Teamsters, Service Employees Quit AFL-CIO

The Teamsters, Service Employees, and other groups combining for more than one third its total membership are leaving the AFL-CIO.

Teamsters, SEIU Decide to Bolt AFL-CIO (AP)

Organized labor is at war with itself as the Teamsters and a major service employees’ union decide to bolt from the AFL-CIO, paving the way for two other groups to sever ties in the labor movement’s biggest rift since the 1930s. The Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union, the largest AFL-CIO affiliate with 1.8 million members, intended to announce Monday that they are leaving the federation after failing to reform the 50-year-old labor giant, according to several labor officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The unions are part of the Change to Win Coalition, seven labor groups vowing to accomplish what the AFL-CIO has failed to do: Reverse the decades-long decline in union membership. But many union presidents, labor experts and Democratic Party leaders fear the split will weaken the movement politically and hurt unionized workers who need a united and powerful ally against business interests and global competition.

Two other Change to Win Coalition unions signaled their intentions to leave the AFL-CIO: United Food and Commercial Workers and UNITE HERE, a group of textile and hotel workers. But they were not scheduled to take part in Monday’s news conference, said the officials who declined to be named because they were not authorized to discuss the developments prior to the news conference.

The four dissident unions, representing nearly one-third of the AFL-CIO’s 13 million members, announced Sunday they were boycotting the federation’s convention which begins Monday, a step that was widely considered to be a precursor to leaving the federation. “Our differences are so fundamental and so principled that at this point I don’t think there is a chance there will be a change of course,” said UFCW President Joe Hansen.


It’s the biggest rift in organized labor since 1938, when the CIO split from the AFL. The organizations reunited in the mid-1950s.

Globalization, automation and the transition from an industrial-based economy have forced hundreds of thousands of unionized workers out of jobs, weakening labor’s role in the workplace. When the AFL-CIO formed 50 years ago, union membership was at its zenith, with one of every three private-sector workers belonging to a labor group. Now, less than 8 percent of private-sector workers are unionized.

The dissidents largely represent workers in retail and service sectors, the heart of the emerging new U.S. economy. Sweeney’s allies are primarily industrial unions whose workers are facing the brunt of global economic shifts.

A divided labor movement worries Democratic leaders who rely on the AFL-CIO’s money and manpower on Election Day. Most experts content the split could weaken organized labor, though some competition may be what’s needed to jolt the movement from its slumber. The convention boycott means the unions will not pay $7 million in back dues to the AFL-CIO on Monday. If all four boycotting unions quit the federation, they would take about $35 million a year from the estimated $120 million annual budget of the AFL-CIO, which has already been forced to layoff a quarter of its 400-person staff.

Stephen Green is right: The time for unions is long past. Collectivization was always an insulting concept–a worker isn’t really a man who can stand on his own merits, so he needed to join with others in order to negotiate–but it made sense in the era of collectivist employment. If one worked in a company town, one had little choice but to take what the boss wanted to pay. That era, however, ended decades ago. Further, as this split illustrates, the idea that truck drivers, food service workers, machinists, and office workers have the same negotiating positions is absurd.

The reason Big Labor has increasingly devoted their energies to political lobbying at the expense of traditional organizational activities is that the latter are simply no longer particularly productive. In recent years, most labor impasses have hurt the unions far more than their employers. From professional athletes to auto assemblyline workers to airline pilots to package deliverymen, those going on strike have learned the hard way that there is a limit to the percentage of the company’s gross that can go to pay labor costs. That’s especially true in a global marketplace, where American companies have to compete on a price basis with those from around the world.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Herb says:

    While I have never belonged to a union during my 55 plus years of working, I have always recognized that unions were a necessary part of our counties workforce. Big companies are for big companies and I believe that big companies have “bought off” the politicians so they could put an end to unions. Union leaders have been a big part in the destruction of the union movements by being as corrupt as the politicians, and these so called leaders have lead their rank and file to many disasters. Workers today are in desperate need for of some sort of union to keep big business in line to pay a living wage. (10 to 15 dollars per hour) won’t get it today with big business being as corrupt as it is with profit their only motive and virtually no loyalty to their workforce.

    I have always been impressed with Adolf Coors of Coors Brewery who said that:

    “Unions are a direct result of Bad Management”

  2. McGehee says:

    Actually, the biggest hit the unions ever took was getting so much of their political agenda — minimum wage laws, workmens’ comp, etc., — enacted. Suddenly the benefits of actual union membership were diluted, while the things people used to join unions for, were available to members and “scabs” alike.

    This applies to any influential special-interest group: when they get laws passed actually solving problems, they put themselves out of business. This is why so many special-interest groups these days are pushing agendas that have nothing whatsoever to do with solving real problems.

    The unions just learned this lesson too late, is all.

  3. Dean says:

    There is no doubt this is a continuing trend. About 10 days ago I wrote a piece on this very subject.

    Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a union that represents approximately 1.8 milion members, and the largest union within the AFL-CIO, said:

    We can’t just elect Democratic politicians and try to take back the House and take back the Senate and think that’s going to change workers’ lives

    Take a look here.

  4. Anderson says:

    I assume that OTB will next predict the end of the corporation, which humiliates capitalists by implying they can’t stand on their own?


  5. jpe says:

    . Collectivization was always an insulting concept–a worker isn’t really a man who can stand on his own merits

    You’re kidding, right?

