Already in a downward spiral, the American union movement emerged this week from a pivotal confrontation with its future even more in doubt. A bitter clash of personalities and agendas split labor into rival camps, as two big unions broke from the AFL-CIO to start their own federation, the Change to Win Coalition. At least two more unions – the United Food and Commercial Workers and Unite Here, a union of hospitality and textile workers – could break away as well.
That would cost the AFL-CIO about a third of its 13 million members and strain its budget. The coalition already has had to lay off a quarter of its Washington staff.
The dissidents who left and some analysts said the split would spark competition, a new devotion to unionizing and eventually more clout to help working people at the workplace and in politics.
“Our goal is not to divide the labor movement, but to rebuild it,” said Andy Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union, the country’s largest union and the first to bolt the AFL-CIO. The other was the Teamsters.
But other union presidents called the move a power grab by Stern, 54, whom they cast as a onetime protege eager to oust his former mentor, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, 71. That weakens labor, hurts friendly Democrats and helps President Bush and anti-labor politics, they said.
“A tragic day,” said Gerald McEntee, the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the largest union remaining in the AFL-CIO. “The federation is weaker.”
All this comes at a time of major shifts in the economy, with global competition, the loss of manufacturing jobs and the rise of a service economy symbolized by the rapid growth of the nation’s largest company, Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is non-union and buys most of its inexpensive goods overseas.
After peaking at about a third of the work force in the 1950s, unions now represent just 12 percent, and less than 8 percent of the private-sector work force.
Why the split? Dissidents said the AFL-CIO was too stuck in its ways for a new age.