Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) have written to union leaders to urge them to avert an impending split in the labor movement.
The letter, sent last week, comes as union leaders are scheduled to meet at their quadrennial convention July 25-28 to determine whether five breakaway unions, led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), will withdraw from the AFL-CIO, a 57-union umbrella group that has represented the united voice of labor for 50 years.
“We encourage you to resolve the differences within labor as quickly and effectively as possible,” wrote CBC Chairman Mel Watt (D-N.C.) and CBC Labor Task Force Co-Chairmen Major Owens (D-N.Y.) and Donald Payne (D-N.J.) in identical letters to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and SEIU President Andrew Stern.
“The focus and unity of those who oppose the interests of working people are such that the maintenance of maximum strength and unity among organized labor is imperative,” the CBC chairmen wrote in the July 7 letter.
The letter followed a June 30 meeting among 18 CBC members and labor leaders from both sides of the debate. Although union representatives had requested the meeting to discuss legislative priorities in the 109th Congress, the discussion soon turned to divisions within the labor movement.
Several CBC members expressed concern that the split would be hurtful to unions, their friends in Congress and their shared policy goals. Sweeney attended the meeting. Stern sent a representative.
Stern and his allied unions, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Laborers’ International Union, UNITE HERE, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, are arguing that unions need to spend more money on organizing. Union membership has declined precipitously in recent decades. Such a move would drain money from other activities, such as public-policy-advocacy and political operations. The AFL-CIO has been reluctant to accept Stern’s proposal, arguing that unions need to focus on both organizing and policy.
The CBC is the first congressional group to speak out in advance of the union convention, although anxiety has been growing among pro-labor members of Congress.
Some observers said the CBC’s encouragement may have come too late. SEIU sent a letter to members of Congress on May 6 essentially putting them on notice that a split was imminent.
“We hope to be successful in winning changes … before the AFL-CIO quadrennial convention in late July. If not, our union may become partners rather than part of the AFL-CIO and concentrate on expanding other alliances we are already building with those unions and other organizations that share our vision,” wrote Stern and others.
Stern noted in the letter that the unions that share his views represent 5 million workers, 40 percent of the AFL-CIO. SEIU is the largest union in the federation, with 1.8 million members.
Stern suggested last week that SEIU and its allies would not be open to compromise at the convention.
“We have made our choice,” he said. “The AFL is going to have to make theirs.”
Sweeney said Tuesday that a split would be “devastating for workers,” adding, “The differences between us are not that great. I don’t think any one affiliate should leave the federation if they don’t get their way. To threaten to pick up your marbles and leave the game is not productive.”