The small farm workers' union founded by labor hero Cesar Chavez is joining a coalition of labor groups demanding changes in the AFL-CIO, another blow to the struggling 50-year-old federation.
The United Farm Workers union planned to join the Change to Win coalition while remaining part of the AFL-CIO, officials said.
The UFW, organized in 1962 and now consisting of 27,000 members, brings to seven the number of unions in the new coalition. Four of the coalition unions have threatened to bolt the AFL-CIO — the Teamsters and service employees, along with food and commercial workers and hotel, restaurant, retail, textile and laundry employees.
"It's a historic day," coalition spokesman Eric Hauser said. "The farm workers represent the best of the American labor movement. Their commitment to organizing is an inspiration and will help fuel the coalition's focus on bringing more workers to unions."
The UFW is based outside Bakersfield, Calif., and has members in California, Florida, Texas and Washington state.
There was no immediate reaction from the AFL-CIO. The coalition's official goal is to spearhead new efforts to recruit union members. Unofficially, it's the home of the effort to reform — or divide — the AFL-CIO.
The announcement came as federal officials gathered in Chicago for a contentious weekend of negotiations before the AFL-CIO's annual convention. The dissident unions are threatening to bolt the convention and, eventually, the AFL-CIO itself unless their demands are met. In addition to seeking the ouster of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, the dissident unions want more money spent on recruiting union members and are seeking to merge several of the smaller unions.
Sweeney and his supporters are urging the dissidents to remain in the AFL-CIO, arguing that a divided union movement will embolden political opponents and employers who might want to take advantage of weakened unions.
Only 12 percent of the nation's work force is unionized, down from the 1950s when about one of every three workers belonged to a union.