updated 6/27/2005 7:16:52 PM ET 2005-06-27T23:16:52

Union leaders who govern the AFL-CIO voted Monday to support President John Sweeney's plans to boost organizing efforts and continue political activities for pro-labor candidates and policies, but leaders representing a coalition of five dissident unions voted against Sweeney's proposals.

That coalition of unions challenging Sweeney picked up strength Monday when the main national carpenter's union joined the effort to challenge the AFL-CIO. The carpenters' union broke away from the AFL-CIO in 2001.

After the meeting of the 54-member executive council, Sweeney met for about 90 minutes with leaders of the dissident group.

The AFL-CIO, which represents almost 60 unions with 13 million members, has substantial differences with the five dissident unions, which represent more than 5 million of that total.

The dissident unions — the Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union, United Food and Commercial Workers, Unite Here and Laborers' International Union — joined in mid-June in an alliance called the Change to Win Coalition.

"Things are moving in a positive direction," Sweeney said later. "I'm hopeful we'll be able to resolve these issues. We have to iron out the differences we have and provide the resources to do these programs."

Union leaders for the AFL-CIO and the dissidents spelled out the different directions they think the labor movement should go, and they agreed to talk more in the future.

Teamsters' President James P. Hoffa and SEIU President Andrew Stern declined to comment as they left AFL-CIO headquarters.

"Today's executive council meeting was another exercise in reinforcing the status quo," said a statement issued by the Change to Win Coalition. "We remain disappointed in the unwillingness of the AFL-CIO officers to entertain meaningful change."

Sweeney's plan includes a $22.5 million organizing fund, with up to two-thirds of the money, $15 million, to be returned as rebates to union affiliates that have made the most improvements in their organizing efforts. The dissidents want to commit about three times that much money to rebates to unions for organizing.

The dissident unions want to focus more on organizing and on being the voice of workers, saying the AFL-CIO has been too focused on being the voice of politicians. Sweeney maintains that the AFL-CIO must try to build union strength at the same time it commits substantial resources to political efforts on behalf of pro-labor candidates and legislation.

The dissident unions say they don't have enough of a voice in the AFL-CIO, representing 35 percent of the membership but having only 9 percent of the delegates to the AFL-CIO convention because of the way the federation picks its delegates. That discrepancy causes the unhappy unions to complain that they do not have an adequate say in the direction of the AFL-CIO.

The unions in the rebel coalition blame Sweeney's 10-year tenure for declining union membership and fewer worker protections. They say the AFL-CIO has wasted too much time and money on politics and has not done enough to combat the steady decline in union membership.

Union membership has been on a downward slide for 50 years, now representing 12.5 percent of all U.S. workers, and less than that among employees in the private sector. A half-century ago, one-third of private-sector workers belonged to unions.

The 1.8 million-member SEIU wants the AFL-CIO to cut its budget by more than 50 percent and use the savings to increase organizing by its member unions.

The dissident unions are considering whether to leave the AFL-CIO unless dramatic changes are made in the federation's approach to organizing and political activity.

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