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AFL-CIO Split May Invigorate Labor Efforts

August 26, 2005
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Just as increased competition drives companies to perform better, many labor watchers predict that the rift within the AFL-CIO will cause all unions to be more aggressive with their organizing and collective bargaining.

So much for divide and conquer, the outcome that many employers might have hoped for after July’s fractious divorce.

The Service Employees International Union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers left the AFL-CIO, taking away more than 4 million of its 13 million members and $28 million in annual dues. The groups, along with four other unions, created a dissident faction, the Change to Win Coalition, whose goal is to focus more on organizing nonunion labor.

By aggressively organizing workers, the coalition hopes to work with employers to create an environment in which companies will compete on quality, not just price, says Anna Burger, chairwoman of the coalition. If partnerships don’t work, however, the coalition will use aggressive tactics to make sure workers have a greater say, she says. “We have always said that we like to use the power of persuasion, but if we can’t, we will use the persuasion of power.”

The ripple effect of Change to Win’s aggressive organizing tactics will be felt by all employers, says Gary Glaser,  who specializes in labor law and is a partner with Seyfarth Shaw in New York. “The threat of raiding could even affect companies with good union relations,” he says. “If they never file grievances now, they may start doing it to avoid criticism from the outside.” 

Burger says that the coalition has made it clear that it is focusing on organizing nonunion labor and will not raid other unions.

Labor experts also expect to see an increase in corporate campaigns, in which unions use public relations and picketing to target specific companies. “I think you are going to see a lot more against Wal-Mart in coming months,” says David Gregory, a labor law professor at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. “The SEIU sees Wal-Mart as being the equivalent of what the auto, steel and coal companies were in the ’20s and ’30s.”

Burger confirms that the coalition is discussing increasing its corporate campaigns targeting Wal-Mart. “Wal-Mart is the largest employer in the country, but instead of raising the standard of living, they are pushing it down,” she says. Over the next several weeks, the union is planning community-focused campaigns aimed at Wal-Mart, she says.

On the political front, the split may pose some good news for employers since the AFL-CIO was the main voice on Capitol Hill for the labor movement. With $20 million less in annual dues and membership down dramatically, it is questionable whether the group will have as strong a presence. “It’s going to be hard for them to push through their legislative agenda,” Glaser says.

Whether the increased organizing will have long-term implications for labor relations remains to be seen. With union membership in the private sector down to less than 8 percent from 26 percent a half-century ago, labor experts are skeptical that this rift alone will make the movement stronger. “There will be a lot more noise from unions,” says Marick Masters, a professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh. “But how much substance is behind that noise remains to be seen.”

Jessica Marquez


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