End of the Divorce?

Presidents of the nation's largest unions, along with the presidents of the two national labor federations, the AFL-CIO and Change To Win (CTW), met Wednesday in Washington to discuss how they can reunify their fragmented movement. The meeting took place as, and in no small part because, the unions are gearing up to battle for their lives in the coming congressional fight over the Employees Free Choice Act.

In a draft of a statement to be released Thursday, the attendees said, "The goal of this meeting is to create a unified labor movement that can speak and act nationally on the critical issues facing working Americans."

Participants included John Sweeney and Anna Burger of the AFL-CIO and CTW, respectively; Andy Stern of the Service Employees International Union, James Hoffa of the Teamsters, Joe Hansen of the United Food and Commercial Workers, Terry O'Sullivan of the Laborers, and Bruce Raynor of UNITE HERE, all representatives of CTW unions; Gerald McEntee of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, Leo Gerard of the Steelworkers, Larry Cohen of the Communications Workers, Ron Gettelfinger of the Auto Workers, and Ed Hill of the Electrical Workers, all representatives of AFL-CIO unions; and Dennis Van Rockel of the National Education Association, which is not affiliated with either federation. The meeting was convened by David Bonior of American Rights at Work.

A combination of internal and external factors have brought the unions to a public discussion of reunification. Politically, the unions are facing both heightened challenges and opportunities. With the stepped-up anti-union advertising campaign business is waging against the Employees Free Choice Act, a number of union presidents believe that anything that hinders labor's ability to wage an effective, unified campaign on EFCA's behalf would be a disaster. "We see what anti-union forces are doing in their fight against EFCA, and it's sobering," Weingarten said. On the other hand, as the Obama transition team has been consulting with labor on appointments and policy, unions have been compelled to try to coordinate their responses -- a task that would be easier if they had one unified structure.

Privately, discussions between union presidents in the two federations have been proceeding for some time. Paradoxically, perhaps, it's been the frustration that some of the union presidents have felt toward their own federations that has given rise to the informal dialogue. Last summer, Gerard, Cohen, and Gettelfinger led an effort to set up a distinct political operation separate from that of their federation, the AFL-CIO, for certain U.S. Senate campaigns they believed were critical to EFCA's prospects. Within CTW, a number of union presidents now believe that their federation no longer has a plausible raison d'etre. In recent days, CTW has been divided by a debate over its mission: whether it should continue to put the lion's share of its resources into strategic organizing campaigns or -- the position that seems to have at least partly prevailed -- shift it into the coming campaign for EFCA. (The debate is nothing if not ironic, since one of the ostensible reasons the CTW unions left the AFL-CIO in 2005 was their unhappiness with the high level of resources the AFL-CIO put into politics as opposed to organizing.)

At the same time, in most parts of the country, AFL-CIO and CTW local unions have remained affiliated with the local AFL-CIO labor councils and have worked jointly on electoral campaigns. And at the national level, the headquarters of the two federations avoid duplicating each other’s work. The AFL-CIO is a more full-service federation, with offices that specialize in political messaging, public policy, lobbying, trade, international union alliances, and the fostering of global unions. CTW's focus has been on particular organizing campaigns, such as that of port truck drivers.

One challenge to reunification has been the absence of a consensus in choosing a successor for Sweeney as the head of an omnibus labor organization. Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO's secretary-treasurer, won acclaim last year for a series of hard-hitting speeches urging union leaders to confront the racism in their ranks that had surfaced in response to the Obama campaign. Trumka's prospects have long been hindered, however, by the opposition of Hoffa, who ousted then-Teamster president Ron Carey in a 1998 election in which Trumka intervened on Carey's behalf. Laborers president Terry O'Sullivan's name has also long been mentioned as a possible Sweeney successor; he's the one president of a CTW union who has maintained formal ties with the AFL-CIO. One idea reportedly under discussion is for the reformulated federation to have a rotating chair, with presidents of individual unions serving for specified time periods as the federation's public face.

How exactly a new federation would differ from the old was one of the chief topics of discussion at Wednesday's meeting. "We talked about what we wanted to see a labor federation do," Weingarten said. "How would it be different? How would it be new and improved?"

Just how much unity the unions can create in the months before EFCA comes to a vote is anybody's guess, though at minimum the unions' campaigns for EFCA will be closely coordinated. Some of the unions may remain outliers even if formal unification is achieved. The National Education Association has never belonged to a union federation, while the Service Employees International Union, the most powerful union and probably the one with the best access to Obama, may be both inclined and able to go it alone. In any event, the process of unification cannot appear to proceed by top-down fiat, even if, in actuality, that is how it proceeds. "While we represent the largest labor unions," the presidents said in the draft of the statement to be released Thursday, "we recognize that unity requires broad participation. We also recognize that our members are active and work through our institutions where they live and work. We will be reaching out to them."

In fact, there was never a groundswell of either local-leader or rank-and-file support for splitting the AFL-CIO in 2005, as the continued operation of local labor councils with both AFL-CIO and CTW members makes clear. If labor can get back together at the top, it will only be mimicking the unity that largely prevails at the base.

The next presidents' meeting has been scheduled for later this month.

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