The Guardian 10 August, 2005

Break in unity
challenges peak union body

Roberta Wood

CHICAGO: Six unions withdrew from participation in the national AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) convention held here on July 25-28 and hinted at the formation of a second labour federation. The break in labour unity cast a pall over the opening of the federation's quadrennial convention, but rank and file members and leaders alike struggled to move beyond their anger and bitterness in order to chart a course for the struggles facing this country's working class.

Despite the lively music, colourful banners and other hoopla of a convention, "it was like the air was taken out of the room", said one delegate. "It was like someone tore my heart out", said Steelworkers President Leo Gerard.

By the convention's second day, the air was back in the room and hearts were back in chests as the delegates settled down to take care of the business at hand, including the new challenge of a divided labour movement.

The convention called for the rapid return of troops from Iraq (see last week's Guardian 3-10-05). It mandated the formation of industrial coordinating councils to work out inter-union strategies for organising. It voted in favour of the establishment of a César Chávez holiday. And it adopted a plan to train an army of 100,000 union stewards to be warriors for workers' right to organise and to campaign for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.

The announcement of the breakaway, which came on the convention's opening day, at first eclipsed news of the unanimous vote for long-awaited constitutional changes that dramatically advance the development of race and gender diversity in the federation's leadership. Each union's delegation to future conventions must now reflect the racial and gender diversity of that union's membership. The amendments also increase the number of seats for women and people of colour on the Executive Committee and Executive Council.

The convention had just begun when Service Employees' International Union President Andrew Stern and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters President James Hoffa held a joint press conference to announce their unions' disaffiliation from the AFL-CIO. The United Food and Commercial Workers and Unite Here, the laundry and hotel workers union, said they would not be sending delegates to the convention. Two other unions, the Laborers and the United Farm Workers, said their leaders would refuse to accept election to the federation's leading bodies.

Stern cast the move in a positive light, referring to the disaffiliation as "an enormous opportunity" to promote organising practices which he says have resulted in his union's growth over the last nine years.

Hoffa said that half the $10 million his union has been paying annually to the AFL-CIO would stay with the Teamsters to be allotted to organising in its "core industries" and the other half would go to the new coalition, dubbed Change to Win (CTW). The new coalition, he said, "will hire a permanent highly skilled staff that will be the core of CTW". CTW will be a "centre for growth after a founding convention", he added. The Carpenters' union, which disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO several years ago, is also affiliated with the Change to Win grouping.

Stern emphasised that CTW would focus on organising workers in jobs that cannot be "digitised or moved overseas".

About half of the AFL-CIO convention's more than 800 delegates came representing local central labour councils from urban and rural counties across the country. Most of these are not full-time union officials, but blue, white and pink collar workers who will be swiping timecards back on the job next Monday morning.

One such delegate described the central labour councils as "where the rubber meets the road" in bringing to life labour's political and organising strategies. These delegates were clearly worried about the impact of labour disunity on the future of the local coalitions they have built over the last several years in the anti-Bush, anti-corporate struggles.

"When we heard what was coming down, we sat around and talked and everyone pledged not to let ourselves get involved in raiding, to stick together", said one Minnesotan, who had stepped outside the hall with his cell phone to check with his congressman's office on the prospects for the CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement) vote. "But everyone knows it's going to be pretty tough", he added.

The AFL-CIO's constitution requires a union to be affiliated on the national level in order to participate in state and central labour councils. The work will be undermined if non-affiliated unions are not required to contribute financially to the national work of the AFL-CIO that supports the work of the local and state bodies, said an AFL-CIO spokesperson. The convention authorised the officers to study this tough question in the coming weeks and to formulate an approach that will be in the best interest of the federation and this country's workers.

People's Weekly World

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