Saturday, July 30, 2005

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union broke away from the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), making it the third union to split from the AFL-CIO this week over disagreements about how to revive labor’s diminishing influence.

The departure of the UFCW, along with two other unions, theTeamsters, and Service Employees International unions from the AFL-CIO means it is losing more than 4 million of its 13 million members.

Union membership in the U.S. has been declining for many years, and the breakaway unions want to commit more money to recruiting members. They complain that the AFL-CIO has spent too much money on backing political candidates, particularly Democrats, instead of organizing labor.

UFCW President Joe Hansen wrote to AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney saying: “Tradition and past success are not sufficient to meet the new challenges.”

AFL-CIO spokeswoman Lane Windham responded, saying “The UFCW leadership decision to leave the AFL-CIO, especially when working people are up against the most powerful, anti-worker corporate and governmental forces in 80 years, is a tragedy for working families. Only unions’ enemies win when unions split our strength.”

“The unions that split from the AFL-CIO now face the challenge of having to work together to maximize the power of labor,” predicted Harley Shaiken, a professor of labor issues at UC Berkley.

Their clearest difference is in how they want a national labor organization to operate, Shaiken said. The breakaway unions favor a more authoritative federation that can compel member unions to act on its directives.

The departure is part of the biggest rift in organized labor since 1938, when the CIO split from the AFL.

When the groups merged to form the AFL-CIO in the 1950s, one of every three private-sector workers belonged to a labor union. Today, fewer than 8 percent of private-sector workers are unionized.