Human Capital & Careers

Unions Reportedly Abandoning AFL-CIO

The departure of the SEIU and the Teamsters would be part of the biggest split in the labor movement since the 1930s.
Craig SchneiderJuly 25, 2005

The AFL-CIO is reportedly losing two of its largest unions, whose memberships have become frustrated over failures to reform organized labor.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — the largest AFL-CIO affiliate, with 1.8 million members — and the Teamsters plan to announce their departure on Monday, according to the Associated Press, citing several labor officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. The split could also pave the way for two other unions to cut ties, reported the wire service, creating a rift that would be the labor movement’s biggest since the 1930s.

The United Food and Commercial Workers and UNITE HERE — which represents textile, hotel, and restaurant employees — reportedly have also signaled plans to leave the AFL-CIO, but the AP noted that Monday’s announcement will be limited to the Teamsters and the SEIU.

The four unions, which represent nearly one-third of the AFL-CIO’s 13 million members, reportedly hinted at their plans when they announced on Sunday that they would boycott the federation’s convention, which begins today. Leaders of the dissident unions have sought the ouster of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, more funds for organizing, and the power to force mergers of smaller unions.

If all four quit, they would cost the federation about $35 million a year of its estimated $120 million annual budget, the wire service reported.

Sweeney reportedly expressed disappointment in the divisions: “It’s a shame for working people that before the first vote has been cast, four unions have decided that if they can’t win, they won’t show up for the game.” AP described Sweeney’s comments as “unusually personal,” in part because SEIU President Andy Stern is a former Sweeney protégé.

The last time organized labor was at war with itself was in 1938 when the Congress of Industrial Organizations split from the American Federation of Labor; the AFL and CIO reunited in the mid-1950s. The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America left the federation in 2001.

The dissident unions comprise mainly retail and service-sector workers, while Sweeney’s allies are primarily industrial unions whose workers are facing the brunt of global economic shifts. Less than 8 percent of all private-sector workers are unionized, noted the AP, compared with more than 30 percent when the AFL-CIO reunited a half-century ago.