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CHICAGO -- Two major unions representing 3.2 million workers defected from the AFL-CIO yesterday, dealing a severe blow to the 13 million-member labor organization that is holding its annual convention here this week.
The joint announcement from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) marks the largest rift among organized labor leaders since the 1930s and follows weeks of publicity leading up to the AFL-CIO convention.
Two other unions -- the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and UNITE HERE, a group of textile and hotel workers -- joined the Teamsters and the SEIU in boycotting the convention. The four unions, representing roughly one-third of the AFL-CIO's roster, are part of a seven-member alliance that calls itself the Change to Win Coalition.
The newly formed coalition, which also includes the Laborers International of North America and the Carpenters and Joiners International (which broke away from the AFL-CIO four years ago), has called for a greater focus on organizing new members, financial incentives to encourage more union mergers, and new rules to prevent one union from weakening contract standards obtained by other unions.
Referencing the UFCW's decision to boycott the annual labor convention, UFCW president Joe Hansen said in a statement: "We are taking this historic step with our coalition partners to build a 21st-century worker movement for a new generation of workers. Unions built the American middle class. We are taking this action to revitalize the labor movement to build worker power."
Anticipating plans by the Teamsters and SEIU to bolt from the labor federation, the embattled AFL-CIO's president, John Sweeney, said during his keynote address to convention delegates: "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."
Wendell Young IV, president of the Philadelphia-based UFCW Local 1766, told Progressive Grocer that while he "is not at all happy about what's going on," he supports Joe Hansen and his efforts to improve the AFL-CIO in a number of areas, including "becoming more efficient, more responsive, and better equipped to deal with the much needed improvements."
Noting the unanimous support Hansen has received from UFCW members across the country to do what he feels is necessary, including separating from the AFL-CIO, Young said, "I believe he will do everything he can to keep that from happening."
The four-union convention boycott means the unions will not pay $7 million in back dues to the AFL-CIO. Further, if all four boycotting unions defect from the federation, they would take about $35 million a year from the AFL-CIO's estimated $120 million annual budget.
-- Meg Major