  6. M. Murcek says:

    It’s good clean fun listening to collectivists and union-lovers screech over this post.

    Sorry, guys – THE END IS HERE!

  7. DC Loser says:

    To paraphrase Mark Twain: The annoucement of big labor’s death is premature. As long as there are greedy people out there (ala the Enrons and Worldcoms) there will need to be a counterweight in the form of unified collective representation. There is strength in numbers. I’m a capitalist, but I realize there are immoral SOBs out there to screw people if they can get away with it. As long as people act according to their base instincts, unions won’t go away.

  8. Anderson says:

    Apparently as a Dem, I’m supposed to be some sort of union-lover. Whatever.

    It’s evident that the unions have been doing a poor job of defending workers, and that they haven’t adapted to the “retail economy.”

    But the very existence of Wal-Mart is excellent evidence that there’s room for effective unions in this country. Just like the existence of the Republican Party of today shows that there’s room for an effective opposition party.

    Unfortunately, no signs of either yet, but I’m still lookin’.

  9. Rick DeMent says:

    Really, then let’s end all corporate charters, after all the corporation is a collectivist, statist institution that robs capitalists of their right to raise money as individuals.

  10. McGehee says:

    It’s one thing, Rick, to argue a reductio ad absurdum. It’s entirely another matter to be one.

    But whatever floats your boat.

  11. BillB says:

    Excuse me, but why is an end to collective labor power a legitimate argument, but an end to corporate charters “reductio ad absurdum.” In the absense of government power or regulation, you may or may not get individual freedom, but you always get more corporate power. Adam Smith didn’t like them and neither did the founders. Why do you take their legitimacy for granted and yet challenge the legitimacy of collective bargaining for the working classes?

  12. Brett says:

    I couldn’t disagree more, James. Any serious account of the decline of labor would have to give U.S. labor law pride of place. In addition to the structural factors that you cite, labor impasses are caused by a playing field tilted against any sort of organization, and it’s odd to say that those impasses prove that labor unions themselves are a bad idea.

    If the last labor union were disbanded, do you honestly think that working conditions (on any front) would improve? I doubt it. The structural forces that you mention would still be at play, but there would be fewer counterweights to them. Strikes me as a terrible prospect.

  13. Jim Jones says:

    There’s an analogy with Arnold’s recent proposals to ‘reform’ pensions, allowing individuals should own their own shares. Grover Norquist opined that it was time to tear down the power of CalPERS, etc. What it is, of course, is the dilution of power. It’s all about making the hierarchy more rigid by cementing the systemic advantages already accrued. The consolation prize is liberty. Stand proud; stand alone.

  14. The Tonic says:

    I’d certainly agree that unions have done a poor job negotiating (or over-negotiating), often to their own detriment. The fact that they have public relations problems, being seen as enabling laziness or poor workmanship, certainly hasn’t helped. Does that mean they should really be done away with altogether? As you suggest, do they insult workers, implying that they cannot be judged by their own merits?

    As Anderson mentions, there are still examples that this isn’t the case – WalMart in particular. The simple fact is, there are more people than jobs. An employer can post a job opening and receive 400 resumes in a matter of hours. When is the last time you, as a worker, had to choose between 400 job offers? If you had 400 job offers, perhaps employers would have an incentive to court you with the most attractive compensation package, but most people are lucky to get one job offer, let alone hundreds. Applying the rules of the marketplace to this situation, the laws of supply and demand, it becomes obvious that employers, left to their own devices, can set hours as high and wages as low as they want, and still find willing workers. This may involve leaving the country (where, let’s face it, we’re a lot more spoiled than people in third world countries) but the bottom line is, no matter how talented you are, your boss can always find someone to do your job for less than you will.

    Negotiating power is just not balanced. For proof of this, consider what happens in a strike situation. How long can the average worker trying to support a family on minimum wage stand on the picket line? And how long can a factory remain closed before suffering terminal financial loss?

    A union’s only job should be to tip these scales to something approaching balance, in order to prevent employees from being exploited. A union should not be powerful enough to set the terms of contract, or dictate the company’s direction. But they should be powerful enough to take a stand and say, “This wage is TOO low. These hours are TOO long.” Left to the employment marketplace, there is no hitting bottom.

    And while unions may be negotiating themselves into oblivion, consider what would happen without them, if there were no minimum wage, and if companies could hire the person willing to work for the least, be it in New Jersey or Bangladesh, and drive wages continually down. Consider what this does to your marketplace. Consider what happens when the people who make products can’t afford them, and the people who don’t make them have no jobs at all.

  15. snortz says:

    The ol’ myth of the Lone Frontiersman rears its enourmous lying self. That’s the founding myth of the Repuke Party, where we are all frontiersmen, shooting our own injuns, brewin’ our own kern licker, etc etc.

    That ain’t true, and hasn’t been ever. The Myth of the Lone Frontiersman is used for one and one thing only – getting us separated from mutual interest groups, so that the big corporations can pick us clean.

  16. Dave Johnson says:

    Three points:

    1) Corporations have limited liability. This is government enforced limits on how much the owners have to compensate people for damages of various kinds — including paying off debts.

    2) Corporations are “collectivism” if anything is. Add to that the various forms of government protection they receive, then realize that it is a collectivism for the rich directed against the individual.

    3) When people complain about how much people in unions are paid, without realizing this means they should join a union, I guess it’s a form of Darwinism.