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Which Union Do I Belong to Now?

The life of American unions these days seems modeled after that of the amoeba: Splitting and recombining are the order of the day.

The unions of the AFL-CIO and unions that split away from it in 2005 to form the rival Change To Win (CTW) federation are currently engaged in talks to see if they can come together yet again. The three million member National Education Association, which has never belonged to a labor federation, is also involved in the discussions.

Meanwhile, UNITE HERE, which was formed in 2004 by a merger of the apparel workers of UNITE with the hotel workers of HERE, has split into its two component parts, with UNITE voting to leave the merged union and go into the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

For its part, SEIU has reached an agreement with its decades-long adversary, the California Nurses Association (CNA), which recently merged with other state nurses' organizations to form a nationwide union, in which each vowed to respect the other's jurisdiction (CNA will organize nurses and SEIU, the other healthcare workers) and to jointly organize the nation's private hospital chains. And SEIU remains embroiled in a fight with a breakaway union in the Bay Area whose leaders the national union ousted earlier this year from their posts atop one of SEIU's largest and most successful locals. Confused yet?

The largest and most consequential of these reshufflings, of course, is the effort to bring the AFL-CIO, CTW and the NEA within a unified federation. Throughout the year, the leaders of the two federations, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Change To Win President Anna Burger, and the presidents of the nation's 12 largest unions have been meeting to see if they could agree on the function, finances, governance, name, and leader of either a new federation or a somewhat reconstituted AFL-CIO.

After meeting on Monday and Tuesday this week, the group of 14 announced that they were forming the National Labor Coordinating Committee, an interim body that would continue to meet over the next several months to try to hash out the particulars of a unity deal. With the AFL-CIO's biennial convention, at which John Sweeney will step down from the federation presidency, set for September, the Committee has several months in which it could craft a unification.

Former Democratic House whip David Bonior, who has been chairing the talks, will continue in his role and serve as the Committee's spokesman as well. "Bonior has kept us focused and on task," says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. He is not, however, a candidate to run a merged (or unmerged) federation, as one overzealous labor writer (me) reported in Wednesday's Washington Post.

The primary reason for these talks is the political opportunity that the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress afford the labor movement. Universal health care, for which labor has fought since the 1940s, and labor law reform, for which unions have campaigned since the 1970s, are now genuine possibilities, though the Employee Free Choice Act has had some rough going over the past couple of weeks in the Senate.

But the shaky viability of Change To Win is another factor that has prompted the talks. CTW has never been a full-service federation. Indeed, it consists chiefly of a strategic organizing center that devises campaigns to unionize hard-to-organize workers, such as the port truck drivers who are nominally independent contractors. But even with its limited mandate, Change To Win is crumbling. Of the five major unions active in CTW, two (the Laborers and UNITE HERE -- that is, the HERE side of UNITE HERE) have made clear their desire to affiliate with the AFL-CIO once again. That leaves three unions left in the breakaway federation -- SEIU, the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Three unions, no matter how large, do not add up to much of a federation.

All the unions involved in the talks agree that the new federation should have a focus on lobbying, politics and policy -- areas that are the AFL-CIO's traditional strengths. But significant differences remain to be resolved if a unification involving all the participating unions is to go forward. Still up for grabs, for instance, is the scope of an organizing program and of the AFL-CIO's international operations.

The number of tasks that the new federation could perform is chiefly a function of funding -- that is, of the level of financial support its member unions provide. As was the case during the debate that led to the split four years ago, there are disagreements over the level of dues the unions should pay, with the Teamsters, as in 2005, advocating for a figure considerably lower than most other unions consider necessary. Were the NEA, the nation's largest union, to join the federation, that would go some of the way to making up a loss from a reduction in per capita dues, but most of the AFL-CIO unions, having already slimmed down their federation after the 2005 defections, are loathe to make further cuts -- particularly, as they argue, since the CTW unions have routinely availed themselves of the political, lobbying and policy operations of the AFL-CIO while failing to support them financially.

Another vexing and unresolved dilemma is the question of who will succeed Sweeney as president either of a reconfigured AFL-CIO or of a new federation. Sweeney has announced his support for AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka to succeed him, but a number of union presidents in both federations remain cool to Trumka's candidacy.

The one piece of unqualified good news for labor in recent weeks has been the peace treaty between SEIU and the California Nurses. Over the past decade, each union had undercut the other's organizing campaigns and placed rival health care initiatives on the same state ballots. Over the past several months, newspaper reports documented that the SEIU sought to intervene in CNA's internal elections, while CNA (which is headquartered in Oakland) helped out the dissident Bay Area SEIU leaders in their fight against SEIU President Andy Stern, and issued a steady stream of press releases that raised to a baroque intensity the invective it directed at Stern.

Then, in mid-March, discarding so completely everything they had said about each other that they called to mind Gilda Radner's immortal Rosanne Rosannadanna intoning "Never mind!" on the old Saturday Night Live, the two unions announced they would form an alliance that would seek to unionize such nationwide hospital chains as Tenet and HCA. "With the Obama administration in power, this is the first chance to be able to really do something to get health care reform and labor law reform," says Rose Ann DeMoro, the CNA's longtime executive director. "History created this agreement: we'd be remiss if we failed to take advantage of the opportunity." Stern concurs: "It didn't make much sense to continue arguing about small things," he says, what with EFCA and health care reform now real possibilities.

Even as SEIU and CNA were declaring an end to hostilities, however, the UNITE HERE civil war continued to rage. On the weekend of March 21-22, UNITE's joint boards -- the term UNITE uses for its regional bodies -- met in Philadelphia to disaffiliate from UNITE HERE, which the HERE forces were poised to take over at the forthcoming June convention, and to announce their entry into SEIU.

As things now stand, the split looks a good deal like the schism in the Episcopal Church: While the members plainly have the right to join a different institution, the national organization has a strong claim to their assets. It certainly seems that whoever controls UNITE HERE -- in this case, the majority HERE side -- has a strong claim to the joint boards' assets, which include their treasuries, the Amalgamated Bank, and the union's 7th Avenue headquarters in Manhattan. Nonetheless, a court on Tuesday rejected the HERE side's request for an injunction that would have given it control of the UNITE side's assets.

The UNITE side's strategy, which is now also the SEIU strategy, seems to be to play hardball with the hotel workers -- phone-banking their members to support UNITE-side initiatives, threatening to organize hotels -- to persuade them to accept some division of the union's financial assets. Whether the threat to go into organizing hotels is only a ploy or a genuine organizing strategy for the UNITE unit within SEIU remains unclear: The industries that UNITE traditionally organized -- clothing and textile -- have largely ceased to exist within the U.S., and SEIU argues that its dealings with commercial real estate owners in the course of its successful organizing of janitors and security guards has already given it experience with investors who own hotels (a claim that HERE rejects as highly tendentious).

So even as the union presidents meeting with Bonior try to come up with the rules for a new or improved federation -- and federation rules invariably include a process by which member unions can adjudicate jurisdictional claims over an industry -- the question of who should organize hotels has been unceremoniously plopped before them. Unification grapples with dissolution and reunification and, for that matter, vice-versa. For American labor, it's amoeba time.

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