AFL-CIO cuts local ties to disaffiliated unions

CHICAGO — By unanimous votes of their boards, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters left the AFL-CIO late last month. UNITE-HERE, which represents hotel, restaurant and garment workers, is expected to leave sometime this month. The disaffiliation by three of the AFL-CIO’s largest unions, amounted to more than 4 million members.

The national AFL-CIO drew a hard line at the close of its convention, saying state federations and local labor councils cannot take money or otherwise work officially with union locals and councils from internationals unaffiliated with the American Federation of Labor-Council of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).

The move means that state federations and local central labor councils (CLCs) with members from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), who withdrew from the AFL-CIO, will have to scramble to replace the lost people and money.

The Oregon AFL-CIO General Board met Aug. 4 (after this issue went to press) to deal with the impact of losing nearly 40 percent of its per capita tax — SEIU locals paid on 39,000 members while UFCW paid on 15,655.

The departure of those two unions also impacted the top leadership of the state labor federation. President Tim Nesbitt, a longtime member of SEIU, announced this week that he has joined the National Writers Union, an affiliate of the United Auto Workers Union. Secretary-Treasurer Brad Witt is a longtime member of UFCW Local 555. It was not known at press time what Witt plans to do..

The Washington State Labor Council said it will lose 26 percent of its affiliates. The labor federation is discussing the financial impact at its convention Aug. 4-6 in Spokane.

“We remain committed to continuing our proud tradition of success in advocating for Washington’s working families,” said WSLC President Rick Bender. “In many ways, our state has bucked national trends on declining union membership and the election of anti-union politicians. We are determined to improve upon those successes, but unfortunately those efforts will be without the participation of those who have chosen to quit the AFL-CIO.”

At the national convention, federation leaders convinced delegates to approve moves to help state feds and CLCs.

The three departed unions stated publicly that they want to continue working with local bodies, but such “selective partnerships” are “a form of free ridership,” AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told delegates on July 28, both in person and in a three-page memo.

“They can’t have it both ways,” he added. Such a “selective buy-in” presents “a direct challenge to the principles of unity and solidarity. We will not permit their actions to undermine our work or our resolve. We will not allow this federation to be turned into an open-shop operation.”

Specifically, Sweeney’s memo enforces several provisions of the federation constitution. It:

• Prevents state feds and CLCs from accepting per capita payments or their equivalent from unaffiliated unions after July 31. Teamsters President James Hoffa said at the press conference announcing their withdrawal that the state feds and CLCs are important and that the dissenters want to continue paying per caps for them.

• Requires state and local bodies to remove as officers and delegates any members who belong to unaffiliated unions.

• Prevents unaffiliated unions from participating in candidate interviews, political endorsements, or AFL-CIO political mobilization and education activities. Sweeney did say local AFL-CIO bodies can continue to work in “coalition” with the members and locals of disaffiliated unions.

“We recognize and appreciate that hundreds of local unions of the disaffiliated internationals have excellent working relationships with their brothers and sisters in our local labor councils and state federations. Disaffiliation of their unions is not their fault and does not make them any less committed to the ideals and principles of our movement,” Sweeney said.

But, he added, “We cannot allow these organizations to pick and choose which parts of the federation they want to belong to.”

Sweeney’s directives clarify one question of how the AFL-CIO will address the impact that disaffiliation by the three unions — and any others that may pull out — will have on ability of state and local bodies to achieve labor’s goals in their communities.

The AFL-CIO’s Executive Council rushed through a number of plans, which the convention delegates approved, to limit the financial damage from disaffiliation. State feds and CLCs are to send “impact statements” to the national federation with specific data on the financial distress they face. Some central bodies, for example, say they could lose half their income if they cannot take money from the disaffiliated unions.

Oregon has 13 central labor councils. The impact the three departing unions will have on their budgets is not yet known. The Portland-based Northwest Oregon Labor Council, which has the only full-time officer and staff, will report its findings to the Executive Board and monthly delegates’ meeting on Monday, Aug. 22, said Executive Secretary-Treasurer Judy O’Connor.

From Chicago, Nesbitt said in an online blog on the Web that he was encouraged to hear that the Change to Win unions want to continue to participate in and contribute to central labor councils and state federations. “Where there’s the will, there has to be a way to sustain our common efforts at the local level, especially in the political arena,” he wrote. “We have models that we have used to great effect in our states for mutual support organizations and campaign coalitions that keep us together at a common table. It will be important to maintain and expand such organizations.”

Convention delegates voted to raise the AFL-CIO’s monthly per capita fee on the unions that remain. Four cents of that monthly hike per member will provide emergency funds for the state feds and CLCs to make up for shortfalls and to fight raiding by unaffiliated unions.

AFL-CIO leaders further pledged that if they collect any of the more than $10 million that Change to Win unions still owe the federation in back dues, they will dedicate that money to helping state and local movements.

And they created a special committee to develop more plans to deal with fallout of disaffiliation and to implement them as soon as September. 

At the convention, the state feds and CLCs managed to force delegates into considering the flip side of the “free rider” argument — the fact that many international unions fail to guarantee their locals join state feds and CLCs.

 Electrical Workers Local 252 member Weigel, CLC president since 1969, first raised the issue of requiring all local unions to join all state feds and CLCs in 1971, he said. But then-AFL-CIO President George Meany “asked me to back off, and when I didn’t, he turned my mike off.” Delegates moved closer to mandating such payments.  They approved a constitutional amendment letting the Executive Council “establish such programs, rules and procedures as it deems necessary ... to ensure effective performance” by state feds and CLCs. Some delegates said that would help ease the money crunch.

Sweeney encouraged internationals “to step up and help build a long-term, sustainable plan for full and fair affiliation by all affiliated unions.”

On the convention floor, Communication Workers of America Executive Vice President Larry Cohen urged all locals to join and support their state feds and CLCs. “This crisis we face will not be at your expense,” he promised. “We’re all in it together. Each of our members must feel they’re part of the AFL-CIO, and of their union, and of every labor council and state fed...What we learned here is that you can’t have a voluntary labor movement.” 

(Editor’s Note: Michael Kuchta contributed to this report for Press Associates Inc. He is editor of the Union Advocate in St. Paul, Minnesota.)

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