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.
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.