Unions try to heal their differences

Nearly four years after a nasty breakup split organized labor, union leaders are again talking about reuniting under a single, more powerful federation, possibly this year.

Leaders from 12 of the nation’s largest unions, along with rival federations AFL-CIO and Change to Win, have held three meetings since January aimed at setting aside differences and taking advantage of the most favorable political climate for unions in 15 years.

"We’ve had very positive discussions and we’ve reached some significant agreements," said David Bonior, the former Michigan congressman who is brokering the discussions.

But Bonior stressed that significant hurdles remain as leaders work out how a unified labor federation would be structured and what its goals would be.

Seven unions, led by the Service Employees International Union, bolted from the AFL-CIO in 2005. They complained the federation focused too much on political campaigns and not enough on recruiting new members. The break reflected frustration with steadily declining union membership, from a peak of 35 percent of the work force in the 1950s to about 12 percent today.

But now the political landscape has changed with Democrats taking the White House and control of Congress. Union officials see a window of opportunity to accomplish key goals, including passage of legislation that would make it easier for workers to organize unions.

"There’s obvious benefits in terms of efficiency, message delivery, financial savings and a host of other reasons," Bonior said. "You can always be more effective if you’re talking in one house as opposed to three."

Talks have included the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, the nation’s largest union, which was not previously aligned with either federation but could become part of the new structure.

None of the leaders involved has publicly talked about specifics, but the pace of negotiations has picked up. The issue is prominent on the agenda during the AFL-CIO’s annual winter meeting in Miami next week.

"We are still talking," Change to Win chairwoman Anna Burger told reporters recently.

Still, there are major issues to resolve, including who would lead the new federation, how organizing should be done and even what coalition would be called.

Some breakaway unions swore they would never return to the AFL-CIO, so there’s talk of changing the name identified with organized labor for more than 50 years.

Leadership is tricky, too, with AFL-CIO president John Sweeney set to step down this year. The federation’s secretary-treasurer, Richard Trumka, is a likely successor. But some unions, particularly the Teamsters, would oppose him.

Robert Reich, former labor secretary in the Clinton administration, said the labor split didn’t really matter when Republicans ran Washington and unions didn’t stand a chance at reforming labor laws.

But with Democrats in charge, unions realize that "strength lies in unity," said Reich. "A divided labor movement is inherently weaker than a united one, especially when it comes to national politics and policy."

Nowhere is unity more important for unions than in efforts to pass the Employee Free Choice Act in Congress this year. The measure would take away the right of employers to demand secret-ballot elections by workers before unions could be recognized. Instead, unions could gain representation if a majority of workers sign cards authorizing it.

Unions believe passage of the bill would spur a renaissance in the labor movement, perhaps doubling union membership with the ranks of workers now discouraged from organizing by employer intimidation. Business groups have railed against the bill for months, saying it would effectively deprive workers of secret ballot voting and subject employees to union bullying.


On the Net:

AFL-CIO: http://www.aflcio.org/

Change to Win: http://www.changetowin.org