WASHINGTON -- The United Food and Commercial Workers Union is among five unions seeking to change the direction of organized labor and channel more resources toward recruiting new members.
The result could be more efforts to organize nonunion food retailers, according to one labor expert. It also could set the stage for the further weakening of unions in the United States if current union partnerships splinter, she pointed out.
Last week the five unions established the Change to Win Coalition to put pressure on the AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization that encompasses 57 nation and international labor unions. Change to Win argues that the AFL-CIO devotes too many resources to political activities and not enough to recruiting new members, and the members of the new coalition are threatening to leave the AFL-CIO if their calls for change are not heeded at that organization's annual convention next month in Chicago.
"We don't think throwing money into a political process and ignoring organizing is going to get the job done," said Joseph Hansen, president, UFCW, at a press conference unveiling the Change to Win Coalition. "We think there's a job for a federation, but it's a different role than the federation has taken upon itself."
Members of the coalition have asked the AFL-CIO to refund half of their annual dues to support unions that devote resources to organizing within their own industries. In the case of the UFCW, it would receive $4 million back from its $8 million annual payment to the AFL-CIO.
The five unions together -- which also include the Service Employees International Union, the Laborers' International Union of North America, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and UNITE-HERE -- would receive $47 million back for organizing efforts under the coalition's proposal. The unions are also seeking changes in the way the AFL-CIO is governed.
The leaders of the new coalition said they plan to continue to work together regardless of the outcome at the July convention. They have not yet established a budget for their organization or elected officers.
Catherine Fisk, a law professor at Duke University, Durham, N.C., who has worked with the AFL-CIO, said that if the coalition does go off on its own, the federation might not survive.
"Change to Win is essentially laying down the line," she told SN. "They are saying, 'Either the AFL-CIO agrees to support us in this effort or we leave,' and if these five unions leave the AFL-CIO, it would essentially be the end of the AFL-CIO."
The problems within the federation have been brewing a long time, she said, as members that represent workers in the auto, steel and other manufacturing industries have suffered ongoing declines in membership.
"The unions that have been successful in organizing new workers in new industries, particularly the SEIU, feel that the old members of the AFL-CIO, like the steel workers and the auto workers, haven't been aggressive enough."
The AFL-CIO currently devotes a large portion of its resources, she said, to lobbyists in Washington and in key states around the country, where it often serves as a unified voice for workers in all industries. That's something that could be lost if the coalition does break away fro the AFL-CIO, she said.
"The downside for workers is that if the AFL-CIO were to collapse, employers might be able to play one union off against another, or if it is perceived that the unions are in disarray, it might be easier to break strikes, or break a union, or to open a new store without concerns about a union."
Fisk said that over the long term the UFCW could end up being more effective at organizing nonunion food retailers, however, if it devotes more resources to that task.
The UFCW, which represents more than a million workers and is one of the AFL-CIO's largest members, has recently reorganized internally to gain more clout in its negotiating with food retailers, a spokesman for the union told SN.
"We are going to rebuild our level of concentration within food retail, nonfood retail, food processing and meatpacking," said Greg Denier, the UFCW spokesman. "Secondly, we have convened national bargaining groups across those industries, so we will have a national bargaining strategy across the entire food-retailing industry.
"The more [employer] profit you can impact through worker action, the more power you will have," he added. "So, we will come to every bargaining table with common goals that we share throughout the union, and all local unions will act in support of all other local unions in the event of a dispute resolution."