MIAMI -(PAI) An AFL-CIO statement has given the green light to ongoing talks designed to reunify the nation’s competing union federations. As approved by the AFL-CIO Executive Council in Miami Wednesday, the statement says “now is the time to bring the union movement back together.”

But the devil is in the details, especially the hurdles reunification must leap.

Success would reunite the 56-union, 10-million member AFL-CIO and seven-union, 6-million member Change To Win. Its unions left the AFL-CIO at the older federation’s Chicago convention four years ago. The unaligned National Education Association is also in the talks. At 3.2 million members, NEA is the largest U.S. union.

All three groups worked together on politics last year and are cooperating to push passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation to make it easier for workers to organize for a voice on the job. AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions also have continued close ties in most states, though the split persists at the national union level.

“In recent weeks, a number of AFL-CIO union leaders and a number of Change To Win union leaders, along with the heads of both federations, have been in informal discussions about such a reunification,” the statement says. “No agreements have been reached, but issues have been identified and options discussed.”

The talks have been actively pushed by David Bonior, the former House Democratic Whip who now heads labor-backed American Rights at Work. There is, for now, no set timeline for them to come to an agreement.

Change To Win Communications Director Greg Denier said in a telephone interview the talks “are positive and moving forward.” Driving issues are health care reform and the Employee Free Choice Act, after their joint cooperation in labor’s successful Election 2008, he added. “In the ’08 elections, we operated as one unit and produced tremendous results. The discussions are a work in progress,” Denier said.

The federation said the four-year-old split involved issues dealing with “structure, governance, financing and programs of the federation.” The issues now being discussed include labor’s “governance, mission jurisdiction and organizing responsibility, programs and finances.”

At the time they left, the Change To Win unions — the Service Employees,
Teamsters, Laborers, United Food and Commercial Workers, Carpenters, UNITE HERE and the Farm Workers — had a range of complaints about the AFL-CIO.

One was the fed spent too much on politics and not enough on organizing, another was about a push to force smaller unions to merge with larger ones, and a third was about the size of the AFL-CIO headquarters staff. They also disagreed on who should lead the AFL-CIO in the future — an issue that will arise at this year’s AFL-CIO convention, scheduled for Pittsburgh in September.

At the time of the split and since then, there were also jurisdictional squabbles, many involving SEIU against other unions in the health care field.

But the talks are not solely in the hands of the two federations’ leaders, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Change To Win Chair Anna Burger, who is also SEIU’s Secretary-Treasurer.

Panels of union leaders from both federations are in the talks, and the fed’s resolution said Sweeney must share responsibility for the talks with the AFL-CIO Executive Committee. That panel has 19 union leaders and — unofficially —federation Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka and Executive Vice President Arlene Holt-Baker. The committee makes federation policy between Executive Council meetings.

Sweeney has to report on the progress of the talks to the full Executive Committee, some of whose members have been at loggerheads with Change To Win leaders. Even if the two sides agree, the fed’s officers, the committee and the full Executive Council must ratify any reunification pact.

The resolution contains another hurdle to reunification. “A number of (AFL-CIO) unions have been meeting among themselves to discuss the future of the federation and the challenges it is facing,” it notes. It said the executive committee “supports these continued discussions” and wants the officers to keep participating in them.

The fed said reason for the reunification talks is “the economic crisis facing American workers” and that election of labor-backed Democratic President Barack Obama, “probable passage of the Employee Free Choice Act and other important changes in our political and economic environment provide us with unprecedented opportunity” for progress, which reunification would aid.

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