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Editor's Note: Four of the nation's largest labor unions have announced they will boycott the AFL-CIO convention this week to protest the direction of the federation. The dissident unions represent about one-third of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s 13 million members â€” they include The Service Employees International Union, the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers and UNITE HERE, which represents textile and hotel workers.
The New York Times reports that two of the unions -- the SEIU and the Teamsters -- are expected to announce today that they are quitting the federation entirely.
The service employees, with 1.8 million members, and the Teamsters, with 1.4 million, are two of the biggest unions in the A.F.L.-C.I.O. They contribute $20 million dollars each year, or about one-sixth of its budget. The Times calls the split "the biggest rift in labor since the 1930's."
At the heart of the dispute is the decline of organized labor. From a high point of 22.8 million union members in 1978, the ranks of organized labor have dwindled to 15.5 million in 2004.
Dissenting unions have formed their own organization, the Change to Win Coalition, which they hope will foster union growth through organized campaigns against giant companies like Wal-Mart.
The boycotting unions are especially dissatisfied with the leadership of John Sweeney, who has served as AFL-CIO president for the past decade and has been criticized for not investing enough in grassroots organizing.
The A.F.L.-C.I.O. is the nation's main labor federation, a grouping of 56 unions.
Sweeney told the Times, "Not to attend the convention, especially when the differences that remain between our proposals are so narrow, is an insult to their union brothers and sisters, and to all working people."
Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! spoke with Jonathan Tasini, former president of the National Writers Union, and author of WorkingLife, a blog of the AFL-CIO convention.
AMY GOODMAN: We go to Chicago right now to Jonathan Tasini, former president of the National Writers Union, and who runs the blog WorkingLife.org. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Jonathan Tasini.
JONATHAN TASINI: It's a pleasure to be here, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: It's good to have you with us. Why don't you run down for us what happened this weekend?
JONATHAN TASINI: Well, first of all, it is very hot here... The Change to Win Coalition, as you mentioned in the lead-up, announced yesterday that they were not going to attend the convention. That includes, by the way, the Farm Workers and the Laborers. Those two are actually going to the convention. The four that you mentioned are not going to the convention.
And you are right, it looks like the Service Employees Union and the Teamsters are going to announce that they are actually leaving the federation this afternoon. The Sweeney supporters held a very exuberant and boisterous rally prior to the announcement by the Change to Win Coalition, and I have to say I was surprised at the anger and almost venom that was expressed by many of the speakers.
Linda Chavez-Thompson, the executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, ran down a list of the enemies of labor, mentioned George Bush, the Right to Work Committee, the Chamber of Commerce, and then her last description was the Change to Win Coalition. So it's pretty heated right now.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of what this means? What it means not to have these unions at the convention, and ultimately, to have the federation split up like this at this time of corporate power?
JONATHAN TASINI: Well, you know, I'm sort of torn by what I feel about this, and I have written a lot about this in the last few weeks.
The future of labor...hangs in the balance; but not so much, in my opinion, because of the differences internally in the federation. When you're less than 8% of the private sector work force, and you're declining, and employers have the upper hand and you have terrible trade agreements, working America and labor unions have been really beaten down. And so the question, and I have raised this a number of times, is whether either "side" has the answer to some very vexing problems and tremendous challenges.
And I'm not so sure that the fact that these unions are trying to start something new -- and they may -- a number of them may or may not leave the AFL-CIO. They may remain in the AFL-CIO, but work within the Change to Win Coalition. They have some pretty interesting, big campaigns against big employers on the drawing board. So if they're successful, that may help the labor movement as a whole. The labor movement is a lot bigger than just the structure of the AFL-CIO.
Having said that, there is some effect in terms of working relationships, and I think that's far more important than whether you pay your dues into the AFL-CIO. The test will come in the coming weeks and coming months whether at the ground level, at the local and state level -- whether, for example, AFSCME and SEIU, will be able to work together.
AFSCME is staying in the AFL-CIO and is a big supporter of John Sweeney's, and SEIU we expect to leave the federation. Will they be able to work together at the local level on organizing campaigns and political mobilization?
So a lot of the structural things, in my opinion, take second seat to the question of relationships, and whether each of these unions, frankly, will be able to act like adults and say the bigger question is how do we help workers as a whole. And I will say that Ron Gettelfinger from the UAW, who I interviewed yesterday -- and the UAW is staying in the federation and does support John Sweeney -- said, 'Look, these people are good people,' speaking of the Change to Win Coalition people; 'we'll work with them.'
And conversely, in the same light and vein, the people at the Change to Win Coalition rally said John Sweeney and Leo Gerard, who is the President of the Steel Workers who was very harshly critical of the Change to Win Coalition, Andy Stern of the SEIU, specifically said, 'They're good trade unionists. We intend to work with them. We intend to work on all campaigns and support campaigns no matter where we sit.'
AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Tasini, the Farm Workers joined the Change to Win Coalition but will stay with the convention this week?
JONATHAN TASINI: That's correct, yes. Arturo Rodriguez basically said, 'Look, we just joined within the last couple of days, and we have not had a chance -- our board and our membership -- to think about whether we would attend the convention, or leave the AFL-CIO.' So they basically said, 'Look, we're going to the AFL-CIO.' And I think that's true of the Laborers also.
AMY GOODMAN: And last night the rally that John Sweeney held -- now, John Sweeney had originally, when he first ran for president of the AFL, said he would only go for one term, is that right? But is now --
JONATHAN TASINI: I believe he actually said he would not serve past 70, and he is 71, because this would be his third term. He was elected for the first time in 1995.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk finally, Jonathan Tasini, about the other issues that will be brought up at the convention this week, specifically around the issue of an anti-war resolution?
JONATHAN TASINI: Let's focus on that, because now that the internal political thing has played itself out and by probably the end of the afternoon it will be over....There's been a tremendous mobilization within labor against the war in Iraq, and there have been resolutions passed -- and I have written about this on the blog -- by a number of big central labor councils, locals, internationals, in Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco, to demand immediate withdrawal from Iraq.
The resolution that's been approved by the executive committee...of the federation, does not call for withdrawal from Iraq, and that will be the resolution that will be on the floor. So a number of the people who are pushing for a much stronger resolution are going to be trying to introduce an amendment and get that amendment approved, which will call for withdrawal from Iraq. It will be interesting to see how the debate goes.
My suspicion is that that amendment is not going to pass, and the original resolution will stay on the floor, which will cause some unhappiness, mainly because the folks who are mobilizing against the war within labor feel that they reflect, based on all these resolutions, how the rank and file members of unions feel, that they are opposed to the war.
AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Tasini, I want to thank you very much for being with us -- [you are the] former president of the National Writers Union, runs a blog on whole convention at WorkingLife.org... Jonathan Tasini, talking to us from the convention of the AFL-CIO in Chicago.
Amy Goodman is the host of the nationally syndicated radio news program, Democracy Now!