4 AFL-CIO Unions Shun Convention

Times Staff Writers

Four major unions announced Sunday that they would boycott the AFL-CIO’s annual convention here this week, heightening expectations that the unions planned to cut ties with the 50-year-old labor federation.

Leaders of the four unions -- the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, Service Employees International Union and Unite Here, a garment and hotel workers union -- said the decision came after recent talks to prevent the walkout failed.

Andrew L. Stern, president of the service employees union, said he and other SEIU officials in the U.S. and overseas would hold a conference call late Sunday to consider leaving the AFL-CIO for good. Stern said the union would “make an announcement” today on what it had decided to do.


Leaders of the dissenting unions also said Sunday that they would not run for any elected position in the federation and, if they somehow won a spot, they would refuse to serve. They also said they wouldn’t pay out an estimated $7 million in back dues to the AFL-CIO.

“Our differences are so fundamental and so principled, that at this point I don’t think there’s a chance there will be a change of course,” Joe Hansen, president of the UFCW, said at a news conference.

Afterward, several dozen food and commercial workers gathered in a circle nearby and began chanting, “Go!” and “Leave!”

“We have to leave the federation,” said Connie Leyva, president of the UFCW Local 1428 in Claremont. “We have to start down a new road. Change is healthy. Change is going to help.”

But at a rally held earlier for AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney, other union leaders bemoaned the dissension. They said that if these four groups left, it would spark an internal war that would undercut an already weakened labor movement and decrease labor’s political sway.

“It’s a shame for working people that before the first vote has been cast, four unions have decided that if they can’t win, they won’t show up for the game,” Sweeney said in a statement.


Stern later countered: “We are not trying to divide the labor movement. We are trying to rebuild it.”

Frustration in the organized labor world has been growing increasingly vocal in recent months, amid complaints that the AFL-CIO is defeatist and resistant to change.

The AFL-CIO has watched its piece of the workforce steadily shrink for decades because of cultural, political and economic reasons.

Unions now represent about 12% of all workers, and less than 8% of those in the private sector. Fifty years ago, organized labor made up more than one-third of the workforce.

If the four unions were to leave the AFL-CIO, the effect would be felt heavily nationwide, labor experts said. In California, the unions represent a significant portion of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, including thousands of recently organized immigrant workers.

The four unions make up about one-third of the national federation’s 13 million members. If the dissenting unions were to leave the 57-union federation, it would mean a loss of about $35 million for the AFL-CIO.


Stern, whose group is the largest faction in the labor federation, set the ball in motion in November when he threatened to pull his union out of the AFL-CIO if radical changes weren’t made at the convention in Chicago.

In June, the presidents of five major national unions formed the Change to Win Coalition, aimed at restoring power to the labor movement. Since then, the coalition has expanded to seven unions, including the Laborers’ International Union of North America, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America and the United Farm Workers.

Ruth Milkman, a UCLA sociologist who has written extensively on the California labor movement, said she believed that a split would “not necessarily be a bad thing” because competition could help spark interest in labor and labor membership.

“People will have a choice,” Milkman said. “Maybe both sides will perform better under these conditions.”

Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at UC Santa Barbara, said he was doubtful that a split would help boost union membership or power because the messages of both sides are so similar.

“Things are bad, the unions are becoming irrelevant, so they need to do something dramatic,” Lichtenstein said. He noted, however, that “there is no sharp distinction between them.”


Some experts compared the potential split to the first steps by John L. Lewis in the mid-1930s to break away from the American Federation of Labor. Lewis, president of the mineworkers union and an advocate for a new approach to organizing, built support while in the AFL before leaving in 1935 to create the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

The split caused a flurry of organizing by both groups and the labor movement flourished. The two groups reunited in 1955.