March 5, 2009: The AFL-CIO Executive Council March 4 authorized AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney and some members of the smaller AFL-CIO Executive Committee to continue discussions with the unions of Change to Win and the National Education Association to attempt to unify the labor movement.
The AFL-CIO council is meeting here through March 5.
A statement adopted by the council noted that four years ago internal discussions among the AFL-CIO and a number of affiliated unions failed to resolve issues dealing with the structure, governance, financing, and programs of the federation, leading to the disaffiliation of several unions and the formation of the separate Change to Win federation. “Now is the time to bring the union movement back together,” the statement said.
The council charged Sweeney with reporting on a regular basis to the full executive committee. “All tentative agreements shall be subject to the approval of the Executive Officers, the Executive Committee, and then the full council.”
The statement said that the unity of the labor movement is “among the most important issues facing unions today,” and urged the participants in the discussions to “take this responsibility seriously, and to use their best efforts to find a path to reconciliation that strengthens the AFL-CIO and unites the labor movement.”
The executive committee also put its stamp of approval on a the continuation of a separate effort under way within the AFL-CIO itself on the organization's future. In this effort, discussions have been taking place among many leaders of AFL-CIO affiliated unions on the “future of the federation and the challenges that it is facing.” In the statement, the committee authorized the AFL-CIO officers to continue to participate in those talks.
A dozen presidents of the largest AFL-CIO and Change to Win affiliates, along with the heads of both federations, have been involved in discussions led by former Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.) about reunification (5 DLR A-1, 1/9/09). The president of the NEA also has been involved in the talks.
No Agreements Have Been Reached
According to the statement, no agreements have been reached but a number of issues have been identified for resolution including matters of governance, mission, jurisdiction and organizing responsibility, programs, and finances.
Bonior told BNA March 1 that the talks have been going well with “candid and honest” discussions taking place. “There is a desire in the room to create something that unifies the labor movement,” he said.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told BNA March 4 that the “important thing that happened today is that a group of people were authorized to speak as a negotiating committee for the AFL-CIO in the talks.”
Weingarten said that there was a lot of discussion about the statement but in the end it received unanimous approval. She said that during an executive committee meeting March 2, a lot of the “myths and rumors” circulating around the talks were debunked. In particular, she said, there were rumors that smaller unions would lose their autonomy as well as concerns about jurisdictional issues. “That was not the intention,” she said.
Weingarten said there was an issue around how the process started with several labor leaders talking among themselves. “If the AFL-CIO resolution had been broached prior to the beginning of the discussions,” she said, “there would not have been so many concerns.”
Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen told BNA that “jurisdiction is preserved as it is” in a unified labor movement and that issue is not on the table for discussion. He said when the discussions began the participants had a number of goals including “creating a unified labor movement that can speak and act nationally on critical issues” facing working Americans.
Cohen said the discussions currently are focusing on the mission, purpose, and resources of a unified movement and how to focus on legislation, politics, and communications. He said the participants are hopeful they can come up with a framework for what the labor movement would look like.
International Association of Machinists President Thomas Buffenbarger, who has not been part of the reunification talks, told BNA that there seemed to be a lot of “misinformation” about the meetings and what was being discussed. While some of the smaller unions were concerned that they would not be part of the unified group if they weren't of a certain size, he said the AFL-CIO constitution guarantees autonomy for every international and singular union.
Buffenbarger, however, is part of the separate talks under way about the future of the AFL-CIO. He said that group, which includes representatives from about 70 percent of the AFL-CIO unions, has had two or three meetings so far. He said the union leaders have been looking at whether the system of governance and the federation's financial capability is what it needs to be, in particular because of the downturn in the economy.
The IAM president was critical of the continued talks with some of the Change to Win unions. He said the International Brotherhood of Teamsters is under federal monitorship, while UNITE HERE is “getting a divorce and fighting over the bank account.” He said the Service Employees International Union is in “so much turmoil, how can we discuss reunification with them and take their demands seriously when their members” are so dissatisfied.
When asked about the prospects of reunification, AFT's Weingarten said that “if people want it to happen, it will happen.” She added that the “$64,000 question is whether those involved see it in the best interests of working people to have a unified labor movement.”
Change to Win spokesman Greg Denier told BNA March 4 that the leaders of CTW continue to work with the leaders of the AFL-CIO to “build a unified labor organization.” He said that both federations are working together on passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, health care reform, and the economic recovery, and in 2008 worked together in support of Barack Obama's presidential campaign.
“We are building on the positive relationship we now have,” he added.
By Michelle Amber