Break in labor unity challenges AFL-CIO delegates

But convention adopts sweeping leadership diversity plan, call to bring troops home

CHICAGO — Six unions withdrew from participation in the national AFLCIO convention held here July 25-28 and hinted at the formation of a second labor federation. The break in labor 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, colorful 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 labor movement.

The convention called for the rapid return of troops from Iraq. It mandated the formation of industrial coordinating councils to work out inter-union strategies for organizing. It voted in favor of the establishment of a Cesar Chavez holiday. And it adopted a plan to train an army of 100,000 union stewards to be warriors for workers’ right to organize and to campaign for 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 color on the Executive Committee and Executive Council. (See page 16 story.)

The convention had just begun when Service Employees International Union President Andrew Stern and 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 organizing 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 organizing in its “core industries” and the other half would go to the new coalition, dubbed Change to Win. The new coalition, he said, “will hire a permanent highly skilled staff that will be the core of CTW.” CTW will be a “center 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 emphasized that CTW would focus on organizing workers in jobs that cannot be “digitized or moved overseas.”

About half of the AFL-CIO convention’s more than 800 delegates came representing local central labor 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 labor councils as “where the rubber meets the road” in bringing to life labor’s political and organizing strategies. These delegates were clearly worried about the impact of labor 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 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 labor 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 authorized 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.