Friday, January 09, 2009

Unions take first steps to re-unite labor movement


The nations’ biggest labor unions have made their first public move to do something that’s been talked about now for quite a while in the U.S. labor movement – bringing all American unions back together under the umbrella of one national labor federation.

The presidents of 12 of the country’s largest unions called Jan. 7 for reuniting the labor movement, which split into two federations three years ago when seven unions left the AFL-CIO and formed Change to Win, a rival federation.

The union leaders made their joint call just two months after unions from both federations celebrated a victory for labor with the election of Barack Obama as president. Unions had already set aside their differences and built a united front during the months leading up to the election as both federations worked together to elect not only Obama but a more labor- friendly House and Senate.

Several Change to Win unions, including the Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters are supporting re-unification. When they quit the AFL-CIO three years ago they had asserted that the federation was not doing enough in the area of union organizing and that there was too great a focus on elections. Since that time, however, unions in both federations have drawn closer together with both focusing more than ever before on organizing and electoral work.

Leaders of several Change to Win unions have been saying for months now that they see little advantage in maintaining a separate labor federation.

Also backing the call for a united labor movement by attending the Jan. 7 meeting was Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, which, with over 3 million members, is the nation’s largest labor union, but has remained outside any labor federation.

The call for reunification came also after clear signals from President-elect Obama that labor’s interests would be best served in the coming period if there was a united movement rather than one that sometimes had two competing spokespersons.

Sources in the labor movement indicated that David Bonior, a member of Obama’s transition team who withdrew from consideration as labor secretary, helped arrange and participated in the reunification meeting that took place Jan. 7.

Local union leaders around the country are welcoming the development.

Dennis Gannon, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, said Jan. 8, “This news is welcomed by local labor movements and stands to benefit all working people in this country. With a united labor movement, we will be in a better position to make real differences for working families across this great country.”

Gannon’s federation has, for years, brought together Chicago area unions from both federations on a wide range of issues.

Some of the presidents of the unions involved reportedly expect, by April 15, to give the OK to a plan to reunify.

Some union leaders are saying, however, that it’s not a “done deal” and that the possibility of failure to reach an agreement remains.

The union leaders are planning a series of meetings during the next few months to draw up details of what a reunited labor federation might look like. Some have raised the possibility that instead of the Change to Win unions simply returning to the AFL-CIO, an entirely new organization might be launched.

The statement by the 12 union presidents at the unity meeting said: “The goal of the meeting is to create a unified labor movement that can speak and act nationally on the critical issues facing working Americans. While we represent the largest labor unions, we recognize that unity requires broad participation.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, is one of the leaders who attended and supports reunification. “There was a real sense of commitment to unifying our movement again,” she told the press. “It was clear that many of us felt that the whole is greater than the parts, and we really want to do things to help American workers get their rightful place in society.”

Among other unions represented at the unity meeting were the United Steelworkers, United Auto Workers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Many in the labor movement feel that there is a special need to push hard for unity at this time. With the nation facing its worse economic crisis since the Great Depression, they say, and with the election of a pro-labor president and Congress, the times call for labor to focus like a laser on solving the problems workers face. Passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, seen as critical to growing the labor movement, will not be possible, they say, without unprecedented unity in the ranks of labor. With that unity, they add, it will be possible to convince broad sectors outside the labor movement how critical growing union membership is to fixing the overall economy. That fix, according to labor, is a large number of workers able to spend a growing income on the goods and services produced.

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