WASHINGTON -- The departure of the United Food and Commercial Workers and Teamsters, both based here, from the AFL-CIO network of unions could lead to a more effective unionization effort at Wal-Mart, according to some observers.
The UFCW, which represents about 1.4 million workers, joined the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union in ceding from the AFL-CIO network late last month, said it wanted to focus more resources on organizing workers in its core industries and was also seeking changes in the structure of the AFL-CIO.
The UFCW previously formed the Change to Win Coalition with the Teamsters, SEIU, Unite-Here and the Laborers' International Union.
UFCW President Joe Hansen said in a letter to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney that the UFCW would continue to work with its former parent organization on some issues. "I believe our movement is united in our basic principles and values, even if we pursue different strategies," he wrote.
Some believe the split will facilitate the Teamsters' efforts to organize warehouse workers at Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores and to pursue legislation that would force the retailer to increase its health coverage for workers.
"It will be the best of times for the UFCW and the Teamsters and the worst of times for the AFL-CIO," said Burt Flickinger, managing director, Strategic Resource Group, New York, which has participated in labor negotiations between the UFCW and supermarket chains around the country. "It will lead to a new level of cooperative partnership between organized labor and retailers in the U.S. fighting a common, formidable foe: Wal-Mart."
Catherine Fisk, professor of law at Duke University, Durham, N.C., who previously worked with the AFL-CIO, said the split could strengthen the hand of the unions that have left the AFL-CIO if they work together in their organizing efforts.
"That's what the unions that left the AFL-CIO are hoping -- that they will be able to spend more money on organizing, and they will use that money to win the incredibly expensive and difficult organizing campaigns that they need to win, like organizing Wal-Mart."
On the other hand, she said, if the split causes unions to fight one another or causes them to "lose their ability to speak with one voice in the political realm on behalf of workers," then that will be "to the detriment of the unions, to the detriment of their members and to the detriment of low-wage workers who might benefit from organizing."
Flickinger said he expects the Teamsters and the UFCW to work closely with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union in an effort to slow the progress of Wal-Mart's development. The three unions recently worked together to lobby against the development of a Wal-Mart store in Cleveland, he said.
"By being able to control funding and their own member organizing, Joe Hansen and Jim Hoffa Jr. from the Teamsters will very effectively begin to organize Wal-Mart's distribution centers first, work through the [National Labor Relations Board] and work through the local and federal government to organize Wal-Mart stores and to get legislation passed [that would require Wal-Mart to subsidize state health care funds.]
"This will free Joe Hansen and the UFCW to organize much more effectively at all levels and not have an onerous amount of membership dues that are used for AFL-CIO campaign contributions that are not well organized and have not had a meaningful impact on elections," he added.
The UFCW's annual dues to the AFL-CIO total about $8 million, a UFCW spokesman told SN.
Altogether the AFL-CIO is losing about $28 million in annual dues from the $120 million it receives each year from member unions, according to Lane Windham, an AFL-CIO spokeswoman. It is retaining 51 member unions.
"It's a tragedy for working people," she said of the three unions' leaving. "Really the only people who win when unions divide our strength are our enemies. We need to have a united labor movement, period. That's the best thing for working people in this country."
She also said the AFL-CIO was continuing to work to bring the dissident unions back under the AFL-CIO umbrella.
Fisk of Duke University said the AFL-CIO will probably continue to exist in some form, despite the loss of three of its largest unions, each of which has more than 1 million members.
"It may be that people decide the AFL symbolically needs to be jettisoned, and some new organization will take its place," she said. "But I suspect the AFL is too important a brand for this day and age, and whatever new federation forms again will probably use the name, whether it is the current form or a new organization."
Among the unions that have formed the Change to Win Coalition, the SEIU has been the most successful at organizing. The union's strategy has involved garnering grass-roots support from community organizations like churches to build membership, largely among immigrant health care workers and janitors.
"If the UFCW can use some of the SEIU's strategies and can devote more of their resources to organizing workers, I think it will benefit the UFCW's organizing," Fisk said.
Employers, however, could see the split as an indication of vulnerability on the part of organized labor, she pointed out.
"To the extent that unions are in disarray and aren't going to be an effective voice to represent their workers, this may give employers new arguments to use to encourage employees to vote nonunion," she said.