Laborers’ Union attending AFL-CIO meeting despite reservations

The general president of the Laborers’ Union reaffirmed the group’s commitment to the AFL-CIO Monday as two of the nation’s largest unions — the Service Employees International and the Teamsters — broke away from the umbrella federation following a Sunday announcement they would not attend its four-day convention in Chicago.

The head of the Laborers’ Union, Terence O’Sullivan, added, however, that in light of current events the union will engage in a full and serious discussion about its future place in the AFL-CIO. He said the group will take up the issue at a September conference.

“We must and will do what is best for laborers and all working people,” O’Sullivan said in a statement. “The upheaval in Chicago is the culmination of a year-long debate with the labor movement over how to rebuild unions so they are once again a significant force in the lives of America’s working families. Despite months of discussion with the current AFL-CIO leadership, there has been no substantive change in their positions.”

Along with five other unions, the Laborers’ Union is part of the Change to Win Coalition, an alliance that formed June 15 with the stated goal of reforming and modernizing the labor movement. Besides SEIU and the Teamsters, two additional Change to Win unions — the United Food and Commercial Workers and Unite Here, a group of textile and hotel workers — are boycotting the AFL-CIO convention.

O’Sullivan said there are stark differences between Change to Win’s platform and the plans of the AFL-CIO leadership. The AFL-CIO chose to emphasize political spending at the expense of organizing, while Change to Win unions backed allocating half of the AFL-CIO’s per capita revenues and its credit card royalties to organizing, he said.

SEIU and the Teamsters released statements saying AFL-CIO President John Sweeney hasn’t done enough to recruit new members. Together, the unions will take $20 million in annual dues away from the 50-year-old federation, along with 3 million of its members. Earlier this year, the AFL-CIO laid off a quarter of its 400-member staff. Efforts to contact the federation were unsuccessful.

Sweeney is a former president of SEIU, which represents custodial, home health-care workers and others. The Teamsters represents employees in transportation, freight-related and other industries.

“In our view, we must have more union members in order to change the political climate that is undermining workers’ rights in this country,” Teamsters President James Hoffa said in the statement. “The AFL-CIO has chosen the opposite approach.”

Change to Win members, who have been withholding $6.5 million in dues, want the federation to provide about $70 million in dues to unions for recruiting and for establishing a fund for organizing campaigns. Sweeney’s current proposal calls for giving affiliates $22.5 million and asking them to dedicate 30 percent of their own budgets to organizing.

Sweeney said the federation’s progress will continue, even without the two unions.

“The delegates to the AFL-CIO convention will make major decisions about changing workers’ lives this week, no matter what happens,” he said in a statement July 24. “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.”

Other Change to Win unions are: the United Food and Commercial Workers, Unite Here, the United Farm Workers Union, the Laborers’ International Union of North America and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, which left the AFL-CIO in 2002.

Eleven representatives — including O’Sullivan — of unions in the Change To Win Coalition announced they would not run for seats on the AFL-CIO Executive Council nor serve if elected.

When the AFL-CIO formed 50 years ago, union membership was at its peak, with one of every three private-sector workers belonging to a labor group. Now less than 8 percent of private-sector workers are unionized.

The union breakup is the biggest since 1938, when the CIO split from the AFL. The organizations reunited in the mid-1950s.

You can reach Ebony Horton at