of the nation's largest labor unions are forming a breakaway coalition in hopes of reversing the declining membership and political fortunes of the premier U.S. labor federation, the AFL-CIO.
''American workers cannot win a better life unless more workers belong to unions, and unless those unions have the focus, strategy, and resources to unite workers in their industry and raise standards for pay, health care, pensions, and working conditions,'' leaders of the five unions said Wednesday in a joint statement launching their ''Change to Win'' coalition.
Coalition members--representing workers in growing industries including retail, healthcare, hospitality, construction and transportation--timed the launch of their new group to precede the AFL-CIO's annual convention next month in Chicago. There, they hope to persuade the federation to increase budget allocations for organizing drives and to take steps to stop affiliates from poaching each other's members.
Change to Win unions--the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Unite Here, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), and Laborers' International Union of North America--said they would remain in the AFL-CIO so long as the federation adopts their recommendations.
Were they to completely break away, however, they would take with them about 40 percent of the AFL-CIO's 13-million-worker membership base. The SEIU, UFCW, and Unite Here, which represents garment and hospitality workers, already have board authorization to disaffiliate from the AFL-CIO. The Teamsters are expected to decide at a meeting next month. The Laborers have opted to not split from the AFL-CIO.
The new coalition would continue to press its agenda regardless of whether members stay in or walk out of the national federation, union officials said.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney warned against splitting off.
''Now is the time to use our unity to build real worker power, not create a real divide that serves the corporations and the anti-worker politicians,'' Sweeney said in a statement. ''I sincerely hope that the unions forming this coalition outside the AFL-CIO will continue to join--and help lead--the rest of the union movement from within the AFL-CIO.''
''Disunity only plays into the hands of workers' worst enemies at a time when working families are already under attack,'' Sweeney added.
Founded in 1955 and grouping 57 major unions, the AFL-CIO has seen its membership shrivel to around eight percent of the country's non-government workforce, according to the U.S. Labor Department. By contrast, 38 percent of private sector workers belonged to the federation's affiliates in the 1950s.
Some 12 percent of all full-time U.S. workers belonged to unions last year, down from more than 20 percent two decades ago, according to the government's Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Change to Win members said they want the AFL-CIO to give affiliates a rebate of 50 percent of the annual dues paid to the federation so individual unions could use the money for local organizing efforts.
Sweeney, who is running unopposed for another four-year term as AFL-CIO president, has proposed a rebate of about 30 percent, or some $15 million a year. He also has urged that an annual fund dedicated to organizing and aiding major campaigns against companies such as retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc. be doubled to $22.5 million.
Change to Win members on Wednesday adopted a constitution and by-laws including a non-compete cause designed to stop labor groups from venturing out of their core industries to recruit potential members away from other unions.
Presidents of the five dissident unions said they hoped to persuade other unions to join Change to Win.
''We are going forward to bring a platform for change to the AFL-CIO convention. We will engage all other unions in a dialogue for change. Our purpose is not to divide, but to unite unions in a dynamic new movement for today's workers,'' said Joe Hansen, the UFCW president.
Like Sweeney and other AFL-CIO loyalists, Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, said he agreed with the dissidents that the U.S. labor movement needs reviving.
However, McEntee said, ''forming this coalition is a step in the wrong direction because it's the first step towards a truly divided labor movement.''
''Splitting the AFL-CIO will mean less power for workers. It is my hope that the SEIU and other so-called dissident unions will not, in the end, leave the federation. We're stronger with them. They'll be weaker without us. Now is the time to put workers first and achieve real labor solidarity,'' he added.
Although union membership has been falling, polls in recent years have shown that public sympathy for workers' right to organize has been rising. Surveys, including some commissioned by the AFL-CIO since 2002, have found that upwards of 30 million Americans would form or join a union if given the chance.
Labor advocacy group American Rights at Work, in a new report this month, said that employers often thwart organizing drives with intimidation and discrimination and that voting procedures overseen by the government's National Labor Relations Board are weighted in favor of bosses.
Government figures show that 23,000 American workers are dismissed or discriminated against on the job each year ''for exercising their legal rights to form or join a union,'' the Washington, D.C.-based organization said.
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