Efforts to heal the sharp divisions in organized labor are faltering as the AFL-CIO and the breakaway unions in the Change to Win coalition quarrel over the best way for the divided unions to cooperate from afar.
Six unions in the Change to Win coalition — the carpenters, service workers, the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, UNITE Here and the United Farm Workers — have broken away from the AFL-CIO in disputes over money, strategy and leadership. A seventh in the Change to Win group, the laborers’ union, has not broken away from the AFL-CIO.
Since the largest Change to Win unions left the AFL-CIO last summer, both sides have been looking for ways to keep some semblance of cooperation on issues ranging from protecting worker rights to improved health care to political action.
The AFL-CIO has been promoting solidarity charters, which allow locals of the disaffiliated unions to join forces with AFL-CIO locals on issues of common concern. The AFL-CIO claims more than half of the locals in the breakaway unions had signed solidarity charters — a critical development in the AFL-CIO’s midterm election political plans.
The Change to Win federation has proposed an umbrella group, Alliance for Worker Justice, which would allow unions from both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win to join with other unions to work on issues ranging from working conditions to health and safety to political action.
“Members of both federations would benefit from our working together where we have issues of common interest,” Change to Win Chair Anna Burger wrote in a letter to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney in early April.
Both sides in the labor feud are now rejecting the unity plans of the other — renewing the sense of disarray in organized labor as the midterm elections near.
“The last thing we can imagine doing less than a year after (four unions left the AFL-CIO to form Change to Win) is investing time and resources into co-founding yet a third labor federation, with all the bureaucracy, expense and additional staffing that would entail,” Sweeney wrote in response to Burger.
Change to Win officials say the umbrella group would require few staffers and little expense.
Sweeney suggested the solidarity charter program is allowing locals of Change to Win unions to work closely with AFL-CIO unions on local issues of mutual interest.
The breakaway unions are now balking at the AFL-CIO’s solidarity charter program after United Farm Worker locals were not allowed to enter it early this year. The United Farm Workers broke away from the AFL-CIO in January.
Sweeney said he might be open to allowing the United Farm Workers to participate in solidarity charters, “but not under threats and ultimatums to the AFL-CIO.”
“The AFL-CIO reneged on its agreement that all Change To Win unions could apply when they rejected the United Farm Workers,” Greg Tarpinian, executive director of Change to Win, said Monday. AFL-CIO officials counter the federation has not changed its policies.
Lane Windham, a spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO, dismissed the Change to Win proposal for a new umbrella group by saying the breakaway unions “could stay involved by staying in the AFL-CIO.”